Chapter 12: Taoism 2016

This is the twelfth chapter from my book “Hippo — The Human Focused Digital Book” which is available to buy now on all Amazon Platforms.


‘Nature loves courage. You make the commitment and nature will respond to that commitment by removing impossible obstacles. Dream the impossible dream and the world will not grind you under, it will lift you up. This is the trick. This is what all these teachers and philosophers who really counted, who really touched the alchemical gold, this is what they understood. This is how magic is done, by hurling yourself into the abyss and discovering it’s a feather bed.’ Terence McKenna

Have you ever started a financial plan? If you’re anything like I was, we’ve all started financial plans, ‘started’ being the operative word. It goes like this: you’ve set out with the best intentions but failed to keep the momentum going. That’s basically it. You’ve stagnated, wallowed and then… started up again. Relying on motivation and willpower doesn’t work and I know that’s not something to preach — I’m coming up against a self help industry that banks billions, but I’m not selling an ideology, I’m facing the reality of the situation, and it wasn’t always a habit of mine. The denial mechanisms we place in can in fact be quite sophisticated, and the positions we learn to defend — well argued. It becomes convenient to explain to ourselves and others our current position, financially. Reality, though, is not so convenient. When you begin any new self-improvement program, your enthusiasm is high and you’re motivated by the pleasure of what you want or the pain of what you don’t want. But motivation naturally diminishes with time, like the creatine housed in your muscular biology to take you through the first thirty minutes of your gym workout, you eventually, inevitably run out of gas.

Something like financial planning needs to become a habit like brushing your teeth, and not a fad like dieting or Zumba. Once a habit is established, people find themselves doing it effortlessly. Remember, the four stages of learning:

1. Unconsciously-incapable

2. Consciously-incapable

3. Consciously-capable

4. Unconsciously-capable

A lot of the time when we are at ‘1’, we think we are at ‘4’ but ‘1’ eventually ends and rather than recognise that we were only ever at ‘1’, we go onto other things and become ‘1s’ at those. Instead, see yourself through the four stages and become 4s at as many of them as you can.

Setting big goals is exciting but starting with small, boring goals is more likely to lead to success and that long term goal of being able to do something so naturally, that you haven’t got to think becomes as natural to you as… well, whatever that thing is that you are a 4 at. Bench pressing? Roller skating? Pencil drawing? Think of that thing that you can do with ease, and realise that all you have to do is see yourself through the stages and you will finish there and once you are a 4, you are always a 4. Yes, it is like learning to ride a bike. Does anyone need to teach you again how to brush your teeth? Taking small actions tricks your brain, and this is the key. Your subconscious likes to be in control and because of this, it doesn’t like change. Remember, your subconscious is like your parents: it likes to be in control, and it doesn’t like change — unless it is in accord with what is ‘right’ and ‘healthy’. Learning to trust the subconscious and allowing it to guide us forward is the healthiest way to zip-line, instead of the more fast food, big changes that we are too often encouraged to run with in a world addicted to sugar, coffee, and anything fast — especially if it’s faster than the other person’s fast. A big change sets up subconscious resistance, but you can sneak a small change by it, and there is an art to this. If you ask neuroscientists or researchers, they will likely tell you that change rarely happens overnight by changing something in its entirety. The best path to sustainable behavioural change is taking small steps, moving slowly and realising that all things are marathons — not sprints.

Now we have a far greater understanding of the human brain that we design services with micro changes and more importantly introduce micro-actions — actions so small and simple anyone can do them. Knowing how difficult it is to generate the willpower needed to ‘get there’, we as designers now have the power to not only nurture and initiate the willpower, but to lead a person through the endurance marathon, helping them retain engine fuel and getting them there injury free, risk free, again and again.

Your actions, you see, are a reflection of how your brain is wired to function. By changing an audience’s actions — even if we start with a micro-action — you can actually start to reprogram the brain, and trigger a virtuous circle of more action. Changing subsequent actions thus becomes both easier and more likely to succeed. Some people don’t like the idea of re-programming, and think of it as un-doing something but we can think of it along the lines of helping a person return to their natural constitution or original blueprint, one where they are cleaner and free to go at things in a way that has been unspoilt or undamaged by a trillion environmental attacks.

As designers, we’re in the business of behavioural change and we want to try and create experiences that make the audience do only one daily action, but this can be thought of as being behavioural ‘return’ back to a person’s natural order where they are completely capable and able to do anything. They’ll soon start to notice that they become more conscious of other small things they could do better, so design for the mind-set of ‘what small thing could I do better today?’.

Not long ago it was thought that the brain stops learning after a certain age. Not true, proved Leonardo. Your brain in fact keeps learning throughout your entire life through a process called neuroplasticity — also referred to as brain plasticity, meaning the brain’s ability to change at any age — for better or worse. As you would imagine, this flexibility plays an incredibly important role in our brain development (or decline) and in shaping our distinct personalities. Neuroplasticity happens when the brain’s building blocks (neurons) connect with each other and keep the brain active.

