The secret to changing behaviour

Written by Carl Davidson, Head of Insight at Research First

A great deal of our work at Research First is about changing behaviour. But as anyone who works in this field will tell you, getting people to change their behaviour is hard.

For some sense of just how hard it is, think about the last time you tried to change one of your own habits. How are those New Year’s resolutions working out for you? According to one measure, for two-thirds of us those resolutions don’t even make it to February intact. If we struggle to change our own behaviour, how do we hope to encourage others to change theirs?

The answer seems to be ‘by planning what we’ll do when the initial motivation runs out’. Another way to put this is that the secret to effecting lasting change is with what are called implementation intention plans.

As the name suggests, these outline how you plan to implement your intended change. These are explicit if-then plans that spell out in advance how you will strive for a set goal.

These plans are particularly useful for changing health behaviours, and where local councils want to get more people using public transport. For instance, the Travel Smart behaviour change approach is built on implementation intention planning. It involves working with households to help them plan their weekly transport use to reduce reliance on private cars. The weekly plans outline clear implementation intentions, as well as what the participants will do if those plans cannot be realised.

Implicit in the success of implementation intention plans is the notion that ‘motivation is over-rated‘. Or, as Chuck Close put it:.

Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work

Along with planning what to do once the motivation has run out, implementation intention plans help track progress towards the desired goal. By breaking down larger goals into smaller achievements, and enabling you to measure each one, the plans provide a clear roadmap towards your goal.

In this regard, the plans provide the process. As Deming said in a different context:

If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing

And the best thing about having a process? It means that even when you don’t know what you’re doing, you still know what to do next.

Research First is PRINZ’s research partner, and specialises in impact measurement, behaviour change, and evidence-based insights.