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An Easier Path to Behavior Change on Engineering Teams

Jean Hsu

Jean Hsu

Co-founder of Co Leadership, engineering leadership coach. Previously engineering at Medium, Pulse News, Google.

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Over winter break, my partner and I listened to 3 hours of a podcast interviewing Matthew Walker, author of Why We Sleep. Our takeaway? Sleep is really important! So we decided to try to sleep by 10pm every night. Matthew also references the invention of and access to electricity and how it's affected human sleep over the years. So I suggested, what if we turned off all lights and screens by 9pm, and only used candles?

Just a day or two in, we looked forward to candlelight time at 9pm. We enjoyed it so much, sometimes we started it earlier! With this small change, a bunch of healthy habits followed easily. I couldn't check my phone right before bed, or browse Facebook or reddit. And because my phone was in another room, I wasn't doing that in the morning when I woke up either. We enjoyed quality time with each other in the evenings without the distractions of phones.

And most amazing of all, according to my Fitbit, I achieved an unprecedented 11-day streak of 8+ hours of sleep (which means I was really in bed for 9+ hours). For any of you with a Fitbit and/or small children, you know this is no small feat!

I've always known that I should sleep more and browse reddit less. But when I think about working on “getting more sleep” or “less screen time,” it feels like things being taken away. I like staying up late and doing mindless things. I like reading random reddit threads. I like watching netflix after my kids go to sleep. I like doing all these things, even if I know they are not healthy habits for me.

But by getting something I enjoyed more — candlelight time — all these other changes that I felt resistance to just fell into place.

Lessons from candlelight time
There are two things to note here: one is that we eliminated unhealthy behavior with mutually exclusive and more enjoyable replacement behavior.

The second is that focusing on just one enjoyable habit made it easier to let go of less enjoyable habits. If I had instead chosen my one habit to be get 8 hours of sleep, or wake up at 7am, or no phone before bed, or reduce daily screen time, I probably wouldn't have succeeded, even though it's purely a subset of the larger set of changed behaviors.

How can we apply these lessons to engineering teams?

Replacing unhealthy or unproductive behavior
There are so many things I do during the day that I know are not optimal — whether it's checking Facebook or reading Hacker News or getting sucked into technical rabbit holes — but I do them anyways.

How can you replace unhealthy behaviors at work with more enjoyable, healthier, and mutually exclusive behaviors?

For example, you might realize that at your standups, people are tuning out. Maybe people are over-sharing, or the updates are just not relevant. It doesn't seem to be a good use of time. What are some ways to replace what people are doing in standups with more productive updates? Or you might even consider replacing your current standups altogether.

When you notice that you or your team are engaging in ongoing unproductive behavior, ask yourself:

What is a mutually exclusive and more enjoyable replacement behavior?

Changing process on engineering teams
If you look at teams with Goldilocks processes — ones that feel just right — you'll see that it's less about the processes themselves and more about the way they are introduced. On these teams, engineers happily update the status of their projects, keeping everyone in sync. People are engaged while team leads share context from broader company meetings. Engineers look forward to contributing to team efforts to knock down tech debt or outstanding bugs.

One of the best ways to introduce new workflows and tooling in a way that gets them adopted is to lower friction in adoption (and pain from the current workflows) and have people experience enjoyment from using the new tool.

There will be certainly times when you have to ask colleagues to do things that are not enjoyable or particularly useful to them, but it'd be nice to keep those to a minimum. When introducing process or trying to change behavior on a team, ask yourself:

How could this change be an enjoyable one? What enjoyable things could it amplify or frustrations could it reduce?

Finding out what people enjoy
Behavior change, habit formation, or just getting people to do things you want them to do is way easier when you're adding enjoyable things. I restructured my entire evening routine to accommodate candlelight time, and it felt easy.

When people enjoy their work, it's a beautiful thing. But often, we don't know what people actually enjoy! And when we don't know, we generally assume that they enjoy the same things we do, and don't enjoy the same things we don't. So there ends up being work that needs to be done, that you feel bad asking coworkers to do.

Edmond and I teach a 2-day Foundations of Effective Tech Leadership course, and something that is eye-opening for people every time is that people can have completely non-overlapping things they enjoy. Or as someone put it in a recent class, “What she said is her passion is actually what gives me the most anxiety!”

I used to work with someone who loved scheduling logistics and would sometimes suggest changes across several people's calendars to defragment their schedules. And everyone I've worked with knows that I love janitorial code work — opening up pull requests that delete thousands of lines of code is heaven for me. I also personally find a lot of joy in copy-editing blog posts and re-arranging text so that it flows better. Your teammates may also enjoy types of work you have no interest in, and you probably don't even know about it!

Next time you have a 1:1 with someone, ask them:

What parts of your work most energize you?

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Jean Hsu

Jean Hsu

Co-founder of Co Leadership, engineering leadership coach. Previously engineering at Medium, Pulse News, Google.

Read More
An Easier Path to Behavior Change on Engineering Teams
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