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Q&A: What Factors Affect Behavior Change?

September 30, 2015 / Uncategorized

This post is part of a series about the Virgin Disruptors event, Create New Ways to Work, presented by Virgin Pulse. 

Raise your hand if this sounds familiar: you wake up one Monday morning, ready to kick off a new healthy habit. You bound out of bed, excited tackle your new behavior head on. And, for the first few days, you probably do. But then something comes up, and all your good intentions seemingly go down the drain.

This happens to the best of us, and the reason is pretty simple. Starting a new habit is easy – it’s maintaining it after the initial burst of motivation dies down that makes it so hard.

From behavior economics, to the environment we live and work in, to even the people we choose to surround ourselves with, there’s a lot at play when it comes to long term change. With that in mind, I recently caught up with Dr. BJ Fogg, behavior change expert, Director of Stanford University’s Persuasive Tech lab, and Virgin Pulse Science Advisory Board member.

Read on for part one of a three-part series detailing some of the major factors Dr. Fogg says help to determine whether we’ll be successful in maintaining a new habit. (You might be surprised to hear it’s not straight-up willpower).


KR: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat. I’ll get right to it. What are some of the factors that affect someone’s ability to maintain long-term change?

BJF: You want to design your environment so the new behavior you want is really easy to do. Or redesign your environment to make it hard to do a behavior you want to stop. For example, if you want to exercise every day, you need to make exercise easy to do. Case in point: in my garage, I’ve set up a gym. So now when I’m home, I walk just a few feet, and I can start exercising. It’s really simple. That means I exercise a lot more often.

Designing your environment includes your social environment. Surround yourself with people who do the behavior that you aspire to. And, if you can, get rid of people in your life who do the behavior you want to stop. Cutting people out of your life can be pretty hard, but you should at least try to decrease their influence.

To achieve lasting change, it’s also important to feel successful as you do the behavior. You don’t need succeed all the time or every day, but you need to feel like you’re headed in the right direction overall – that you’re making progress. At those moments when you don’t do what you intended, you shouldn’t take it out on yourself. Just let it go and keep going. Understand that some changes are challenging, and nobody gets it right the first time. Some new behaviors will take practice, and you won’t always be perfect. You’ve just got to keep going.

KR: What are some of the common pitfalls people might make when they’re trying to start a new habit?

BJF: Well, number one, a big mistake is to pick a habit you don’t actually want to do. You need to identify new habits you actually want.

Often, people think somehow, miraculously, they can form habits to do things they don’t actually want to do. That’s very, very unlikely. Willpower alone won’t create habits. (I’ll talk about that more soon.)

So number one, look at the range of behaviors you could be bringing into your life – whether it’s about productivity, or health, or relationships. Find habits you actually want to have in your life. Focus on “want,” not “should.”

The next big mistake in forming habits is trying to rely on willpower. That doesn’t work, because your willpower can be easily depleted, especially if you have a lot of frustration in your life.

Motivation is a related construct. Usually, when people decide to bring a new habit in their life, their motivation is elevated at that moment, and they do feel capable of doing hard things. But motivation will go up and down. That’s normal. So the next day your motivation might be low, and you will no longer be able to tackle something difficult.

KR: So, when willpower and motivation are low, what will help keep people on track?

BJF: If the behavior is easy then you can make it happen, even if willpower or motivation are low.

For example, at the end of a hard workday, I may not feel very motivated to exercise. I’m tired, and I’m more motivated to relax. But I’ve learned to trick myself. In my head I say, “Okay, just do four minutes of cardio. That’s all. Really easy.” I’ve learned this gets me started in the gym. I’ve also learned that after about 3 minutes of cardio, I’m feeling a lot better. My motivation has gone up. And usually I continue my workout, completing the whole thing.

So the mistake is being inflexible, insisting you always must achieve something big. Instead, just remind yourself that even a small behavior can take you in the right direction.

If you want to help someone change their behavior, it’s more important to explain “how to” than “why.” People generally know the “why.” What people usually lack is the “how-to.” For example, how do you fit exercise in your busy day? How can you get to bed earlier? How can you make sure you don’t miss deadlines? The mistake, from a program-design perspective, is only explaining the “why” and not giving people the “how to.”

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