Sunday, May 26, 2013

Is the Advice You Receive Actually Useful?

The Power of Habit uses this figure to illustrate the routine, cue, and reward
that make up the habit loop. But what can you do with this information?
How much advice that you receive is actually useful? And how much of it is just a summary of the problem or nod toward solutions, without any specific steps to take to get there?

This topic has long interested me, especially as it relates to writing. The most common writing advice I come across has to do with writing cover letters and resumes. People will provide all kinds of general advice without ever giving concrete examples of how the language should look on the page.

I see this problem a lot, and not just in writing. Any time I find a truly difficult problem for which people are seeking advice, the existing advice often dances around what to do to change the problem.

This habit loop is not the same one in Duhigg's The Power of Habit,
but I think it more accurately represents the cycle. Notice how the
routine is not an end point, and the addition of the "craving."
A few weeks ago, Boyfriend and I heard Charles Duhigg, who wrote the fantastic book The Power of Habit, speak about his book. After the talk, we debated whether Duhigg had shared any concrete advice about how to actually change a habit. There were some actionable steps hidden in his talk, but they weren't totally explicit. For example, he showed video from an experience in which children were left alone in a room with a marshmallow and told to not eat it. The children who found the will to not eat the marshmallow all had strategies for staving off their enticement. One trick was to "visualize the reward," which in this case was a second marshmallow. One kid  who resisted the first marshmallow and earned that second marshmallow said he imagined what he would do when he got his reward: stuff both marshmallows into his mouth at once. And he did. It was cute. But the actionable advice there is to "visualize the reward," picture it and spell it out in detail. When will you reward yourself? What will the reward be? How will you appreciate the reward?

Duhigg's work emphasizes the importance of "habit loops" in shaping what we do on a daily basis and whether we can make changes in our lives. He writes that there is a routine, a reward, and a cue. And he hints, but does not explicitly say (if I'm not mistaken) that self-awareness is the first step in changing the cycle. If you are not aware of your routines, cues, and rewards, you cannot expect to change them. Another example he gives is his own habit of eating a cookie in the afternoon at work. As he became more self-aware of the habit, he identified that he carried out this habit not because he had a sugar craving every afternoon, but because he wanted to interact with his co-workers. He needed a break. So he ditched the cookie and switched to gossiping instead and lost a bunch of weight. He couldn't have done that had he not been self-aware of the reward, which in this case was originally misidentified as a cookie. He didn't really want the cookie. He wanted a break and interaction with colleagues.

But "being self-aware" is really hard. That's not exactly actionable advice. I think the really actionable advice would be more like "write down your routine and how you're feeling to explore whether you have an accurate idea of the causes and effects." Bad advice would be to try replacing the reward with a different reward and see if it works--it's bad advice, I think, because a habit by its very nature isn't something that will change easily after one attempt. And even if you decide to replace the reward five times in a row or some such, how do you remember to do so? Again, the very nature of a habit is that we do it almost without thinking. Anyone who has tried to change a habit will know that remembering to act on the change you've decided to make is extremely hard to do. The kind of advice I'd like to read would offer examples of ways to do the remembering part.

What we writers can do is always provide examples, as many as we can gather, that illustrate the point. They won't always be what our readers act on, but they will provide more than one list of steps of what to do to get to the principles that many writers are already very good at ide
ntifying.


Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Want More Women in Your Field? Invite Them! (A Postcard from Google I/O)

Google I/O is Google's annual developer conference, and it's a big deal. Six thousand attendees are here in San Francisco now, in addition to the 600 or 700 members of the press. And yet, the line to get into the ladies' room is non-existent.

Larry Page, Google co-founder, today took the stage in a keynote address and at the end opened the floor to questions, not a common move for an event of this size or a man of his prestige. One of the questions was about how to attract more women into the technology field.

Page said Google goes to great lengths to hire women, and from what I know, that's by and large true. But it isn't enough. It isn't enough to just interview them. I believe you have to invite them.

If you want to tell women that they are not only welcomed but needed, invite them. Invite them personally to interview for a job, or to apprentice, or to sit on a board of directors. Invite them to speak at a conference or team lunch to share what they know on a topic. Invite them to act as consultants. Invite them to volunteer in an area that's related to your tech company or other STEM organization (STEM is science, technology, engineering, mathematics).

But the key is to tell them personally, "We want you."

When you invite a women, literally, into the conversation, the message you're sending is also, "We already value you and what you know. You don't have anything to prove." And for many people (not just women), feeling accepted makes a world of difference. It encourages risks, the good kind of risks that result in innovation and forward-thinking. It encourages the sharing of ideas.

Some of the big achievements I've had in both my personal and work lives in the past five years or so came about because someone simply told me that I knew what I was doing, and would I do more of it. And my answer was usually a very straightforward, "Sure." The moment someone else tells me he or she believes in me or believes that I am an "expert" in something, I feel confident that I am. And if I'm not, I speak up about it, but that's rare. For the most part, people have asked me about things in which I am more than competent.

Teacher especially need to do this. If you teach a STEM subject, invite bright female students to take your next class. If you don't teach STEM and you see bright students, invite them to take a STEM class taught by a STEM teacher that you think is good. It's that simple. Just tell them, "I think you'd be good at this," and watch what happens.

When I say "invite women," I don't mean "put out an open call that you want women to apply" either. I mean find the women you want, and just tell them you want them for the job, or board member position, or what have you. Especially in technology, there's no excuse. We have social media. Tech-savvy women have websites and LinkedIn accounts and blogs. We put ourselves out there so that you will find us and solicit our opinions, advice, expertise, and ideas.

So the next time someone asks what more can be done to get women into a field, respond, "Well did you ask any women?"

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Postcard from Missouri


Meaty smoke flies on the wind a quarter mile before you reach Kingdom City, Missouri, along Interstate 70. The highway sign for Panhead's is miles before that point. If you passed Bandana's in Wentzville and Two Dude's Barbecue in Warrenton because it was too early in the morning to eat, then Kingdom City may very well be where you land.

The landscape at that point is still very much Missouri, although another 50 miles or so and it turns to Kansas, the rolling hills leveling out to mere bumps in the road.

When I stopped for lunch, the server asked me in an accent I've never heard before whether I needed an ashtray, hon. I did not. I asked whether she preferred the brisket or the pulled pork, hoping she'd answer pork, but without missing a beat she pointed me toward the beef, which is what I ordered, a sandwich, because surely the plated version would be too much food.

Annual Road Trip
I'm on a road trip that started Tuesday in St. Louis, Missouri, for work. Let me try to explain the purpose of the trip in only a few sentences. I write for PCMag.com, a technology publication that independently tests products and services, then rates them and writes about them. Each year for the past  three years, we've independently tested mobile phone service across the U.S. by getting into cars and literally driving all around the country, running cell phone tests as we go. This year, we have three cars with nine people tag-teaming the driving. The cars each take a different section of the country: East, Central, West.

I'm in the Central car, and my route covers St. Louis, Kansas City, Memphis, and New Orleans. I've never been to any of these places.

By the end, I'll have crossed through five states: Missouri, Kansas, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana.

Today I'm in Kansas City, although my hotel is a solid 20-minute drive south of the city in Overland Park, Kansas. The other drivers are in Washington D.C. and Scottsdale, Arizona, at the moment, although I think today they are both on the move to their next locations. For updates from the road, follow @PCMPhones on Twitter (usually I tweet from @jilleduffy, but that first handle will have photos and updates from all the drivers as we continue our journeys).