033: Making and Breaking Habits through Design with Victor Yocco

By July 8, 2016Podcasts

 

Victor Yocco headshot and quote “Shifting your belief is probably one of the hardest things people do. How do I start to believe things like ... not drinking ... lead to positive outcomes in my life?” from interview in episode 33 of the How to be Awesome At Your Job Podcast with Pete Mockaitis

User Experience designer and recovering alcoholic Victor Yocco speaks about habit formation–good and bad.

You’ll Learn:
1. Victor’s personal story and implications for forming effective habits and breaking ineffective ones
2. The power of teaming up with others to achieve your ambitions
3. How to use a design approach to construct and reach your career goals

About Victor
Victor is a Philadelphia-based research director, author, and speaker. He received his PhD from The Ohio State University, where he studied communication and psychology. Victor regularly writes and speaks on the application of psychology to design and addressing the design and tech culture of promoting alcohol use. He has written for A List Apart, Smashing Magazine, UX Booth, User Experience Magazine (UXPA) and many more. He is the author of Design for the Mind, a book from Manning Publications on the application of principles of psychology to design.

Items mentioned in the show:

Victor Yocco Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Victor, thanks so much for appearing here on the How To Be Awesome At Your Job podcast.

Victor Yocco
Hey, Pete. Thanks for having me today.

Pete Mockaitis
Now I know you do a ton of interesting sort of design consultation, and work with different clients. Could you maybe open us up by sharing a story of design that was just wild, shocking, mind blowing, funny?

Victor Yocco
Well, one example that I like to give when I talk about designing for psychology, which is sort of the area that I focus on, is not necessarily a design itself that was shocking, but the underlying idea, that a high level telecommunications executive had in a meeting one day. They have a payment portal, so imagine anything like your cell phone bill, where you would go online and manage your cell phone account, make a payment, whatever. Well the executive, the thing he had stuck in his mind was that social media and being social is the be all and end all when it comes to product design, and so we have to make this a social experience. In my mind when you say something like that, you have to really understand why you really want to make something social. His whole motivation and his mantra was he wanted this online payment portal to be be quote, the Facebook of telecommunications management.

I like to use that line in meetings when I talk about designing for social influence and social identity, because there really can’t be a Facebook of telecommunications management. People aren’t going to like the fact that you paid your cell phone bill. People aren’t going to share the fact that you have seven hundred thousand free minutes. These kinds of experiences, when people to me it really highlights how people grab onto one idea but they don’t understand the underlying nature. Facebook is good at what they do because their platform facilitates social relationships. Phone bills while they might facilitate different types of social relationships, don’t lend themselves to the same experiences that Facebook do. There’s other analogies, like with banking world and financial technology. They’re very curious to understand the future of digital banking. I like to make a joke about attaching Twitter to your bank account, and sending out a tweet, like hashtag, I’m broke. I just overdrew my account. Why would somebody want the option of tweeting about their account balance?

 

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. Boy we’re going in a lot of fun directions here. I want to hear a little bit about your story. I think that this episode is going to feel a little bit different than some of the others, because you know it’s going to be a bit personal, and hear a bit about your perspective in encountering alcoholism and sobriety. Then hearing what some lessons, some take aways associated with what forms habits and how could we design, because design’s your jam, kind of put good work, routines, structures, activities to get us cruising in a good way with solid habits, that propel being awesome at our jobs, and avoiding dumb habits, which make us less energized, or productive, and more distracted. I’ll just kind of give it over to you. Can you tell us a bit of your story when it comes to the alcohol?

Victor Yocco
Sure Pete. Thanks for setting it all up. I’m really happy to be on the show, and to share my experiences with you and your listeners. I hope that it can provide people who either find themselves in this situation that I was and am in, or know of others in a similar situation, can offer support. Really you and I were speaking before the episode that it’s a lot more than just alcohol. It’s about all the different habits and negative behaviors that we pick up as we go along in life, that end up making it harder for us to be awesome at our jobs, be awesome at our lives, and accomplish the things we want.

