Book Review: The Power of Habit

Charles Duhigg, (2012),The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do and How to Change, Random House Books.

An award-winning New York Times journalist, Charles offers an informative yet witty insight into the surprising amount of power that habits hold over us. His simple yet engaging style of writing helps condense what could be dry, technical matters into concrete examples of how overcoming habits has led to massive transformations in the lives of real people, athletes, and multinational companies.

“Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort.”

The prologue starts with a bang. Lisa, a woman who had run away to Cairo on a whim after her husband left and demanded a divorce, woke up in a strange bed and tried to light a pen instead of a cigarette. She decided that she needed a goal. Something all-consuming to work toward. In a taxi on her way to go see the pyramids, she made up her mind that she would come back to Egypt and trek through the desert. As an overweight smoker, she knew she would need to make huge lifestyle changes, with no money in the bank and no idea whether such a trip was even possible she committed to trying to achieve that goal.

In a taxi on her way to go see the pyramids, she made up her mind that she would come back to Egypt and trek through the desert. As an overweight smoker, she knew she would need to make huge lifestyle changes, with no money in the bank and no idea whether such a trip was even possible she committed to trying to achieve that goal. The first thing she decided, was to quit smoking.

Four years later, she hadn’t had a cigarette, didn’t drink, had lost sixty pounds, got out of debt, bought a house, ran a marathon, started a Masters degree and had held down her first job for longer than a year at a design firm. And it had started with changing one single “keystone” habit.

Neurologists discovered the patterns inside her brain fundamentally changed. Where her old habits pathways were evident, it was clear that her new habits had overridden this data, any impulses to engage in the old behaviour were crowded out by the new. Instead of craving the satisfaction of giving in to the old habit her brain was now rewarding her for showing self-restraint in her behaviour.

“This is how willpower becomes a habit: by choosing a certain behavior ahead of time, and then following that routine when an inflection point arrives.”

The book covers three main topics, individuals, organisations and societies. Exploring why we do the same thing day in and day out and how companies exploit our shopping habits, or follow the same destructive patterns even when the results are demonstrably growing worse. The section on society also offers some interesting insights into what conditions need to exist in order to facilitate a campaign movement and ensure that people can realign their thinking and move with the changes.

“Someday soon, say predictive analytics experts, it will be possible for companies to know our tastes and predict our habits better than we know ourselves.”

This was a great read, whether you feel the need to start transforming your habits or simply want to see how organisational change happens at a ground-up level. We can highly recommend it. Now, we just have to choose one of our bad habits to focus on and get the ball rolling…

If you have any recommendations for an interesting read we would love to hear from you. We are planning on adding more book reviews to the blog so if you have one that you think is worthy of inclusion we’ll be happy to take a look. Get in touch via Twitter @ActiveOutcomes, email info@activeoutcomes.co.uk, or by visiting http://www.activeoutcomes.co.uk.

The Last Minute Guide to Proofreading

This blog is dedicated to those who are running out of time. For whatever reason, procrastination, tight deadlines, unrealistic expectations, or unexpected events – Active Outcomes are not here to judge. We’re here to help you get started.

So, if you need to proofread your document in a hurry, take a quick look at the basics – we promise, there are only five tips, it’ll only take a couple of minutes and you’ll save yourself a lot of time later.

Why Proofread?

We do not read every letter individually – we recognise patterns and then make assumptions about words. You have probably seen this (slightly spammy) email/social media post going around with the following text…

Aoccdrnigto a rscheearchat Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno’t mtaetr in what oerdr the ltteres in a word are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whotuit a pboerlm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Azanmig huh? yaeh and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt!

See what we mean? It is so hard to spot our own mistakes because we read what we think we wrote instead of seeing the text that is actually there on the page.

Here are Active Outcomes top five tips to avoid common pitfalls!

1: Take a break!

Walk the dog, get the kettle on, have a nap, watch paint dry – do whatever takes your fancy. Just put a bit of distance between you and what you were writing. Otherwise you will read what you think you wrote, not what is actually on the page. It also helps some people to print off a physical copy of the text before they get started as they find they pay less close attention to the words on screen than they do to words committed to paper.

2: One thing at a time…

Don’t try and save time by trying to spot every mistake on the first reading – focus on one of these mistake prone areas at a time to make sure you do not miss anything.

  • Spelling,
  • Grammar,
  • Word choice,
  • Sentence structure, and
  • Continuity (formatting, font type/size, numbering of tables and so on).

