Behavior Change




Behavior change that sticks

A new decade is upon us! The New Year always offers an opportunity to reflect; if you like to take advantage of this time to create new behavior goals, then this week’s Sensemaker is for you.

First, the bad news: you probably won’t change very much. It’s a cliche at this point to talk about the drop-off in gym attendance from January to February, yet most of us continue to imagine we can change our habits by trying harder, despite having abysmal records for it in the past. We typically treat our failures and – even more often – the failures of others as issues of willpower, often with a heavy overlay of shame. In business, this can be particularly problematic as we imagine our “tough review” with our team will lead to new actions, then are surprised a quarter later when we’re facing all the same problems again.

The good news: research points the way to what it actually takes to change behavior. From our study  of the literature and experience with coaching clients, two key levers stand out:

  1. Understanding protection goals: Rather than treating our (and others’) undesirable behaviors as moral failings, we can understand them as strategies to achieve other, often unstated goals. That late-night snack might be the only way we currently have to give ourselves a sense of bodily satisfaction at the end of a long, mostly cognitive day. The fact that we never fill out that sales tracker might reflect a desire to maintain a more organic way of relating and unconscious fears around our autonomy. Without acknowledging the competing commitments that our “bad behaviors” are serving, we’re showing up to our inner negotiating table without any understanding of our counterparty, and, as a result, few avenues to succeed.

  2. Changing the design: Diets are made at the supermarket, not at the refrigerator door. Once we understand our competing commitments, we can look at ways to change our environment or role(s) to meet our underlying needs less destructively, and create habits aligned with what we’re actually like. Perhaps it’s replacing that late-night snack with a long bath. Perhaps it’s making that sales tracker an opportunity to note cool things we learned about someone rather than a means to getting them to close, or shifting from text to short voice recordings. As a rule of thumb, if you can’t pinpoint the design change you’re going to make toward a habit change goal, you’re unlikely to achieve it.

Below, you can find links to several articles exploring the failure of willpower, and what actually works when it comes to forming new habits.

The Myth of Self Control

Battling it out internally to resist temptation just doesn’t work. Instead, people who successfully avoid negative temptations simply don’t contend with that many negative temptations in the first place. This involves structuring our roles around goals / activities that we find compulsive and meaningful, and designing our environment to cue us for the habits that produce more of what we want.

The Real Reason People Won’t Change

Here is a short article version by Harvard professors Lahey and Kegan summarizing their seminal book “Immunity to Change.” The core idea is that we continue unproductive patterns because they fulfill underlying competing commitments, which are typically based on assumptions about how the world works. If we can identify those commitments, and test the assumptions, we can find more productive ways to get our needs met.

Against Willpower

The concept of willpower was named in the Victorian era as part of a long religious tradition of associating indulgence of desire with sin. This focus on short term resistance to temptation takes our eye off what really matters when it comes to addictions, namely our access to emotional self-regulation, our relationship to the future, and our environment. Ditching a moralistic attitude to habit change, both for ourselves and others, opens us up to more productive approaches.

  • What habits do you want to change this year? Why?
  • How do those habits currently serve you? Notice any judgments that occur as you reflect on this question, and see if you can instead focus on what protection goals these habits aim at achieving, even if it comes at a high cost.

  • What assumptions are you making about those protection goals? Do you view them as morally suspect or otherwise unworthy?

  • If you suspend judgment and instead view these protection goals as valuable ends in and of themselves, what other ways might you achieve those goals?

  • Pick one of the habits you just reflected on.
  • Determine a part of your environment or daily schedule you can change to achieve BOTH the competing commitment and an intentional goal.

  • Run this for the next two weeks and note any changes.

  • BONUS EXPERIMENT: In your next 1:1 with a report, run the same exercise with them around a behavior they’ve been struggling with.


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