Author Interview: Ian Ayres

Portrait of Ian Ayres

I’ve followed Ian Ayres‘s career with interest for a long time. He’s a professor at Yale Law School, where I went, but he’s also from Kansas City and went to the same high school as I did. We Kansas Citians are always on the watch for our fellow K.C. natives. I assume it’s the same for every home town or home state: my parents can list every single famous person from Nebraska. (They both grew up in North Platte.)

He’s also written several books, including Carrots and Sticks: Unlock the Power of Incentives to Get Things Done  and Super Crunchers: Why Thinking-by-Numbers Is the New Way to Be Smart.

And even before I developed my current preoccupation with the subject of habit-formation, Ian Ayres particularly caught my interest with a fascinating site that he founded, with two other people, called stickK.

StickK is a tremendous tool to boost habit-formation, because it provides accountability. The Strategy of Accountability is very powerful, and can be enormously useful for many people,  but it’s absolutely essential for Obligers. StickK allows you to create, very easily, the type of accountability that works for you.

I was very eager to hear what Ian Ayres had to say on the subject of habits.

Gretchen: There are so many apps and online tools that people try for habit-formation: What makes stickK so successful for so many people?

Ian: We give people the opportunity to choose the types of accountability that work for them.  If you want us to nag you, we’ll do that.  If you want us to tell a group of friends of family whether or not you succeeded, we’ll do that.  If you want to designate a referee to adjudicate whether or not you succeeded, you can do that too.  Lots of people just focus on your ability at stickK to put money at risk.  And that is cool.  But it’s the combination of layers of accountability that are particularly powerful.  Indeed, the accountability layer that people tend to under underutilize is the friends and family option.

 What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

The habit that I acquired (with the help of a stickK contract) of reading at least 20 pages of a novel every day.  Reading 30 books a year gives me great joy.

Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness? 

Playing computer games like solitaire or minesweeper.  I have the experience of losing track of time when I play guitar and when I play solitaire.  But when I come back to reality after engaging in these two activities I have two very different reactions.  After playing guitar, I’m filled with a sense contentment and pride.  After playing solitaire, I’m filled with contempt and self–loathing.

Which habits are most important to you? (for heath, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.). 

As an academic, the habit of writing 500 words a day has been particularly important.  Before having kids, I tended to write at night.  But post-kids, I developed the habit of writing in the morning.  Make coffee, and write something before you do anything else.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

I guess “Rebel” comes closest – although my family would more often use the terms “troublemaker.” Increasingly, I find that my scholarship is causing people to consult with their attorneys. Even going back to high school, I was a bit of a troublemaker and I just help launch a website, AcadiumScholar, that complicates the meaning of merit behind “National Merit Scholarships.”  In some ways, I’ve developed the habit of paying attention to things that I annoy me – whether it be McDonald’s asking if my Happy Meal purchase is for a boy or a girl or retirement plans offer funds that no one should invest in or Microsoft claiming that nearly two out of three people prefer Bing to Google.  I find it therapeutic to write about things that bug me.

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)

You bet.  Work and family obligations are the go-to excuses for chiseling on health habits.  In addition, my 55-year-old body has been less reliable than in the past.  I’ve deployed a nagging heel injury that has stopped me from running (but doesn’t stop me from swimming or biking) to reduce my overall level of exercise.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I embrace and try to nourish and stickK to habits that I believe will help me be happier and I actively resist those that I think undermine my better self.  But I also think about the optimal amount of habit flexibility.  I try to write almost every morning, but part of the habit is to turn off and refresh by doing something else two or three times every fortnight. [My Secret of Adulthood on this theme: “To keep going, sometimes I have to allow myself to stop.” But then of course, sometimes it’s better not to allow myself to stop, not to “break the chain.” I find that for me, both approaches are true.]



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