3: Read aloud

By far the easiest way to check that your writing flows well is by reading it aloud. This will also help you spot mistakes your Spellchecker misses because while it can tell you that you put in an extra “e” it cannot tell you whether the word you used is the correct one.

Think of the difference between “dessert” and “desert” – I’d be pretty disappointed if I mixed them up – wouldn’t you?!

This also helps improve your writing style as you develop your own unique and consistent “voice.”

4: Stop racing on ahead

We are all busy – but you must resist the temptation to skip ahead. If you find you have been skimming, stop right there and start to read backwards. Focusing on every word, especially when it is not in order, helps you to see spelling mistakes and typos. Please note: this tip is obviously not quite so useful when checking sentence structure!

5: Get a fresh pair of eyes

A new perspective can really help – ask a friend, a colleague, the nice receptionist who remembers to ask about how your cat is doing, it really does help to have someone new look at your draft.

Remember not to be offended or take it personally if people do spot mistakes – that is what you asked them to do after all. Better you revise a draft than send an inaccurate document to the printer costing you both money and reputational damage.

Still not convinced? Why not? Even experts admit they sometimes need help…

“You think you are reading proof, whereas you are merely reading your own mind; your statement of the thing is full of holes and vacancies but you don’t know it, because you are filling them from your mind as you go along. Sometimes, but not often enough, the printer’s proof-reader saves you –and offends you –with this cold sign in the margin: (?) and you search the passage and find that the insulter is right, it doesn’t say what you thought it did: the gas-fixtures are there, but you didn’t light the jets.”

– Mark Twain (1898)

Mistakes are so easy to make, a designer once shared a story with us about a council spending a lot of money printing signage advertising a “Pubic Consultation” instead of a public one. You can imagine the damage that would have done if it hadn’t been spotted before multiple A2 sized signs left the building!

Don’t forget, Active Outcomes can help out with all of your copywriting, editing and proofreading needs. We offer a comprehensive and competitively priced service. So get in touch if you need a fresh pair of eyes to take a look at your document. Contact us at info@activeoutcomes.co.uk, Tweet @ActiveOutcomes or visit www.activeoutcomes.co.uk.

The Fundamentals of Writing a Case Study

What exactly is a case study?

In the simplest terms, a case study is a short story that provides a snapshot and gives an insight into what you do and how you do it. It is a method that an organisation can use to illustrate the way you work and the impact that your service has had on an individual, company or client.

A good case study will tell the reader three main things:

  1. WHAT: the specific problem you needed to address
  2. HOW: your approach to solving this problem
  3. WHY: the end result

 

Why should you bother?

Case studies can be powerful and persuasive tools and, here at Active Outcomes, we feel they are one of the best ways to tell the world what you can offer. When they are done right they tell a story, giving real-life examples that fully explain to people exactly how you solved the problems of your customers, clients, or service users.

They can highlight your success and generate some great publicity. As an added bonus, they are far more interesting than statistics, facts and figures, though, of course, these can be integral to the case study too.

What really sets a good case study apart is the fact that it is personal. It tells the story of an individual set of circumstances, detailing the journey you take with your clients to achieve better outcomes for them and for your own organisation.

 

Our Approach

When Active Outcomes write a case study our starting point is always to establish your exact reason for wanting one. By understanding what you hope the study will achieve we can decide how to structure it and will consider:

  • Target audience;
  • What kind of language and tone of voice to use;
  • Where will it be published;
  • What situation to cover – a typical interaction, a specific story with individual circumstances, your ideal client, your greatest achievement;
  • Who to interview; and
  • The kind of questions we’ll need to ask to gain the information needed.

We use this information to create a framework that will inform us as to what you want the case study to say. We can then ask far more strategic open-ended questions when we interview people, this helps us keep the conversation flowing and ensures that the information we gather will meet the needs you’ve identified for the case study to fill.

When we interview the Case Study subject, we endeavour to capture the essence of their story and to tell it using their own words as much as possible.

As firm believers in the “less is more” mantra – we like to keep Case Studies brief and prefer to work within the constraints of a single page of A4 as a rule, this is around 500 words of text.

 

Example Case Studies

We have worked with a local Home-Start charity to draft two Case Studies to highlight the fantastic support they provide to families with young children. Home-Start offer home-visiting volunteer support to help the parents of young children who are struggling overcome various issues.