My story really is that I tell people that I’ve always abused alcohol. That’s whether I drank once a month or whether I drank five nights a week. The problem that I’ve had and I didn’t realize at the time was that I don’t have an off button. Once I start drinking, my off button is becoming physically unable to continue drinking. Whether when I was young, I mean like when I was in high school, and then when I was in college, my off button was throwing up. I would often do that after a six pack, or ten beers, or something where you know you can feel foolish, you’re probably going to be hung over the next day, at least in the morning. Then you go on with your life. For whatever reason, when I entered … Drinking wasn’t a huge part of life at that time either. You can drink, throw up, and move on, and then accomplish a lot of other things. I was able to earn my PhD. I was able to start a family. I was able to do the things that I thought I wanted to do. Alcohol was playing more of a minor role.

As I got into my later twenties and into my thirties, sort of seemingly for no reason at all to me, my tolerance became really high. I was able to drink ten, fifteen more beers at a time. I started doing it. I started incorporating it into a routine. At first I started doing it every Friday because it was my reward for finishing up the week. Then I would start to do it every Friday and Saturday because I would do something like go for a long run on Saturday, so certainly I earned it. The hangovers weren’t going along with it anymore. What was starting to happen was drinking until I blacked out. I wouldn’t have rarely clear, or any memories of why I was in certain situations. All of the horrible things that you attach to people who say they drink until they black out, you can also attach to me. I sent really mean texts and emails to people. I would wake up and I would have to apologize for breaking things, apologizing for ruining someone’s party, apologize for a whole array of things that in my younger days, I never ever thought I would be that person.

Of course when you’re drinking, and I was starting to do this multiple times a week until you black out, it’s very expensive. I was spending a lot of money on it. Then I was spending a lot of money replacing things that I would break when I was in a drunken stupor. I was spending a lot of money on counseling because I was honestly taking my life to this dark and horrible place. One of my closest companions was my fiance and I was taking her down this spiral with me. We were trying to make our relationship work. While I refused to acknowledge and blame myself for the drinking, and take that out of the equation, my attempt to solving the problem was instead go to counseling, both couples counseling and then eventually individual counseling. That’s really where I came to the realization through the help of of the counselors, that the drinking was the issue. I was the issue. I didn’t need counseling to make my relationship with my fiance better. I needed to stop drinking and then start working on the relationship.  

I came to that realization through on two consecutive days, two different counselors telling me, “I don’t really think I can work with you, unless you agree to stop drinking while we’re working on your issues.” It sent a light bulb off in my head which was these people who don’t know me but know my story, and they don’t know each other, are telling me the same exact thing, which is I can’t help you if you don’t stop drinking. On the other side of the coin, I can help you if you do stop drinking. I felt like my life was just in a spot where it was worth it. I wanted to be successful in my personal life. I wanted to be successful in my professional life. I never thought I would be the person who was breaking things and being a black out drunk. I never thought that I would be the person who would have a label like alcoholic or alcohol abuser.

All these things were very strange to wake up and try to embrace. At the same time, I had set up my life around the drinking, so it was super scary to think about it wasn’t as simple as stop drinking. To me that sounded like stop living, stop having the life that you have. My life was focused on waking up, thinking about drinking, then starting to drink. Even in the careers that I had chosen, while having alcohol played no role in me choosing that career, design and technology, and the start up culture that you hear people referencing, is very focused on promoting the use of alcohol.

Something that I’ve been able to do since becoming sober is go on podcasts like yours, and talk at conferences, and write articles about the need to just raise awareness that we’re not all cookie cutter in our ability to consume and be around alcohol. Particularly in the design and tech world, that we need to do more to create inclusive environments, where yes there might be alcohol, but not everybody feels pressured to drink or not everybody feels like the spotlight will shine down on them if they order a seltzer water and lime instead of something with hard liquor in it. That sort of catches you up to where I am today. Just working hard on both my personal and professional life and staying sober.

