Going bananas for WW

If this blog has a core, at the moment, it’s about decision making. One way to change decision making is to change the initial conditions. One way to do that is to dial ease up or down.

Losing weight is about introducing new habits and breaking old habits. WW, formerly Weight Watchers, uses ease a lot. Make the good things relatively easy and make the less good things relatively difficult. For example, part of what makes keeping a food journal a successful dietary change is that it introduces a friction, writing down the food forces our focus: do I really want to eat this? There’s no noting bananas though.

“To introduce new habits you want to pick foods you can eat on autopilot. If you’re with WW there are zero point foods that you don’t need to pay attention to. Bananas are pretty healthy and you’re probably not going to overeat bananas.” – Julie O’Brien, The Science of Change, November 2021

The episode is full of behavioral hacks, for instance having slack in the system for an occasional treat (or lapse). Another is the idea of rules of thumb. WW has points, intermittent fasting has times, Whole30 has no carbs. Each also restricts booze.

As a teen I worked retail with a woman who did the points system. She ate popcorn all the time. I didn’t get it. Popcorn has calories. But it worked for her.

As a teen I thought the world was more black and white. Now I get there’s more shades of grey. Now I appreciate the aspects of designing ease.


Here’s a few more posts about the different ways ease works.

“I’m your financial advisor”

In the early 2010s I listened to Dave Ramsey nearly every day. The Nashville based personal finance (personal accountability) radio host is still on the air, holding court. There’s a few things that make Ramsey popular.

First, he’s great on the radio. The content fits the medium, and Ramsey’s basic explanations, stories, and approaches combined with the delivery works.

Second, he gives good advice rather than perfect advice. There’s a difference between precision and accuracy, usually between the world of a model and the real world. It’s why Ramsey suggests beginning with the debt snowball:

“Start by listing all of your debts except for your mortgage. Put them in order by balance from smallest to largest—regardless of interest rate. Pay minimum payments on everything but the little one. Attack that one with a vengeance. Once it’s gone, take that payment and put it toward the second-smallest debt, making minimum payments on the rest.” – Dave Ramsey (link)

A great behavioral angle. We like feelings of progress and by focusing on the smallest balance we get that, especially given the financial conditions we may be in.

A third thing Ramsey does well is filling an answer gap. One time a woman called into his show and asked a question. He answered. She protested that her friends and family wouldn’t understand. He suggested telling them her financial advisor advised it. I don’t have a financial advisor she said. “I’m your financial advisor!!”, Ramsey retorted.

In another instance he told someone it didn’t matter how much their income was, the purchase wasn’t “in the budget”. Could they afford it? Yep. But framing it against the contrived ‘budget’ change the conversation. (I’ve used this one, it works.)

Both “I’m your financial advisor” and “it’s not in the budget” fill in an answer gap. Having ready answers can change our fast thinking. It works for drinking too much, a diet, or any kind of behavior we’re trying to stick with.

The ready answers can be pretty arbitrary too. If you offered “meatless Monday” would anyone actually comment? I’d wager not. So it’s not the validity of an explanation but merely the existence of one.


Some people don’t like Ramsey’s advice but I’m reminded of the Tyler Cowen expression: opposed to what? If not this then what?

Customer Acquisition Cost Communication (CACC)

One way to change the CAC is to change the communication. When an organization communicates well it clearly frames the exchange which helps people ‘get it’.

It happens in politics. It happens in emergencies. It happens in sports and in investing too. When asked why he didn’t bring part of his business to a new venture, Bill Miller replied, “We are only interested in having clients that understand you’re going to get volatility. We try to monetize the volatility.“

The simplest form of this is the dating advice: be yourself.

Who is the message for and how would they like to hear it? At Duolingo the how is short.

