Clear and Present Changer

Sharpening your toolkit for change, Sharpening your knives for Halloween

For the past few months I’ve been taking a course with BJ Fogg. He’s a prof at Stanford who has pioneered a type of behaviour change work he calls behaviour design. His models are deceptively simple but do wonders when it comes to clarifying goals and audiences. I’ve fallen particularly in love with one of his signature words: crispify. (I say it while holding my daughter’s Harry Potter wand and her room tidies itself, I swear.)

When clarifying the behaviours you want to change, you have to crispify them. While I’ve always loved crispy things (hello Hawkins Cheezies), I can see that a lot of my work, both personal and professional, has allowed for too much fuzz. Fuzziness is fine in knitting and Folkways recordings but less so in behaviour design, where the more definitive you can be in the actions you want people to take, the more likely you are to achieve your desired objective — which must also be crispy! 

The systems theorist Donella Meadows talks about the many ways to shift system behaviour, like “creating taxes, regulating bad behaviour, adding incentives, or shifting power. But the most effective place to shift behaviour is at the level of mindset. The great big unstated assumptions constitute that society’s paradigm, or deepest set of beliefs about how the world works. The paradigm is the source of the system.”

Great, Sarah, but what does crispiness have to with paradigms? I think you might be on too many tonsil painkillers.

Fear not, I will crisp this thing up henceforth. This week brought a flurry of shares for this article about how to halt climate change for $300 billion dollars. It’s a really clear objective. And once you start talking about it, you begin to shift your thinking: That’s roughly half the annual US military budget→Not so much money to stave off climate catastrophe→Let’s do this.

It’s easy to shift your mindset when the action or ask is salient and clear and crispy. Often I’m not able to do so because I don’t know precisely what I’m driving towards. More people caring about the planet? Justin Trudeau being betterer at climatey stuff? Getting people to support the carbon tax? These are all fuzzy actions in search of a crisper. (Not to be confused with a CRISPR.)

“But there’s nothing physical or expensive or slow about paradigm change. In a single individual it can happen in a millisecond. All it takes is a click in the mind, a new way of seeing,” writes Meadows.

Meadows’ ideas are paralleled by Alex Steffen’s idea of a snap forward, a kind of mental leap that allows us to quickly imagine our new reality. It’s a bold, clear vision for the future. Something we can wrap our heads and project management software around. A new deal, perhaps! The key is that it’s immediately understandable, actionable, crispy.

I’ve been using Fogg’s method to help clarify my behaviour change goals, but in my day job, clients often come to me with an objective that is less than crispy. The question there is whether I can take that behaviour change objective upstream to make it a little more concrete. If the client trusts me, maybe! In this newsletter I’m lucky enough to do whatever I like. Which means crispifying climate objectives has been formally adopted as standard practice. 

With art, I sometimes have little more than a feeling or an idea for a line to go on when I get started. There’s no goal or objective in sight, beyond a desire to make some marks. But as I turn my art into a behaviour change practice, I just can’t abide the lack of crisp. WHAT AM I MAKING? WHY AM I MAKING IT? WHAT DO I WANT TO HAPPEN? And for the love of pizza, HOW CAN I MAKE IT HAPPEN?

I created this newsletter to satisfy my own need to think about climate and move myself towards positive action on a weekly basis. Some weeks I feel like I’m getting somewhere, other weeks I float in an emo deprivation chamber. But in the coming weeks I’m hoping to clarify my change-making objectives. Crispification commences.

If this newsletter has you craving potato chips, I apologize.

How can you clarify your objective and crispify the behaviours that will get you there?

Have a wonderful week in this beautiful world!

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