From Jason: Today we’ve got a guest post with Jonathan Gurrera, on some of the crazy behavior change tactics he used to power through rejection therapy.

He’s an account strategist at Google, a gig he earned after investing dozens of hours of preparation through a system of gamification that he created for himself. It’s fair to say that he’s pretty obsessed with engineering his behavior and I think there’s a lot to learn from Jonathan’s approach to behavior change.

So enjoy and here’s Jonathan:

My experience with rejection (and how it benefits you)

One of my first encounters with The Art of Ass Kicking was reading about Jason’s experiences with Rejection Therapy. The idea of Rejection Therapy resonated with me for one reason, and one reason alone: rejection scares the living crap out of me. Nevertheless, handling rejection is such an important life skill, I didn’t feel it was an option to allow myself to be affected so strongly by it.

While all rejections are less than pleasant, I tend to let rejection control me most in social realm – especially when it comes to introducing myself to strangers or asking girls out. Quite aware of this, I’ve recently decided it was time to be more proactive with this area of my life. But rather than use a brute force strategy (i.e. pound shots when I’m not feeling social at a party), I wanted to create a system that subtly, but consistently guided me to take positive actions, even with the risk of rejection present.

My weapon of choice for creating this system was gamification, the application of game mechanics to systems where they may not have otherwise existed. Although I was new to the use of gamification for rejection therapy, I’m no stranger to using gamification to get things done, build habits, and achieve epic wins. In this post, I’ll be focusing on the use of gamification for systematically overcoming rejection. I’m still in the midst of this long-term experiment, so I’ll be sharing my progress thus far, with the hope that you can use these techniques in your own life. Continue reading

Six Fundamentals of Effective Behavior Change

I’ve read a ton of material about creating positive behavior change — but the “curse of knowledge” means that sometimes it’s harder to impart that knowledge to others. I often get caught up in describing a specific paper or study, when you really need is just a tactic that really works.

Well I’ve boiled that down for you today – with this presentation based on my Skillshare class. These are the six fundamental elements of effective behavior change and if you follow them, I know you’ll see a lot more success in your efforts to work out more, eat healthier, be more mindful, wake up earlier or whatever it is you’re trying to do.

And if you’re interested in learning more, or you missed out on my Skillshare class, then check out this GiveGetWin partnership I’m doing with Sebastian Marshall. You get 60 minutes with me and help support a great cause.

The presentation and more info on GGW after the jump. Continue reading

Easily distracted by shiny objects
Sound familiar to anyone?

There’s something thrilling about newness and uncertainty. Whether it’s watching a gripping Christopher Nolan film, starting the next level in a game or going on a first date, we can be easily captivated by what we don’t know.

The human species possesses a disposition towards novelty – and tens of thousands of years ago, that drove us to explore new lands, try new foods and see what happened when we struck two rocks together.

But just as our craving for sweets, salts and fats were valuable in the Paleolithic era, when such foods were scarce, but are now warped in the age of carmel-drizzled kettle corn, our novelty-seeking tendencies can lead us astray.

Variable rewards are a particularly powerful “hook” for the brain. Casinos and many games use frequent but hard-to-predict rewards to keep their players coming back for more.

In this post, I want to talk about how variable rewards work and how we can use them to drive positive behavior change for ourselves.

The science behind variable rewards

Variable rewards are when you positively reinforce a behavior at an non-fixed (ie less predictable) schedule. By varying when you deliver the reward for a certain behavior and how big that reward is, you can quickly reinforce that behavior and make it very strong and resistant to extinction (aka it becomes a habit or routine).

This finding is born out of the research conducted on animals, for instance: teaching a rat to press a lever. Researchers found that when compared to a fixed schedule (eg: a piece of cheese every other lever presses), mixing up the schedule (eg: two rewards in a row after one press, then a single reward after three presses, etc) was more effective even when the overall reward ratio was 1 to 2.