“Any page on Duolingo has the minimum amount of text, the minimum amount of instructions and an intuitive simple interface. That’s in contrast to how language is traditionally learned, which is in a textbook, which usually begins with a conjugation table. What works better is to let the user jump into the exercise, get some hints, answer questions, and then we unlock new concepts.” – Cem Kansu, The Science of Change, October 2021

In sports the idea was unlocked with images (like heat maps). In investing the idea was unlocked with shareholder letters. It’s the same thing over and over – it’s just finding a fit. Kansu said they’ve run hundreds of experiments, on probably every part of their service. Part of those are how to find a good way to communicate well.


My own version of this is the sixty-two ideas drip. Like this post, it’s a short daily email about an idea. Communicating well is one. It’s five bucks.

Where are the notifications?

One difference between the human brain and the laptop computer is that location matters. A human thinks differently, a computer compiles the same. This makes alchemy possible.

This also makes academia tough.

In behavioral science information presentation is everything. Order your tickets in the next 14:59. Put another way, what we see is all there is. Researchers will find that calorie labels work (!!), conditionally.

To humans, conditions matter. This, is a creativity canvas.

For instance, payment medium matters. People tend to spend differently because the feedback, the salience of paying with a twenty dollar bill is much higher than with a credit card.

“Certain payment systems leave a weaker trace in your memory. When I’m facing a purchase I ask, ‘How much have I spent in the recent past on things like this?’ If the answer is a lot then I’m less likely to make a new purchase, and if I’m paying by credit card I don’t remember those past purchases.” – Dilip Soman, The Decision Corner, October 2021

So, Soman created an app where people could spend and see feedback on their recent purchases. They spent less! Success!! But in 2010 South Korea created a text-message-for-purchases-alert-system and they found the opposite. “On an average,” Soman said, “people who opted in to receive the notifications spent more instead of less.”

The mechanism seems to be that text message information registers in a different way. “When we interviewed people they would say things like, ‘Oh if I ever needed a record I know my phone has it.’ Instead of being more vigilant they outsources that to the phone.”

The replication crisis in behavioral sciences makes me more hopeful about the tool’s potential. Human beings are goofy. Being one place and not another doesn’t matter how hungry I am, but you wouldn’t know by our actions.


Bottom line: the easiest behavioral tool is dialing friction up or down. Thanks for reading and supporting.

Two health designs

We highlight design because humans are conditional creatures. Certain circumstances make certain actions more or less likely. Living near a huge retirement community in Florida shows this contrast clearly. The involvement in new sports like pickleball, water volleyball, and sand tennis exemplify the design principle: If you build it, they will come.

In talking about his book,Drink?, David Nutt notes how much alcohol is a cultural act. Per Nutt, alcohol’s health impacts are terrible, the societal costs are large, and meaningful outcome changes wouldn’t require that much tweaking to the current system. But we don’t change.

Culture is design too. So to not drink a person needs to counter culture.

“In my book I suggest if people say to you, ‘Why aren’t you drinking?’ quite a good repost is to say, ‘Because I’ve got quite a busy day tomorrow.'” – David Nutt, London Real, February 2020

That’s good communication, it’s in the listener’s language.

The second design is around fasting, an area design helps.

“Right around the five hour mark of a fast you’ll probably get hungry (this being our ‘normal’ time between meals), and that’s the most difficult time. Sleeping through that is the best idea then. If you can start a fast at three p.m., then in the evening you have to stay away from the snacks, but when you wake up you’re in that cruise state of twelve plus hours.” – Matt Tullman, No Meat Athlete Radio, October 2021

In my experience this is true. Fasting pangs are non-linear. Depending on the time, circumstances, and maybe even hydration, a fast can be more or less difficult. Sleeping through those time-based hunger troughs can help.

You are a designer. I’m a designer. We are all designers.


Nutt sounded quite certain in the podcast about the health effects, but a query for “cancer alcohol meta analysis” showed less convincing results. In an attempt to be more Bayesian I’ll update from ‘quite bad for you’ to ‘pretty bad for you’.

Roulette with Bobby

A friend wants to pay off his mortgage in the next three years. He’s got two young kids. He’s younger than me. Meanwhile, I refinanced into a new thirty year mortgage. If he pays off his home debt it will be quite an accomplishment.

