Design thinking for the self

As you can probably tell from recent posts on gratitude, generosity, and choosing action, I have been thinking a lot about the kind of person I want to be recently. This is partly inspired by me co-leading a session at Up to All of Us on how to change the world by first changing yourself. And one of the ideas I’ve been playing around with is using the principles of design thinking to help guide this process.

Design thinking is very hip these days, as it is a differentiator for companies to move beyond technology-driven solutions towards more effectively solving people’s problems (e.g. Apple with the iPod). There are all sorts of definitions, but the general outline of the process is as follows (cribbed from Stanford d.school):

  1. Empathize: Observe and engage and listen to the people you want to help. Ideo once did a design session for Nightline on re-designing the shopping cart, and step one was to go to a grocery store and watch people, figure out what was difficult with existing shopping carts, and the workarounds they used.
  2. Define: This is where the team sifts through their observations and figures out the specific problem they want to address. This is also where the team has to decide on the specific user (or composite user) they are trying to help – design works best when it is specific. The classic example of this is the Oxo Good Grips series, which was designed for older people with arthritis who couldn’t use many kitchen utensils. But it turned out that utensils that were easier to use for those users, were easier for everybody to use.
  3. Ideate: This is the brainstorming phase where the team generates as many ideas as possible around the problem statement. Everything goes in this phase, and the rules of brainstorming apply, where nothing is discarded or rejected. In fact, it is often encouraged to build on wild and crazy ideas (“Yes and”) which can lead to exploring interesting and fruitful solution spaces.
  4. Prototype: This is the experimentation phase. Make quick prototypes, the simpler the better, to test whether the ideas from the previous phase actually solve the defined problem for users. The goal here is to test possibilities, and sift through ideas quickly by failing quickly and cheaply. The d.school brief emphasizes is that it’s important to know what each prototype is testing, so you can learn from the prototype – a failed prototype is not a waste of time because it should answer a question.
  5. Test: This is where you refine prototypes and solutions by bringing them back to the user and learn whether they actually solve the user’s problem.

In general, the design thinking process is not linear, but involves iterating within each phase, and among the phases e.g. the team may need to bounce back to the Ideate phase, or even the Define phase, to come up with new ideas if they learn something new about the user in the Test phase.

Design thinking is being used around the world to create better products and services, and I think that it would also be a great process to design a better self. What I mean by that is that if I accept that much of my behavior is under my control, and that by changing myself, I can change the subjective (and possibly objective) world I live in, then the question becomes: who do I want my future self to be? That sounds like a design problem, and I think it would make sense to apply design thinking to engage with it. So I’ve been experimenting with design thinking for self design this year.

The first stage, as outlined above, is the Empathize or Observation stage. Part of the benefit of being in therapy for the last year is that I’ve gotten better at observing myself and noticing my reactions in situations. One specific example is when I have been emotionally triggered – when I notice that, I am learning to separate the stimuli from the more painful experiences that created the trigger. The process of deconstructing what happened also makes it easier to get the view from the balcony – getting out of the emotional fray and taking in the bigger picture.

The next stage is the Definition stage, where I take what I learn about observing my own behavior and reactions, and define what aspects of myself I want to work on. For instance, I have sometimes in the past had the tendency to dismiss others and/or blame them for getting in my way. Noticing that about myself is part of what prompted me to start focusing on being generous. Another example is that I noticed that it is easy for me to be unaware of my own privilege, which led to a focus on practicing gratitude. The goals here can be general (e.g. “I want to be more social” or “I want to be in better shape”) if you are clear on what those goals mean to you. In the next phases, we will be experimenting with specific behaviors and you will need to decide whether those behaviors are successful or not at helping to achieve your goals – in other words, how will you Test whether the experiments are successful?

The next two stages, Ideate and Prototype, are where things get really interesting in applying design thinking to myself. This is where I start brainstorming different ideas for me for me to change my behavior, and experiment with those changes. Doing quick experiments in behavior change is the challenge here. For me, it often starts with “can I display this behavior for 15 minutes?” Alternatively, I can decide to bias my normal decision making process, as I did with my Year of Yes, where I said Yes to several adventures that I previously might have declined out of anxiety and uncertainty. Or I can try to go into situations with a different mindset (e.g. gratitude or generosity) and see whether things go differently for me.

