The secret recipe for behaviour change in work and life

 In Insights, Life decisions, Management, Realizer Blog

Ever failed to keep a new year’s resolution? Ever been to a great training course and then never got round to making the changes you learnt?

Here’s the secret recipe for creating sustainable behaviour change.

It’s courtesy of Stanford behavioural guru BJ Fogg. His recipe for behaviour change = motivation + ability + trigger. Simply, B= MAT.

So, what does that mean? First of all, he is very clear that relying on motivation alone to make change is a losing strategy as it waxes and wanes all too easily, and we humans are oft tempted to be lazy. Of course you do need motivation, but you need to find a way to make behavioural change stick even when your motivation is low.

That’s where ability comes in. You need to focus on making change easy, by improving your skill levels – and crucially by chunking down tasks until they are really easy. For example, instead of saying “I will drink 8 litres of water a day”, he uses change like, “I’ll have a sip of water every time I check my email”.

Willpower, motivation and making decisions are actually all quite hard work for the brain, and it turns out that if we have to do something mentally taxing it substantially reduces our willpower to avoid bad food, or do those stretches we’re supposed to do.  This is particularly relevant for behavioural change you want to make in periods of tiredness where your willpower is depleted e.g. getting out of bed early to exercise, or flossing your teeth at the end of the day. So – it’s important to make those behaviour changes as easy as possible.

The last piece of Fogg’s recipe is the trigger. This is the reminder or call to action. Herein lies the problem with many training courses, we leave with the best intentions of being a better communicator or time manager. We have learnt new skills even, so our ability is heightened. But we are missing the trigger: what specifically is going to remind us and hold us accountable to change when we return to the office and we are back in a familiar environment and back in our habitual behaviours and routines?

His premise is that you need to create a specific trigger, and one of the best ways to do this is to attach your new desired behaviour to an existing behaviour. So, “attach” flossing one tooth (easy behaviour) to the trigger of brushing your teeth (something you do anyway, at the same frequency you want to floss, and in the same environment).

I used this to create a habit at home: every time we go out for a nice cafe breakfast on a Sunday, we have to spend the same amount of time tidying the house when we return. Otherwise we always have the best intentions of keeping it tidy, but rarely get round to it.

Translating this to workplace behaviours requires the same principles: creating a very specific trigger to do the new behaviour. For example, in a training course I ran this week, we wanted to trigger some new behaviours around responding to clients briefs. So we discussed triggers such as “every time I open an email with a client brief attached, and then print it off, I will also…(do the desired new behaviour)”.

I like Fogg’s approach, there’s just one thing we need to add to it to create lasting change in the workplace: building the social structures and processes to support it. When training courses fail to make change it can often be due to the lack of organisational support for change. If the trainee comes back to the office and no-one else is aware of the need for change, and processes remain the same, then the trainee is going to be pretty challenged to make a difference. You have to change the environment as well as the individual.

As a result, I’m going to add an E to Fogg’s model and say that the recipe for behaviour change is B=MATE.

Motivation. Ability. Trigger. Environment.

Posted by Rob Pyne

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