I’ve got over two years of sobriety now. In that time I’ve really accomplished a lot of the goals that I had for myself when I was drinking, like writing a book, and getting a large promotion at work, and, my fiance has morphed into my wife, and we have a child together. I was able to repair the damage and the trust. For me it feels like the real mark of success at this point is to continue to try to make the world a little bit more accepting, a little bit easier for those who I know around me are going through something similar, or who just might have other situations where I can help them make them feel more included.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh that’s beautiful. Thank you. Congratulations. There are numerous elements in there that I can kind of connect to, relate to. I’m thinking about how it’s really handy in your story, well one, you were able to put together a pattern. Two separate people who did know each other, each told me something about a topic. Ah, it’s me. I think that could happen when we do seek out feedback from others to get a perspective on something. You do start to see those patterns the more you ask and reflect from folks. I also was intrigued by you said you drank until you were physically unable to drink again. I think I’ve done that with at night, they are not the same thing but there is a little bit of a connection. At night, there were times in which I continued watching Netflix or [inaudible 00:13:13] until I was physically unable to continue watching Netflix.

Victor Yocco
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve conked out now.

Victor Yocco
Binge watching is a term because it’s a real thing, where you gorge yourself on watching TV. It’s exactly, it’s very similar I would say. It might not have the immediate physical negative impacts. You might not be in a separate state of an altered state of thinking but at the same time, you have put yourself in this situation where you doing something, that’s not necessarily positive for you after a certain point, and you’re overindulging.

Pete Mockaitis
Indeed. Then there’s all kinds of bad news about blue light, melatonin, and bad sleep associated with watching things late into the evening. Then that has all kind of spill over implications for being sleepy at work and all that. I want to hear then, so you’re successful and two years sober. Again, congratulations.

Victor Yocco
Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
Your expertise is design. Tell us how did you design a way out? What were some of the approaches, mindsets, and things you did to overcome?

Victor Yocco
That’s a great question. I feel like I did in reflecting, I did have some real structure around how I first encountered sobriety. It didn’t feel that way. When I first jumped into it, it felt like just I was taking a plunge. I knew I wasn’t going to be successful. I knew I didn’t have it in me to accomplish it.
Now, I realized that you can design. Whether it’s sobriety or whether it’s something around binge watching TV, or overeating, or just any type of distraction where it’s become so routine. A real example is for me when I was drunk, I would always, right before you sort of pass out period, think well tomorrow, I’m going to start writing a book. I never got to that tomorrow because I was always drinking or drunk. It’s the same thing if you’re binge watching TV and you’re thinking, well tomorrow I’ll get started with that side project that’s going make my career in a better place. I feel strongly the first component that any program where you need to change a large behavior, is that you need support. You need to put yourself around other people that have done that.

For me, I went to Alcoholics Anonymous, or AA, but it was at the advice of the counselors. Eventually I stopped going. I don’t currently go. I know that there are some people who have strong opinions one way or the other. Whether it’s AA or something else, the piece that I feel that worked for me was that it put me in a setting where other people were experiencing the same thing, and they were all at different stages. I could look at somebody who had been sober for fifteen years and hear them say, “Yes, this is hard. This is hard as hell. It’s still hard but you can do it.” Day one, day two, and all the way up to the first sixty days or so, you wake up every morning thinking what’s going to be my excuse to go back to drinking? Putting yourself in a setting where other people understand what you’re going through, or even if they don’t understand your exact situation, but they’re aware that you’re trying to change this behavior, and they can offer you support. I think that’s really important.

 

You have your own power to change that. I think that self help is a really positive category when it comes to reading, and listening to podcasts, and radio shows. I advocate that really strongly. Then setting goals. That was something that was critical for my success and staying successful. I always had small and longer term goals. I still do.

