• Paul Rutherford


Updated: Apr 14

40 Books in 2018

Owain Service & Rory Gallagher


228pp Michael O'Mara Books 2017

In 1908 a short piece called “Three Parts of a Sermon” appeared in Durham’s Northern Daily Mail: “Mr Hewett, of Birmingham, tells of a lay preachers’ conference, in which a veteran describes his sermon preparation: ’I take my text’, he said, ‘and divide my sermon into three parts. In the first part I tell ‘em what I’m going to tell ‘em; in the second part - well, I tell ‘em; in the third part I tell ‘em what I’ve told ‘em.” In 1937 a gossip columnist ascribed a variant to Hollywood director Henry Koster: “Koster tells how he directs child actors: ‘First I tell ‘em what I’m going to tell ‘em. Then I tell ‘em. Then I’ll tell ‘em what I told ‘em. Maybe after that they remember something.’” And in 2017, Owain Service and Rory Gallagher repeated the ‘rule of three’ in their Think Small book - again, and again, and again.

Think Small is an output from the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), also known as the ‘Nudge unit’. ‘Nudges’ require changes to the environment in which people make decisions. ‘Nudges’ acknowledge that it takes more than will-power to make personal changes. Two well-known ‘nudge’ successes have been increasing the number of volunteers joining the UK organ donor register, and increasing the number of working individuals joining private pension schemes. Think Small is a laypersons guide to putting psychology principles into personal practice. Principles that started with Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, and were nudged forward by subsequent winner Richard Thaler.

If an individual wants to implement personal change - from giving up smoking to spending more time with the family - what models and techniques are available?

Here’s the structure of the book: FOREWORD - David Halpern, Chief Executive of the BIT, describes the Nudge Unit (I’ve already done that, which shows that the book’s repetition is infectious). Halpern introduces the idea of a ‘behavioural scaffolding’. INTRODUCTION - in the first six pages of their text, Service and Gallagher (S&G) name-drop Albert Einstein, Gandhi, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron… Like I just name-dropped Kahneman and Thaler. Oops. S&G also reference them. Contagious, isn’t it? On the intro’s final page, S&G set out the BIT behavioural scaffolding:

  1. Set your goal

  2. Plan your goal

  3. Make commitments

  4. Set rewards

  5. Draw on others’ support

  6. Get feedback

  7. Stick at long-term goals

Seven steps; Stephen Covey has a lot to answer for:

Let's get back to Think Small...

Chapter 1: SET - After a suitable example, the chapter lists the three rules to goal-setting:

  • Choose the right goals

  • Focus on a single goal and set a clear target and deadline

  • Break your goal down into manageable steps

The next eight pages explain choosing the right goal, then six pages about focusing on a single goal and setting a clear target and deadline, then another six giving examples of breaking down the goal into manageable steps. The final page of the chapter summarises the previous 20 pages, including the following (verbatim): “So now you’ve set your goal, in the next chapter we will set out how you can develop a plan to ensure that your daily life and routines support you in making progress towards your goal.” In case you thought Chapter 2 was going to be vegan recipes or how to strip a Harley-Davidson Street Bob, Fat Bob or Heritage Classic.

Chapter 2: PLAN - After a suitable example, the chapter lists the three rules to plan-making:

  • Keep it simple

  • Create an actionable plan

  • Turn the plan into habits

The next six pages explain keeping it simple, then six pages creating an actionable plan, then seven pages turning a plan into habits. The final page of the chapter summarises the previous 20 pages, including the following (verbatim): “This chapter has been about making plans. But not in the sense of spreadsheets and huge to do lists. Instead we have encouraged you to make a series of small changes, each of which will help you make it easier to complete the steps required to reach your goal.” No vegan recipes after all.

Chapter 3 - Chapter 7: Same structure as Chapters 1 and 2 - an example story, three rules, six pages labouring each rule, one page repeating the three rules. CONCLUSION: There are 7 ‘tools’ that “shouldn’t be thought of as a set of rigid rules… but of course, the more supports you put in place, the stronger your scaffolding is like to be.” Then follows two pages running through the 7 steps (again). APPENDIX 1: Thinking small in action (e.g ‘Get fit’), with the 7 steps and the relevant rules fleshed out for each one. Again and again. APPENDIX 2: The golden rules, in case you need a one-page listing of the 7 steps and the 3 golden rules for each. In other words, a synthesis of the previous syntheses. * * * After a week of slow reading and mulling, I take away three lessons: 1. Hiding inside these mind-numbingly repetitive 228-pages is a useful 75-page book trying to escape, three times. 2. Before buying a book, it's a good litmus test to check if the ‘reviewers’ who are quoted on the covers are referenced in the index (Richard Thaler “one of our closest advisors” p7; Tim Harford “the excellent British author and commentator” p131). 3. Think Small has reminded me that:

Perhaps I should have read Think Small earlier…

(917 words. Thanks for reading)

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