Keep Your Roles Separate by Switching Hats

Use environmental markers so you automatically have the right behavior at the right time

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #456

We have many roles in life: child, brother, sister, parent, businessperson, citizen, shmoopie, and fryolator king at Fry-and-Buy Deep Fried Alligator Parts Franchise #317. Each role requires us to act differently. But our roles can blend if we’re not careful. That causes trouble when their behavior clashes. When we approach shmoopie with the same gusto that we use to wrestle an alligator into the Fry-and-Buy fyrolator, it can completely ruin a romantic, candle-lit dinner. To keep our lives running smoothly, we need to keep clashing roles separate. And we can do that by setting up the environment so we automatically assume the role we need, when we need it.

Grandma Cuddles, founder of the infamous Grandma Cuddles Child Care and Metalworking chain, has to juggle way more roles than her folksy exterior would suggest. At any moment she might play the part of professional babysitter, astute business owner, trainee for ultramarathons, or actual grandmother to her family. (Of course, there’s no evidence that any of her relatives have survived as long as she has, but I’m sure that’s just coincidence.) 

Grandma Cuddles finds it can be tricky to switch between entrepreneur, babysitter, extreme athlete, and mom. But context clues can help! Clues like clothes, locations, and devices can be the signals she uses to choose her role.

Use Clothes for Context

By instinct, humans judge books by their covers and people by their clothes. We look at others and decide who they are. Pink mohawk and leather tutu? It makes one impression. But the same person wearing a three piece suit and patent leather shoes makes a different impression. Of course, you can’t see their underwear, but that’s the point. How they dress affects how we react to them, and likewise, how we dress affects how we feel about ourselves! We can use this to our advantage, and change our clothes to “get in character” for different roles.

One actor might play several parts in the same play, which could get confusing. But all they have to do is swap one little piece of clothing — like a hat — and POOF! You know they’re a different character. Of course, there’s more to it then that. A good actor also changes their behavior, and that’s what really make the difference. And the hat can tell them when to make that behavior change, in a way that taps into their social instincts. 

Grandma Cuddles puts this to work immediately. At the daycare center, she’ll wear a cheery pants suit when she’s in her role as salesperson. She’ll wear a fun warden’s costume when she’s overseeing the good behavior of her little tykes. And when she’s making cookies with her actual grandchildren (or the ones she tells us are hers, even though they seem to be different every time she comes over), she’ll wear a flower-print dress and apron. They remind her of her idyllic past, listening happily to her handlers read her favorite bedtime stories like Hansel and Gretel. The clothes she’s wearing put Grandma in the right frame to be savvy salesperson, devoted disciplinarian, or the perfect image of a loving granny.

You can use outfits, or even just parts of outfits. You’ve heard people say, “when I put on my thinking hat”? Well, how about a hat that literally is your thinking hat? Put it on whenever you are going into a period of deep, uninterrupted reflection. Be strict about putting it on and taking it off and the results may surprise you. I put on my thinking cap and it quietly said, “Hufflepuff!” 


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.