 

I had to set small goals, like writing an article, or just writing a blog post for the company that I work for. Then that started to snowball into creating a longer term goal, writing a book. Now maybe I’ll do that again, or something different. Speaking about psychology and design, speaking about dealing with alcohol abuse, and productivity.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. That is interesting. I’d like to talk a bit. I think there’s also some overlaps there when it comes to overcoming or breaking an addiction, or bad habit, and also establishing good habits. We can talk about setting goals, and having support. That reminds me of my second book,
Team Up. It wasn’t a huge seller. If any listener wants one, I could probably send it. Team Up, becoming accountable to your dreams. I was proud of it. It was all about how folks can support one another. If you establish your goals and you share that with each other, you get a good sense of support and encouragement, and butt kicking when you need it. It just propels you forward in all kinds of powerful ways. I’m a huge advocate for accountability groups for when you’re trying to do more exercise, or prayer, or building a good habit at your workplace, working up an initiative, whatever it be. Tell us then, when it comes to psychology and design, what are some means of designing structures or environments to get going, and establishing good habits? Things that you want to start doing.

Victor Yocco
Yeah. That’s a great point or question. A lot of what we use on a regular basis has this underlying psychology that it’s tapping into. Whether or not the designers specifically went out, for example Facebook taps into our desire to create this social identity. I can’t speak on behalf of Mark Zuckerberg, whether he was using social identity theory, which is a psychological theory of how people interact socially when he created that experience. What it plays out and does is it acknowledges the psychological principles that exist, when you take a higher level look at why it’s successful. One way of looking at it, whether it’s using a digital design or using a pencil, we want people to use the thing that we create. That’s all about behavior and behavioral psychology.

There’s a lot of literature out there about why people engage in behaviors. How we can get them to either change their behaviors or support those behaviors. One specific theory that I write about is called the theory of planned behavior. It just talks about decisions that people make when they have information available and they understand what the outcomes are going be. Usually it’s a combination of three different factors, is going to determine whether or not somebody engages in the behavior. Let’s say they use your website to make a payment online or purchase something through Amazon. One thing is going to be their behavioral, their beliefs about the outcome of that behavior. Do people have positive or negative beliefs about using Amazon? How can you influence that? Using your website, how can you influence their beliefs around whether or not the outcome of using your website is positive? Is it things like presenting them with information that shows how reliable your website might be? How many other people have used it to accomplish a task?

How much money they’re going to be saving based on using your website to purchase an item over another website? Maybe you’re not selling something but you’re providing information. Well why is this information something that somebody should need? How are you presenting it in a way that comes across as valid and trustworthy. That’s looking at everything from the aesthetics of your design, and how pleasing it is, to how readable, and how understandable you’re communicating to people. That’s one component of what leads to people making a decision around using something or not. Another huge component is do people consider the behavior to be a social norm? If it’s something like Amazon’s low hanging fruit when it comes to examples, because more people are familiar with it, and most people have used it.

Let’s say you aren’t violating social norms if you say, “I just bought something on Amazon.” Let’s say you have a new website, and you’re competing with Amazon, you need to shift then the conversation around who was using your product and why, to show people that oh, other people that I either admire, or relate to, or want to be like, are using this product to accomplish the task, so that they have what’s considered to be a social norm around using your product. There’s a lot of ways to do that. Again you can use things like rating systems, or just lame, some websites will pop up. I was recently booking some travel. The travel website that I was using, while I was using it … I travel to fun places like Columbus, Ohio.

While I was on there, it comes up with this little pop up that says, “Five hundred other people today are looking for flights to Columbus.” That’s the supposed to do two things. That’s supposed to tap into a sense of urgency for me, which would be, oh no, five hundred other people are looking for flights. I want to get the best deal so I better buy now. Then it’s also supposed to show me, oh hey, five hundred other people are literally using this same tool to book their flight. This must be a very socially acceptable way of booking a flight. I’m feeling a lot more comfortable now about using this website to do it. Then that’s sort of like trying to tap into the social piece, and getting people to really believe that using your website or reading your books, is the social norm among people that they consider themselves to be like.