Bobby’s plan is different from mine. But I don’t know that he’s wrong. Personal finance is more like cooking than baking. We looked at, for instance, a 15 or 30 year mortgage?

In a way Bobby and I are at the roulette wheel. He’s bet on black. I’ve bet on red. One of us will be right, but we can’t know ahead of time. Most of personal finance is reducing the range of choices to just good options. It feels like we’ve both done that.

The analogy of roulette also works because rather than red or black, the ball could land on green. Despite planning, we both could be wrong.

It’s also important that we have designed our systems. Sometimes we think knowledge leads to action, but around here we know that design rules the day. Bobby has a plan to pay off his mortgage early – that plan is the design. Our family has automatics contributions – that’s our design.

“If someone says financial literacy at a party I basically give them a thirty minute lecture. The idea is that in a perfect world, if someone is taught about FICO and the impact on their life, they would take actions to improve their FICO score. This is just not what researchers have found – and it’s really robust…the punchline is that environment matters.” – Kristen Berman, All the Hacks, October 2021

Roulette, as an investment, is not in the range-of-good-choices. But as an analogy it fits nice. Prepare and pick from prime possibilities but remember the ball might not bounce any of those way.


There’s a lot about design here. It’s one of my 62 favorite ideas.

Dan Carlin’s creative thinking tool

One way to change decision making is to think different. One terrific tweak is to design different processes. “Start with the base rate” would be one way. Another is framing.

“I had a military history professor and one of the greatest things he taught, and I use this tool all the time, take out the most obvious easy solution from your consideration, take it out of the factoring in your thinking and then try to solve the problem.” – Dan Carlin, Common Sense, September 2021

Carlin goes on to say that part-of-the-reason there was no total war during the Cold War was because of nuclear war. Traditional war, Carlin notes, was “off the table”, and we are a creative bunch so a new solution was found.

Sometimes though, the culture of a place is so strong that framing traditional ideas in new ways is not enough. Mike Lombardi told Annie Duke that more organizations should have a “change department”, where an individual’s sole goal is to change your mind.

Sometimes the culture of a place is so so strong that framing or formatting are not enough. A new culture must be formed. This, wrote Clayton Chirstensen, is the innovator’s solution. Christensen’s disruption occurs when an industry leader continues to serve their best customers but the rules of the game change.

These are design choice. “Starting with the base rate” may not lead to adjusted conclusions but it will be closer to them than not. And we are all designers.


Design is one of the 62 favorite ideas. Read them all in a daily email drip on for five bucks. Find it on Amazon too.

What’s this place optimized for?

Everything around us, notes Jason Crawford, is a solution. It may be a ‘local maxima’ rather than a ‘global maxima’, but everything around us is the best idea we’ve had yet (given the culture and incentives).

And these solutions all influence our decision. The punchline to behavioral sciences, says Kristen Berman is environment, environment, environment. The question to ask then is: A solution for who?

“If you go to a mall how could you not spend money? People have thought deeply about how to get you to spend money, they’ve thought deeply about getting you to buy something. It’s a hard fight, and it’s getting harder. Amazon Prime is the gold standard for this. They’ve figured out something about human behavior and it’s going to be hard to fight that.” – Kristen Berman, October 2021

Cinnabon is a tasty brick and mortar example of how place matters. The stores are in places of captured traffic and infrequent visits. Da Buns, said Kat Cole, are treats. So the frequency of customers affects the type of product.

Another instance is that oh-you-know-it smell. That wonderful waft was an accident. The first location lacked enough room for the oven to go in the back – per best practice prescription – so it was jammed in the front. Learning their lessons, the second location prioritized moving the oven out of the way. Whoops. Luckily for us all, they fixed that.

I’m not as strongly behavioral as Berman (though I did update) but her idea of wise designs hits home. In 2014 our family went on a Disney Cruise. We had a blast. But one evening my wife scheduled dinner with a Disney Vacation Club (their timeshare component) representative. It was there, in that office, sweating bullets that I realized something about myself. I’m bad at ‘No.’

