Lighting the Way…Facilitating Behavior Change

This blog post is part of our new “Lighting the Way” Series where local community health experts share tips on living a healthy lifestyle. Enjoy our first post!

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I have been in the health and wellbeing profession for the over 30 years trying to motivate people to change their behaviors in order to lead healthier lives. We educated people on the health risks associated with certain behaviors and then expected them to change those behaviors because they were now informed of those risks.  Let me tell you that early in my career, we were not as successful as we had hoped we would be.  But we continued to use the same strategy and expect a different outcome.  It wasn’t until the second half of my career when I began to research other methods in the fields of behavioral psychology, behavioral economics, behavioral coaching and design that I learned that education alone won’t change behavior. Consider all the people who still use tobacco.  I’m sure that they are all aware of the risks associated with tobacco use, yet they still use tobacco products.

The second lesson I learned is that when we think about the term, motivating behavior change, we tend to think in the abstract and not how very difficult it is to motivate someone to change their behavior.  Instead we should replace “motivate” with “facilitate” when we talk about behavior change.  Think for a moment about the difference between “motivate” and “facilitate.” “Motivate” means to cause, but “facilitate” means to make it easier to do.

Often, when we design for healthy behaviors we are asking people to do things that are just too difficult for them to accomplish.  We set goals such as “be healthy”; “lose weight”; “eat better”; “reduce stress”.  These are not specific behaviors; they are general goals.  We need to ask people what the behaviors are that are needed in order to accomplish their goals.  We overestimate people’s ability to go through the steps necessary in order to be successful.

We are being unrealistic if we think that people can just start changing behaviors.  Instead we need to develop step-by-step solutions to help people learn how to live in a way that helps them live healthy and happy lives.  Ask yourself, are you helping people step-by-step do what they already want to do?

We have had many failures in trying to get people to change behavior, and each time they fail, it hurts and makes them less capable of successful behavior change in the future.

The goal is for the behavior to become a habit and to build on that positive habit. Remember, when working with people to facilitate behavior change:

  • Simplicity changes behavior more than motivation, so make change easy. Figure out what people already want to do, and help them get there.
  • Information is rarely the reason for behavior change. When you teach people something they may remember it, but they don’t necessarily execute on it.  Help set actionable goals beyond education.
  • When people try to set goals, they often confuse goals with aspirations. Weight loss, eating healthy, and being fit are all aspirations; losing five pounds, eating five daily servings of fruit and vegetables, and walking a 12-minute mile are goals.
  • We often demotivate people by setting unrealistic goals, which leads to failure. Help people set realistic goals.  Start off with very small goals (tiny habits) “walk 500 steps per day”, “don’t gain any weight this month”, “eat one scoop of ice cream instead of two this week”.
  • People generally avoid change even if the change is minor and even when another path is clearly better for them. Be there for the duration to help encourage along the way.
  • Determine what comes before the new behavior, “After I “existing behavior” I will “new behavior “
  • Set reasonable timelines for the new behavior. Initially setting a behavior to be done forever may be ultimately discouraging.
  • Try to make the activity fun; people like to have fun.
  • Help them be successful. We all want to succeed.  When we succeed, we want to continue on our journey.

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This blog post is brought to you by Andrew Scibelli. Andrew Scibelli is an industry leader and innovator in the health and well-being industry. Andy holds a Master’s degree in Exercise Physiology, an MBA, and is a certified coach through Columbia University.  His experience includes designing, implementing, and operating health solutions for Fortune 150 companies, hospitals, and small businesses. Through his leadership at NextEra Energy, their Health and Well-Being program received the “Best Employers for Healthy Lifestyles” platinum award from the National Business Group on Health for 10 consecutive years.  Currently, Scibelli Consulting specializes in strategic program design, development, integration, and evaluation.