Change made simple: Small steps and routines help

Rebecca Weitzel
Rebecca Weitzel

I recently was reminded by a friend who serves on the board of a cherished non-profit to donate to the cause. I’d intended to donate months ago, but never got around to it. My neglect wasn’t a matter of lack of motivation. I love this organization and the important work it does for children. I wanted to contribute, so why hadn’t I?

When I thought about it, the truth seemed silly — embarrassing, even. The reason I hadn’t yet donated was because each time I thought about doing it, it seemed like a bit of a hassle. I put it off for another day and then forgot about it.

In response to my friend’s reminder, I said: “You know, what I need is for someone to send me a direct link to an easy donate button that takes debit cards or Apple Pay.” Shortly afterward, my friend texted me a link to just such a button. Within five minutes, I completed my donation.

It turns out my need for a simultaneous reminder and easy button isn’t unusual. According to B.J. Fogg, my mentor and director of the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University, three elements must coincide for a given behavior to occur: motivation, ability and a prompt. This model, expressed as B = MAP, serves as a useful tool to understand why people fail to perform certain behaviors — even behaviors they want to do. The model also helps design interventions to change behavior because we can analyze which element might be deficient and focus on that.

When it comes to the behaviors that typically make up our New Year’s resolutions, motivation already exists. The very fact these behaviors make our lists indicates we care about them. While we tend to focus on motivation, what we actually lack are the other elements: the ability to perform the desired behaviors easily and prompts to remind us to do them.

Prompts are easy to add. According to Fogg, the best prompts are found in our existing routines. In other words, it’s far more effective to attach our new behavior to one we already do instead of relying on such artificial triggers as alarms. If you want to start walking daily, go walking right after your morning cup of coffee. Your last swig of coffee becomes your prompt to take a walk.

Next, we need to make behaviors easier to do. Fogg suggests three ways:

  • Change the action. Start with a bite-sized version of the desired behavior rather than tackling the full behavior all at once. If you want to exercise 30 minutes five days a week, start with just five minutes. What’s the point of five minutes? Small actions lead to habits that lead to bigger behaviors. Starting too big keeps us from developing the habit.
  • Change the context. Tweak your environment so the behavior is easy. If you want to eat more veggies, buy and prep them on Saturday and place them at eye level in the fridge so it’s easy to grab some every time you open the door.
  • Change the person. Acquire knowledge or skills so the behavior isn’t so challenging. If you want to save for retirement, learn about recommended strategies.

One mistake we make is looking at others who perform coveted behaviors and believe they possess endless supplies of willpower. It’s probably true they’ve likely strengthened their willpower muscle over time. If you look more closely at their routines, though, you’ll see they’ve deployed tactics that make the behavior easier for themselves. My husband exercises almost every day. He doesn’t rely solely on willpower. He makes exercise easier by packing his gym bag in the morning and going straight to the gym after work. He follows a set routine so he knows exactly what he’s going to do when he gets there. Moreover, he relies on the abilities he’s developed over time that help him feel competent and capable of completing the task.

If you and your team members plan to set New Year’s resolutions this year or if you have other workplace behaviors you’d like to change, start with behaviors you’re already motivated to do. Then, attach those behaviors to something you routinely do. Finally, look for ways to make those behaviors ridiculously easy to do. It’s a winning formula that accounts for the secret of setting and achieving goals for which we’ve all been searching: Simplicity, not willpower, changes behavior.