How Variable Rewards Work - Jason Shen
Quick chart I whipped up to explain the difference between fixed ratio and variable ratio rewards.

Why does this work?

The answer has to do with dopamine, a neurotransmitter that’s tightly linked with desire and habit. Getting a reward increases dopamine levels in your brain, which motivates you to do the thing which got you the reward (rats with missing dopamine receptors struggle to build habits). Continue reading

Our ability to use self-control may be one of the most important things we can develop in ourselves. I’ve written before about how willpower is not enough and that developing habits is an important skill for sustaining the right behaviors.

But there’s more to the story.

In preparing to teach a course about willpower and behavior change, I uncovered new research revealing ways we can get an extra boost of self-control when we are running low. Here are some of the findings:

Choosing to exert self-control is less depleting than being forced to exert it

Mark Muraven, a Professor at the University at Albany, asked participants to resist eating a batch of cookies and tested them on an activity that required willpower both before and after resisting the cookies. Afterward, he asked participants their motivations for resisting the cookies and also examined their performance on the willpower test.

He bucketed the reasons into autonomous ones (e.g. “It was important to me not to eat them” or”It is fun to challenge myself not to eat them”) and external (e.g. “I wanted the experimenter to like me” or “I would feel guilty if I ate them”). In looking at the results (emphasis added)

“As compared to their baseline performance, participants who avoided eating the cookies for more autonomous performed better at the second measure relative to participants who did not eat for more extrinsic reasons. Mood, arousal, and demographic factors were not related to self-control performance and feelings of autonomy. Overall, it appears that feeling compelled to exert self-control may deplete more strength than having more freedom when exerting self-control.” [Muraven, Journal of Research in Personality, 2008]

So next time you’re faced with something that requires willpower, whether it’s staying late to finish a project or turning down that second slice of birthday cake, find a personally compelling reason to exert willpower, rather than placing the reason to something external. Continue reading

I’ve been mulling two semi-related work habits/beliefs that I think really contribute to individual & team success. I see them in a lot of people I admire and to be honest, they are habits that I’m glad I’ve naturally adopted.

1) There is Always More You Can Do

A few months ago, my coworker/direct report said to me “Well, I finished my all my stuff for today so I’m taking off early.” She does a great job, but her attitude didn’t rub me the right way. The next day I told her:

“If you feel pretty ahead on your work and you’ve been putting in long hours, sure, an early day is fine. But don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re actually DONE with all your work.”

You are NEVER done.

There is always more you can do – more industry research to do, more analysis to perform on the metrics you track, more phone calls could be made to a potential clients / partners, more practice on the presentation you have next week, more emails to write (perhaps to a coworker saying “thanks for your help on project X”), hell, more icon cleaning on your desktop to perform.

People who are sucessful get ahead because they recognize that the number value-adding activities are endless and are always doing much more than is strictly required, because you don’t achieve great thing by doing just enough.

2) Take Initiative / Responsibility for Improving Everything

If you don’t like some aspect of your firm or your work life – salespeople aren’t closing, the payroll process sucks, your boss never responds your emails, the press releases the PR team sends out are super-bland – don’t just blame someone or throw your hands up in frustration.

Do something about it.

Build relationships with the various departments and stakeholders so they trust & respect you. Learn about what they do and study industry best practices. Ask the HR team if they’d like feedback from the staff, have a meaningful conversation with your boss, forward your PR team a press release you like, talk to customers about what closed the deal for them and send the insights to the sales team. I hate it when people say “that’s not my responsibility” because it is a sign of apathy and helplessness that is not productive.

I’m not advocating shirking your own job responsibilities, just that you ought to  proactively address other areas if you feel you can help the firm improve its performance.


These ideas may be a little off putting to some people and it’s possible that they can backfire (burn out & angry coworkers come to mind) but I do believe that people who adopt these mindsets will ultimately add more value to their organizations and be more successful.