Then the third piece for planned behavior, well we’ll call it control. It’s really do people believe that they’re in control of the outcome of what’s going to happen when they use your product. Part of it can be that your product makes people feel more in control of a situation. Thinking of the travel website for example, does the travel website make me feel more in control because it aggregates a whole bunch of different airlines into one search engine, and shows to me their prices, versus I have to go to fifteen different airline websites, and create a spreadsheet to try to track the different prices of flights, and the different times. By showing me that oh hey, we’re aggregating all this information and sending it to you in an easy to digest way, they’re trying to make me feel more in control of the situation. That should then tap into my, hey when I use website X, I have more control over my travel. Oh look, not only can I book a flight, but I can book a hotel and a car on the same site. Now I’m in full control and I don’t ever have to leave the comfort of this one web property. Travel is probably an easy example as well.

Are there other ways where you can show people how using your product, whether or not you’re selling them something, actually puts them, or give them a greater sense of control of an outcome.

The control has multiple levels. You can also show people that using your product has ultimately led to the best decision for them. That can be things like just displaying information at the end that says, you saved X versus using another website, or you’ve got access to seven hundred more articles on this specific topic by using this database, versus another database. I mean in terms of, it’s really just showing people that when you’ve used a product, when you’re on a website, when you’re using something that designed specifically to give them greater control over their situation, how you’re doing that. Don’t be indirect. Be very blunt about what about you’ve created is good and surface that information, so that people can say, “I’m going to keep using your website,” or “I’m going to keep using your smart phone application because I believe it gives me greater control over whatever the topic, that your product is about is related to.”

Pete Mockaitis
Have you given some thought for how either of these particular design principles associated with websites and marketing experiences, apply to designing your own behavioral changes?

Victor Yocco
Oh yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Going to the theory of planned behavior actually comes out of psychological literature that was funded from healthcare providers, and the center for disease control. Trying to look at how we can insert opportunities for people to do things like stopping smoking, and other kind of health related behaviors. When you think about it from not even a digital perspective but yeah, designing around sobriety, what is my behavior belief around the behavior of drinking? Well, when I was actively abusing alcohol, my belief was this is something that I need to do. This is something that leads to a better outcome for me. When I’m drinking, I’m more creative. I’m happier. I had to shift those beliefs and that’s not an easy thing to do.
Shifting your belief is probably one of the hardest things people do. How do I start to believe things like not buying alcohol, not drinking, are actually going to lead to positive outcomes in my life? How do I put myself in situations where I can start to realize that?

Again I think that’s where the support really came into play, which was hearing other people’s stories, and knowing that the stress I was going through around that drinking was ultimately something could be overcome. That better things would happen as long as I stuck with it. Then that also contributed to the shift in the social norm. Which is when I was drinking, everybody around me was drinking. I still feel like that in a way, which is that drinking is definitely a part of our culture, and that it’s something that we encounter on a daily basis, different advertising and promotions around why people should drink. When you start to go to support meetings, and you start to meet people who’ve decided that sobriety is a part of their life, then you also start to shift your social norm around what people who don’t drink do, and why that can be a positive experience.

Then control is really like yeah, are you in control of your choice to drink or not drink? What can you do to make yourself feel more in control that of the decision? Is it don’t put yourself in situations where you’re around drinking? Don’t ever have alcohol in the house, that kind of thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Very good. Thank you. You tell me before we shift gears to the fast faves, is there anything else that you want to make sure you put out there, in regard to habit making or habit breaking?

Victor Yocco
Well, one of the biggest things is just it doesn’t happen overnight. Whether you’re trying to quit drinking or quit smoking, or you’re just trying to add just five minutes of time everyday for exercise, or writing, you really need to stick with it for a longer period of time than just a few days. If you’re not successful the first time, try to go back and figure out why and what you can do the next time you change your habit, to make it more likely to be successful.
There’s a lot of little tips from psychology that you can try to incorporate. Some of those are covered in my book. A lot of them exist in the psychological literature. They’re sometimes hard to understand but they are out there.

 

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. A favorite study or piece of research?

