in the public domain

‘Behind The Red Rope” by comedy_nose

Source: in the public domain

Wayfaring is a design principle that is focused on orienting an individual within a design space. It shows people the way and helps them navigate unfamiliar spaces.

When you enter a hotel lobby, an office building or an unfamiliar airport, how do you know where to go? If you need to open a box of chocolate or a package that arrives in the mail, how do you figure out how best to go about it? When you visit someone’s home at dusk, how do you determine how to get to the front door?

Good design is easily navigable design. In each of the instances above, the design – if it is thoughtfully executed – guides the user by providing explicit navigation instructions (e.g. “open here” or “follow the path lit by the porch lights”) or recognizable clues (a gold strip on a cellophane wrapper, colored arrows on an envelope package, etc.). But, in general, what makes a design easily navigable?

Navigability means that the navigator can successfully move in the information space from her present location to a destination, even if the location of the destination is imprecisely known. Three criteria determine the navigability of a space: first, whether the navigator can discover or infer his present location; second, whether a route to the destination can be found; and third, how well the navigator can accumulate wayfinding experience in the space.

Given what the year 2020 was like for most of us, we enter 2021 with hope, albeit tinged with uncertainty and perhaps some trepidation. How can the principles of wayfaring help us navigate the new year?

First, we need a navigation plan to move us from where we are to where we want to be. Let’s use (as a handy metaphor) one of my favorite wayfaring devices – the stanchant – the familiar red velvet rope that cordons off an area in a movie theater or a sports event. You have probably even seen them at your local bank, Trader Joe’s or Barnes and Noble. At these venues, the red velvet rope is used to gently guide people to their destinations. Although a stanchant is a barrier, it is a non-threatening one that commands respect and affords compliance. It is not barbed wire or electric fencing, but simply a soft and pretty red velvet rope that effectively gets people to where they need to go, prevents them from straying into forbidden areas in a venue or crowding up the area in front of the cashier.

I propose that what we need in our lives in 2021 is to set up some red velvet ropes to help us lead the lives we want to lead. In my research, I call these velvet ropes, Personal Policies. Personal policies are an established set of simple rules based on your values and priorities that guide your decisions and actions. Similar to how stanchants work, personal policies are the “rules of thumb” you put in place to guide your decisions and actions.

licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“The new year’s resolutions” by Marwa Morgan

Source: licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Effective personal policies stem from self-knowledge. They help us reflect on and prioritize the things we value and consider important in our lives. They help streamline our thought processes so that we don’t squander valuable mental energy making the same decisions again and again. An important principle of navigability is the use of existing knowledge to show you the way. For example, you might want to exercise more this year. You can institute a personal policy (the more specific the better) that on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 8 am you get ready, put on your walking shoes and walk around your neighborhood for an hour. Once you put this personal policy in place, it becomes less likely that you will mark yourself as available for a breakfast zoom meeting on Wednesday morning at 8 am.

To create a personal policy, you will need to identify a domain in which you desire change. You can begin by pinpointing why this domain is important to you. Identify your values (family meal time is important), priorities (uninterrupted family time) and stressors (calls, texts or emails from the office). To establish a personal policy that works for you, you need to look inward and understand why you want what you want. This reflection could result in a personal policy in which you say to your team at work: “I don’t respond to email or texts or take phone calls, between 6 – 9pm”. By the same token, you might also develop the routine of turning your phone to silent mode or placing it in another room during mealtime.

At this time of the year, especially, people talk a great deal about goals and resolutions. Unlike goals and resolutions, personal policies are the simple rules we set for ourselves about how we want to operate in the world. Because they are grounded in your personal philosophy – your beliefs, values, principles and priorities- your personal policies are unique to you and reflect your identity.

As the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rosseau observed “To be driven by our appetites alone is slavery, while to obey a law that we have imposed on ourselves is freedom.”

In a research article, my co-author Henrik Hagtvedt and I, found that using a personal policy that strongly signals our identity (I don’t) to say No to a request, it is more persuasive than a one that weakly signals identity (I can’t). What our research showed is that since a personal policy is grounded in one’s identity, it conveys one’s stance with conviction and determination and is less likely to get pushback from others.

Discussing the secret of happiness, the painter Agnes Martin underscored the importance of self-knowledge in achieving happiness and success. She observed “There are so many people who don’t know what they want. And I think that, in this world, that’s the only thing you have to know — exactly what you want.” The growing research shows that personal policies are not only effective in achieving what we want, they are also empowering and leave us feeling authentic and happy to be living life on our own terms.

If you want to successfully navigate 2021, I suggest that instead of setting up New Year’s Resolutions (after all, studies show that only 8% of people stick with resolutions, and January is officially “ditch your resolutions day”), you consider designing some personal policies that guide your choices and decisions and help you achieve what you want to happen in your life in 2021.

Happy New Year!  

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