This guy was good. Each objection he countered. Each escape he blocked. Each obstacle he climbed. Somehow, like Aladdin, we escaped.

Now I know about ‘No’ and good design and Berman’s advice.

Just a monkey with a fasting app

The Matrix (1999):
Kung Fu

This came to mind when a friend asked my advice on fasting. I told her what worked for me, what I thought were best practices, and suggested the Zero fasting app.

The app has 330,000+ ratings. It’s in the top 100 Heath and Fitness apps. Which is kind of crazy because, it’s a timer.

Designs matter a lot in our actions. Using the app I make probably 90% of my fasting goals. Days without the app and the number is probably 25%.

One design theory is to consider appropriate information. If fasting is new to someone they need baby steps: an app that shows how much time has elapsed, guides to the ‘right’ fast, and advice, tips, community, etc.

Appropriate information feels like a weird concept until we see it. It’s like, oh, this other way of describing the world exists too Huh. Temperature is one of these areas. What’s the best way to convey information about thermal energy: Celsius, Fahrenheit , or Kelvin? It depends! What’s the gap between the individual and the information? Celsius and Kelvin work great for science and scientists because the information-individual gap has been narrowed by years of education. For the consumer though, Fahrenheit rules the day as the most legible.

Another is how to classify an avalanche. What’s the gap between an individual and the information? The US and Canada, for instance, use different systems. In the States avalanches have five levels according to “the path”: sluff, small, medium, large, major.

“These categories are in relation to path size, so a size or class number is not so meaningful without information on, or familiarity with, the path.” – Avalanche Institute

Locals have a small information-individual gap because they know the area. Compare the American system to the Canadian system, which also has five categories: relatively harmless, could bury or kill a person, could destroy a small building, could destroy a rail car, and largest known. There’s no information-individual gap when the warning is largest known.

It makes sense then that “just a timer” works for so many people. It’s not just a timer. It’s a tool to close the information-individual gap. Oh, I get it now. And even though the gap seems small (Siri set a sixteen hour timer), it’s large enough to matter.


per avalanche-center.org there’s also an international classification system.

the “just a monkey with a…” idea comes from Erik Jorgenson’s Navalmanack curation.

Show the way or in the way

One common mistake in our understanding of “how the world works” is to think that lack of action is due to a lack of information. If people just knew how important X was they would definitely do it.

One form is seen in the social media question: What would you add to the high school curriculum? Answers tend to hover around statistics instead of calculus, personal finance, or decision making.

Those are well intentioned suggestions, and on net, students would be better off if we could download a stats module in place of the first derivative. But information is not action.

Orlando Marriott hand washing sign

Geez. We’ve looked at hand washing (twice!) and there’s probably a well designed study that notes signs like that, in bathrooms such as this, change a proxy for health in some-such-way.

But, there’s a better example. It’s a real life example. It’s been tested on thousands. It’s also in Orlando. Arrange hand sanitizers to be avoided. To hijack Ryan Holiday: the obstacle is the way. But after two days people watching in the theme parks it’s very clear, this works.

And the reason for signs showing the way and not sanitizer stations in the way is incentives.

Back to Twitter. Some schools offer personal finance. From Kris’s nephew.

“I have this assignment for school where I have to invest $1,000 into a company’s stock. And I know you’re a stocks person so I was wondering if you know a good company i should invest in. Because the winner gets a prize of who makes the most money.”

Just give every twelfth grader $200. But there’s no action in that. There’s no standards or benchmarks or assessments about net learning in the second quarter of the school year. So in a way, Kris’s nephew is getting exactly what the system incentivized.

This is the system. In education it’s hard to measure “financial literacy”. In public health it’s hard to measure “healthy place”. In these systems optics are rewarded. Theme parks are in the optics business too, but for them results like: Person Gets Sick at World Famous Theme Park matter more. It’s important to know the rules if we want to play the game.


In finance there’s paper returns and there’s “moolah in the coola”, that’s another analogy. Paper returns are optics. Money in the pocket is an outcome.