Victor Yocco
Well something that I feel like comes up often, and we didn’t discuss on this call but is very relevant in terms of the content of my book, and one of my favorite chapters that I wrote about, is a study from 1979 on prospect theory. It’s actually really relevant still today. It’s by two researchers in economics called Konomon and Diverski, are their last names. They really look at how people make decision when they don’t have all the information or what they call risky decisions. Their conclusion is that people don’t make great decisions. They use a lot of mental shortcuts called heuristics. You can really use heuristics to your advantage, either in design or in everyday life. That would be a whole other topic of conversation that we could talk about for hours. There’s twenty or thirty heuristics that researchers have identified. A great place to start around that is Konomon and Diverski’s 1979 article in the journal Economictra. I cannot pronounce the name of the journal.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite book?

Victor Yocco
A favorite book? One that I read recently that is not brand new by any stretch is Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. What he talks about in that is how we sort of define success. How people become successful through thousands and thousands of hours of practice. Also one of the messages I take away from reading the book, is that
success is very much dependent on societal factors. That as a society we can do more to help people become successful. It’s a nice reminder that we all play a role in creating success both for ourselves and for others. 

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite tool? Whether that’s a website, a hardware, or software, something that you find pretty handy.

Victor Yocco
Sure. Something that I’ve been using lately at the workplace is Slack. 
For whatever reason, Slack has been the one instant messaging tool that’s really stuck where I work. Over the past three years or so, we’ve probably tried five or six different things, and Slack was what hit the nail on the head. 

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. How about a favorite habit? A personal practice of yours that’s been very effective?

Victor Yocco
All right. The one thing I do that I have been doing on a daily basis for well over a year, I really wish I could remember where I read it initially because I’d like to give credit to the person who’s idea it was, I read a blog, a quick little post about how you can make yourself better, or experience more success. The person’s philosophy was you need to do three things a day to put yourself out there. Whether that’s asking three people to be a new connection on LinkedIn, or pitching three new places to write an article, or three new podcasts to appear on, I’ve been doing that for well over a year.
If you turn around that number, three a day is very small but that’s over a thousand new things you’ve tried to do over the course of a year. Even if only ten percent of those come through, that’s a hundred new opportunities or a hundred new connections, or a hundred new potential things that will keep you moving forward towards your goals in life. Some days I do a lot more than others, but I’m always writing emails. I’m always writing new articles. I’m always trying to generate three new things a day.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh cool. How about the best way to find you, if folks want to learn more and get in touch?

Victor Yocco
Well, I’m very easily found using my name. On Twitter, which I tweet somewhat, I’m @ Victor Yocco, that’s V-I-C-T-O-R Y-O-C-C-O. If you ever want to send me an email, I respond to personal emails. I think it’s something that’s nice when people reach out when I’ve written some of the articles that I’ve written around especially around alcohol. I’ve had quite a few people reach out to me and I try to respond to everybody individually. It’s victoryocco@gmail.com, V-I-C-T-O-R Y-O-C-C-O. Then also my personal website is victoryocco.com. If you want to connect with me on LinkedIn, just look for Victor Yocco as well. I will gladly connect with anybody.

Pete Mockaitis
You got it all. How about a favorite call to action or parting challenge for those seeking to be more awesome at their jobs?

Victor Yocco
Sure. 
I would say look at something that you currently feel like is distraction. Take ten days to go completely without that. Just cleanse yourself from whatever it is. If it’s binge watching Netflix, if it’s laying on the couch thinking about the fact that you’d like to get started with a new project, force yourself for ten straight days not to engage in that distraction. Then take a look at whether or not you’ve managed to start filling that time up with productivity. I would challenge you to do that because that’s really what happened to me. I would do a ten day cleanse of what you feel like is your current distraction, and see what you start to fill that time with. See if that might truly lead you to pursuing a passion, and becoming more awesome at what it is you do.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Well Victor, thanks so much. This has been a ton of fun. I wish much luck with the book, and all the other things that you’re going after here.

Victor Yocco
Thank you Pete. If you don’t mind, I’ll give you a code that you can put up on your page for listeners of this show. It will allow them to get a discount of thirty-nine percent off the book, if they should choose to purchase it through my publisher.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh sure. Discounts are good. Yes, thank you.

Victor Yocco
Awesome. Well thank you very much for having me today Pete. I’ve enjoyed talking.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, me too.

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