Tony Buzan, author of Master Your Memory and The Speed Reading Book described da Vinci as a ‘giant baby’, because he always felt he could ‘never stop learning more’ and in the same way a baby would engage its full breath of cortical skills available to it and not work within the confines of one field, so too can grown adults. Da Vinci was the great example of this. Due to the way we can box ourselves in with respect to a specific field of research, even the most academically advanced minds still hit cul-de-sacs with their work as their information can become in itself compartmentalised according to their field and the way they have been cultured to read into a thing. This produces a phenomenon where a smart intelligent academic with a high IQ can also be off with their findings. It seems that nobody is free from the need to constantly revise both how to see things, and how to go about things. Habits then are absolutely significant.

Designing for micro-actions is important because we do experience these hundreds of thousands of stimuli daily, and it is impossible for the brain to keep up. Focusing on small changes allows your brain to effectively start the process of neuroplasticity. Slowly… slowly…


Create, focus and complete — because your brain is really smart (and lazy). It is constantly trying to save effort by creating habits, so it’s key to build the habits in that you do want, right? But why is the brain trying so hard to create habits? Because habits are ‘pre-programmed’ and require less energy. Energy conservation is a natural law and as mentioned the thing that separates power and force. Force is about doing the most to generate the most using the most — but doesn’t always generate the most. Power is about doing the least to create the most and retaining the most energy while doing a thing. Another way of thinking about this is: do what is easiest, and not in a passive way, on the contrary: it requires tremendous focus to do very little. Have you ever tried to meditate? To help create habits, your task is to pick activities that are easy (which a micro-action is), then focus and repeat. Your actions re-program your brain. When you take action and succeed you get a sense of accomplishment, advancement, and other positive feelings. Your brain starts learning, and it makes you more ready and likely to take the next action, and thus triggers a virtuous circle of even more action.

As we age, our brains work less well, degeneration sets in and occasional forgetfulness can lead to anxiety and perhaps the onset of age-related conditions such as Alzheimer’s. We might be just as curious and keen to learn as we were as young people but the brain can let us down as an organ. Meanwhile, the ability to learn is still present and many advocate the forming of beneficial habits to improve memory and retention of new information. How many people do you know who advocate crosswords or Sudoku to keep their little grey cells in tip top condition? The brain’s neuroplasticity is maintained and memory and cognition are improved by repetitive activities, especially those involving our senses. There are other things too; you know how a familiar scent can transport you back to childhood? That’s the kind of sensory cue that we can use to our advantage. Mineral deficiencies can also contribute to degenerative conditions. The brain is housed in an insulating material known as myelin. Myelin is one hundred percent fat and is made of cholesterol, so feeding the brain the key omega fats are essential in helping the organ retain its necessary health. To endure all of the testing you are making it go through, make sure you keep some oil in the car — we don’t want to exhaust our cars, we want to look after them, right? The avocado, coconut and fish are all loaded with the right fats and oils, as well as eggs, black seed oil and nuts. Feed the organ like any other!

Visual cues to remember are useful at any age. They need not be related to the activity you need to remember — perhaps you’ll tie a knot in a piece of string to remind you to put the rubbish out for collection — but writing a note or leaving a Post-it on the TV to remind you to record a programme provides a visual cue to recall that activity. By habitually carrying out these behaviours in reaction to a given trigger, we build neural pathways that allow us to subconsciously follow the routine. Once a habit is formed we do it routinely, without much thought. Can you see how we are transcending through the stages of learning?

The importance of visual cues as a trigger to perform an action or a routine is a form of problem solving that can be incorporated into an approach to design. As a form of Taoism, designing for the journey — the ‘way’ — is critical to success. By considering the human experience along the way, we help to get them to where we want them to be. My slightly Darwinian take on the Tao is that humans follow a journey underpinned by three basic evolutionary needs or ‘master motives.’

1. The need to get ahead and learn. Some individuals are more willing and able to be in charge of this destiny.

2. The need to get along and socialise, which promotes cooperation and makes us group-living animals. (Freud noted that although humans are social animals, living with others does not come easy. He compared people to a group of hedgehogs during the winter):

“They need to get close to each other to cope with the cold, but if they get too close they end up stinging each other with their prickly spines.”

This very rule is often the trickiest function to build. Audiences don’t want to go it alone, but working with others does require some discomfort. Some tensions may arise by the desire of a person to be accepted and loved by other people.

3. Finally humans like to have fun, which can also provide individuals with a formal system for finding meaning.

These three basic principles act as an ecosystem of knowledge, which works as a lens through which we see the world. Think about the little actions you design, how often and how few they are, but also how you categorise them. Somewhere between the size, the frequency and the type of actions (across the above three categories) is the answer to behavioural change — a journey of a thousand miles really does begin with a single step. The key is to step. Tiptoe if you must — but step.


Copyright © 2017 Nexus CX Ltd

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First published in Great Britain in 2016 by Nexus CX Ltd

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