The Most Important Component of Behavior Change (And it’s Not What You Might Think)
I wonder if you can relate:
If I didn’t have an alarm set for 9am every day, I would forget to take my vitamins at least 50% of the time.
I want to take my vitamins (it’s not a motivation issue) and it’s not a hard thing to do (it’s not an ability issue). But without this daily prompt, I would forget and this behavior just wouldn’t happen much of the time.
A mundane example, perhaps, but it’s a good one for illustrating how to go about determining why a behavior isn’t happening and subsequently setting the stage for it to happen.
Stick with me here – I’ll explain. And what I’m about to share with you will take you far when it comes to making habits stick (for yourself and others) as well as saving yourself a lot of frustration, drama, and grief when habits aren’t happening and you’re trying to figure out why and how to fix it.
Renowned behavior scientist, BJ Fogg, (a two time guest of the podcast – you can listen to his first episode here and his second one here) came up with a simple but incredibly effective and powerful formula that illustrates what it takes for any behavior to happen:
To explain, BJ Fogg says, “A behavior happens when the elements of MAP (motivation — your desire to do the behavior; ability — your capacity to do the behavior/how difficult it is to do; and prompt — a cue to do the behavior) come together at the same moment.”
When a desired behavior isn’t happening, we can use the Fogg Behavior Model to troubleshoot why. But not in the way you might expect.
We tend to – mistakenly – start with evaluating a person’s motivation. BJ Fogg says that instead, we should work this equation backward. We should start by determining whether or not the person had a prompt, then look at ability, and only after that do we look at motivation as a factor.
Here’s how he explains it in his book, Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything:
“No behavior happens without a prompt. If you don’t have a prompt, your levels of motivation and ability don’t matter. Either you’re prompted to act or you’re not. No prompt, no behavior. Simple yet powerful…If you don’t hear the phone ring, you don’t answer it.”
“To do an expert job of troubleshooting a behavior for yourself or others, start with the prompt. Is the person being prompted to do the behavior?…If that doesn’t work, then you move to the next step. See if people have the ability to do the behavior….Notice that fussing around with motivation is the last step in the troubleshooting order. This process of troubleshooting can save you some grief….In many cases, you’ll find your lack of doing a behavior is not a motivation issue at all. You can solve for the behavior by finding a good prompt or by making the behavior easier to do.”
As it turns out, motivation is the most unreliable and also the most complex. It waxes and wanes. It’s here one minute and gone the next. And it is connected to multiple factors such as what you want in the moment, rewards or detractors that are in place, and the overall context in which you and the behavior exist.
So, it makes sense – and his research supports – that we will be the most effective at getting to the root of the problem via the shortest path of least resistance: Start by asking the question “was there a prompt to remind the person to do the behavior?”. Then, look at ability and determine if it was too difficult to do. The last step is to examine a person’s level of motivation.
BJ Fogg says, “When you apply this troubleshooting method to your own behavior, you’ll find that it stops you from blaming yourself.”
And this is an important point. When we blame ourselves our inner critic is often at work. And even though it might have good intentions for us – like trying to get us to perform better – we know that when this inner critic shows up, we do NOT perform at our best.
Back to my example of taking my vitamins. On the days I don’t take them it seems harsh to assume I just didn’t want to or I was too lazy to swallow them or I defiantly said, “No way am I taking those vitamins!”.
It’s more likely that I just forgot because I didn’t have a prompt to take them. Put in an effective prompt and problem solved. It’s often that simple. And it turns out with many behaviors, that is the case.
This is also helpful when it comes to diagnosing what’s getting in the way of other people’s behavior.
Like, if your husband doesn’t take out the trash on Thursday nights so that the garbage collector will pick it up on Friday mornings, instead of jumping to the conclusion that “He didn’t do it because he doesn’t care about our family!” maybe start with putting a post-it note on the garbage can lid as a reminder that day. The same applies to your kids: If they don’t make their bed, instead of thinking, “They don’t respect what I tell them to do!”, make it part of their morning routine – after getting dressed and before coming down for breakfast.
Troubleshooting in this order can save us a lot of heartache and miscommunication.
Working the Fogg Behavior Model backward to troubleshoot for why a habit or behavior isn’t happening is something I often talk through with my private coaching clients.
We start the conversation by asking, “Did you have something to prompt you at the time you wanted the behavior to happen?”. If so, next we move on to ability and try to determine what might be making this hard to do. If it was a very easy behavior and it still didn’t happen, then we look at motivation.
There are lots of different kinds of prompts you can put in place. Here are a few examples:
- Time-based prompt (I’ll do ____ at 3 pm.)
- Location-based prompt (Every time I come to a red light, I’ll….)
- A preceding event as a prompt (After I take the dogs out in the morning, I’ll….)
- Emotional based prompt (When I feel ____, I’ll….)
- Other people as a prompt (When I see my friend, I’ll….)
- Technology as a prompt (Set a reminder on your phone.)
If you have a goal but your behavior is sabotaging your progress, it’s really helpful to have someone help you to diagnose what’s going on, customize a path forward, and support you along the way.
That is precisely what I do when I work 1-on-1 with clients in The One You Feed Personal Transformation Program.
Through weekly calls and daily email communication, I teach my clients how to apply the science of behavior change to help them achieve their specific goals based on their unique life circumstances, ensuring their long term success.
To learn more about the program, click here.
To find out if the program is a fit for you, I offer a free 30-minute Personal Transformation Coaching Session. You can book your call by clicking here.
On this call, you will tell me about the changes you’re looking to make and I will offer you my thoughts on how you might go about doing this. If we’re a match to work together, that will be clear and I never pressure people on these calls. If the program is not right for you, we part as friends and you will have my ideas to consider as you move forward towards your goals.
One thing I have learned from decades of coaching people is that, with the right approach and support, everyone can make real, meaningful change in their lives. You can grow and make progress and accomplish far more than you ever would have expected.
And this is something I love helping people do.
Here’s to creating a life worth living,