Home-Start Hull asked us to write two studies, one to tell the story of their service users, the family; and the other to tell the story of the volunteer who worked with that family to deliver their service. This gave a great insight into the way that both family and volunteer viewed the service and what they felt they had achieved as a result of their interaction with Home-Start.

We interviewed the volunteer and family over the phone and told their stories in the two case studies we’ve included below. These were submitted to a funding body as evidence supporting a funding  Evaluation Report that Active Outcomes produced.

Check out the PDF versions of the family and volunteer case studies by clicking on the links below:

Charity_Family_Case_Study

Charity_Volunteer_Case_Study

As you can see from the two examples, the case studies included:

  • Direct quotes that helped tell the story;
  • A summary of the issues faced by the volunteer/family;
  • Details of how Home-Start worked with them to overcome the problem;
  • Pictures to help illustrate the work they did;
  • The end result and outcomes achieved; and
  • Guaranteed anonymity for the family as they asked that their name be changed.

 

Our Top Tips

  • Keep it simple: don’t use complicated jargon;
  • Have a strong opening: hook the reader right from the start (think about the beginning of a newspaper article, how the journalist will cover the “who, what, where, why and when” in a few sentences, straight away, and then go on to give more detail);
  • Less is more: people are busy, respect their time and your own, and keep your story brief to leave them wanting to know more;
  • Consider your audience: it is so important to think carefully about who will read the Case Study and what you want them to take away from it, if it is a funding body you may want to stress the added value you gave and the eventual outcomes for the service user that their money funded the interaction with, if it is for a potential new client, on the other hand, you need to show how your approach to solving a similar problem can tie in well with their company culture;
  • Use direct quotes: wherever possible, let people tell their story in their own words;
  • Permission: as best practice, you should aim to get the person or organisation who is the focus of the case study to sign off on the draft before it goes public, that way you know they are happy with the way you have chosen to interpret and present their story. This becomes more vital when the participant asks that you respect their privacy by using a pseudonym to maintain their anonymity.

For more information about gaining consent for consultations check out our Cheat Sheet to help you gain consent – available here.

If you’d like to discuss our case study writing services you can chat to us at info@activeoutcomes.co.uk, Tweet @ActiveOutcomes, or visit www.activeoutcomes.co.uk.

Cheat Sheet: Risk Logs

Managing risk is an essential part of everyday life. When planning a project, creating and maintaining a Risk Log is something we recommend you make an essential component.

It sounds like it should be complicated, right? Wrong! It needn’t be any more complicated than the example I am going to walk you through now, it’s an easy topic, one that anyone who has ever tried to plan a barbeque in Britain will be able to follow.

RL1

There are eight columns in the risk log template above:

  1. Risk – the name of the risk.
  2. Probability – the likelihood of it happening, 1 = very unlikely, 5 = certain.
  3. Impact – what will the effect on your project will be, 1 = no real issue caused, 5 = catastrophic, derailing the entire project.
  4. Risk Score – Probability Score x Impact Score = Risk Score. The lower the better.
  5. Mitigation – what could you do to manage this risk, either making it less likely to occur or preventing it having such a huge impact?
  6. Contingency – what will you do if the worst does happen?
  7. Action Owner – who is responsible for taking action to prevent the risk?
  8. When – at what point does the Action Owner need to respond?

Our example project is planning a BBQ. So we need to come up with the risks associated and then populate the table. The first risk that sprung to my mind was RAIN!

RL2

Rain is a quite a risk, but to prevent it spoiling the fun you can plan when to hold your event carefully to avoid the times of year when it is most likely to occur. You can also hire a marquee (just in case), move indoors or hand out umbrellas to guests as a contingency if the weatherman gets it wrong and it does happen to be raining on the big day.

The next image shows a few more risks at the BBQ and what can be done to manage them.

RL3

Remember:

  • A Risk Log can and should be a working document, updated regularly to reflect any changing circumstances.
  • Include risks no matter how trivial they seem. One thing often leads to another and sometimes a small thing can trigger a huge unintended consequence.
  • Get as many people as possible involved in brainstorming risks to add to the log, it always helps to get a different perspective, they may spot a few things you missed.

Have a go at completing the Risk Log below to see how easy it is.

RL4

Get in touch with Active Outcomes if you’d like some more information about risk management. We’d love to chat via Twitter @ActiveOutcomes, email info@activeoutcomes.co.uk, or visit our website at http://www.activeoutcomes.co.uk.