This can even work with more prosaic goals like “eating better”. With free food being available all the time at Google, I put on some weight after I joined because I didn’t have the willpower to say no to pizza and fries and sodas. But over time, I’ve found some strategies that work for me. One was to mechanically substitute water for soda whenever I went to the kitchen – I don’t always manage it (and when I don’t, it’s generally a sign that I’m having a bad day), but it definitely helps. Another was to always go first to the salad bar in the cafe at lunch, and fill a bowl with salad. I’ll often add the prepared meat and veggies to the top of the salad bowl, but I’ll add less than I would if I were starting with an empty plate. And making that my default behavior in the cafeteria has definitely helped with eating better.

Along those lines, one thing that really matters for me is building habits. As was clear with eating better, willpower alone is not enough – I won’t make the right decision every single time if I always have to choose. So it’s building the habit of always going first to the salad bar. Or of reaching for water rather than soda. Or when I was training for my bike rides last year, it was waking up every Tuesday and Thursday morning and always getting on my bike to join the group ride. If I was trying to decide at 6am if I felt like getting on the bike, I wouldn’t, so it was important to not give myself a choice – if there was a group ride, I was going.

The group bike rides highlight another strategy of how to sustain behavior change, which is enlisting allies and finding a new community. By riding with a regular group, it made me more likely to get up in the morning to do those rides before work, and helped reinforce the habit. Riding with that group also gave me a new sense of what was possible – I went from thinking riding 40 miles with a big hill was really long and hard, to thinking that was a nice warm-up, because I was riding with people who regularly ride 100-200 miles in a day. Changing the people we spend time with changes our notions of what is reasonable or possible – I would never have thought I could do Death Ride if I hadn’t spent a year riding with people who had done it.

One last experiment that worked well for me was designating myself as the Unrepentant Generalist. Back in 2006, I was frustrated with my career, and kept getting stuck on the idea that I had to pick one thing and just do that. I was interested in all the things. And so I said I’m going to stop apologizing for who I am – I am a generalist and I’m not sorry about it, and that’s when I renamed my blog to the Unrepentant Generalist. And the interesting thing was that once I rebranded myself that way, it helped to change how I saw myself – that I should embrace that aspect of myself rather than try to fight it. It also changed how others saw me and helped me to find similar people, as another illustration of the strategy of finding a community.

To be balanced here, I have not yet figured out how to consistently change my behavior. I have been trying for years to develop the habit of doing pushups and core exercises in the morning to develop my strength. I have tried to commit to just doing 5 minutes – that didn’t work. I joined a Facebook group of friends to have accountability partners – that didn’t work. I tried using music to motivate me – that didn’t work. I tried to get motivated by having Christy scorn me for not being able to do as many pushups as her – that didn’t work. So I’m still experimenting to try to figure out how to make that behavior change happen. I think I need to reframe it somehow.

The point here is not about the specific experiments or strategies for behavior change – it’s about using design thinking to be more purposeful and systematic in making those changes.

  • Empathize: What do you observe in yourself that is driving your current behavior?
  • Define: What behavior change do you want to create? What different actions do you want to be choosing?
  • Ideate/Prototype: What are some different ways you can move towards our goal? What are some quick and easy experiments you can try? Is there something you can do today that will give you an idea of whether the behavior change works for you?
  • Test: Which experiments work? What sticks? Then go back to Empathize, and think about why certain experiments work better than others? For the ones that don’t, is it because this particular experiment doesn’t click with you, or is it that the problem definition isn’t right?

I leave you with this challenge – can you be more purposeful in designing the person that you want to be?

P.S. If you want some help brainstorming ideas of experiments to try, I love talking about this stuff.

P.P.S. I’ve added a selfdesign tag to the blog so I can keep track of what I’ve written on the topic. Several people have told me this idea of Design Thinking for the Self should be a book, so we’ll see if I can put together enough material to justify that.

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