The Health Solution (embedded above) is BJ Fogg’s keynote from the recent Healthcare Experience Design Conference in Boston. It’s a must-watch if you’re at all interested in the subject of facilitating (not motivating!) behavior change.
If you’re not familiar with BJ, he’s the director of Stanford’s Persuasive Tech Lab, where he leads research into how technology can change behavior. I’ve been very fortunate to work with him, albeit briefly, as part of my day-job.
BJ delivered this to a roomful of user experience designers (the folks who are hopefully going to build the tech/mobile apps that will solve all our health-related problems). But a couple of concepts really stood out to me as being relevant to managing behavior change(s) at a more personal level.
About motivation. One of the first points BJ makes in the keynote is his pet peeve with the phrase “motivating” behavior change. Changing “motivation” — especially as a public health strategy — can be very hard. For one thing, there are a lot of factors, both external and internal, that influence motivation at any given time. More importantly, it’s hard because motivation is always in flux; the slide below shows this conceptually.
The orange circles highlight peaks of motivation — these are times when we’re likely to do things that are harder to do. The blue circles highlight the times when our motivation is lower. At this point, we’re unlikely to do something that’s a heavy lift, but we might do something that’s easy.
Hence BJ’s concept of the motivation “wave” and the idea that rather than “motivating” behavior change one might “facilitate” change by essentially helping folks to “surf” the natural ups and downs of their motivation.
I think this is really interesting. To me, it describes fairly well the seemingly typical ups and downs of weight loss or related health behaviors like exercise. Yay, the scale is down … I’m psyched! Boo, the scale is up … WTF?!
It seems to me that planning for this kind of flux might be very useful in helping with longer term results, i.e., by developing strategies for when motivation was low.
Meeting people where they (or we) are. In his keynote, BJ theorizes that a successful approach to facilitating behavior change might:
Help people succeed on the most desirable health behavior that matches their current motivation.
This translates to:
When motivation is high, that’s time to suggest a harder activity. In health, that might be something like “join a gym” or “clean out the pantry of SAD foods.” But when motivation is lower, the goal would be to do something easier, like “take a multi-vitamin” or “eat a serving of vegetables.”
Success leads to success. I had a bit of an “a ha” listening to this; it really resonated with me given my post-Christmas relapse of sorts. Apparently, doing easy things sometimes helps increase motivation. In other words, being successful at simple tasks can actually boost our motivation, which may make it easier to do the harder things. Perhaps being successful at these so-called baby steps or tiny habits can get us back on track. Or maybe this could help us from completely doing a health 180 and dropping all our healthy behaviors. Hmmm!!!
[As an aside, see Yoni Freedhoff's Why exercise may be crucial to weight management for an example of how this can play out.]
In the keynote, BJ provided the designers with a list of implications (~17:50), but from my perspective, the interesting takeaways for us non-designers are:
- Go with your current level of motivation. Artificially “amping” motivation is difficult.
- Trust that tiny habits and/or baby steps will lead towards longer-term change, in part because success leads to success.
- If you have a choice, take an action that will help structure your behavior. For example, prepare lunches on the weekend so that it’s easy to take a healthy lunch with you to work.
Ultimately, what this really says to me that if you ever feel like you’re struggling with your efforts, the best thing you can do is anything, even a tiny little something, in the right direction. It sounds like it’s the behavioral version of “fake it til you make it.” May be worth a try!