If you are like most people, you want to exercise more, eat better and become more productive. So why don’t you?
We all have the desire to be the best versions of ourselves. Yet, we often feel there is a significant gap between our ideal self and the person we are today. So what is stopping us?
Few of us believe eating fast food, sitting all-day and spending hours scrolling through our social media feeds is good for us. We know we would benefit from eating more vegetables, eating less sugar, doing regular exercise and spending more time reading books.
Whatever our life goals may be, we are painfully aware of what we could do to achieve them. The “what” is not the issue. Instead, the problem here is that we are unaware of how to make the changes last.
How do we actually make eating vegetables, going to the gym and reading books more than just temporary occurrences and instead a regular part of our daily routines?
Well, that is the question this article will hopefully answer.
We have so far in this series learned how ability, motivation, and triggers can be used to influence behavior change. Now it’s time we put it all together and learn how to make that behavior change happen!
This is the fourth part in a series of articles on how to design behavior. See the previous parts on Ability, Motivation, and Triggers. To make sure you don’t miss future articles, join my newsletter here.
Before we get busy designing behaviors, we first need to establish why we want to change our lives and what we hope the result of our changes will be.
Overall we are interested in defining two goals:
- Aspirational goal: Where we want to go, our vision, our end.
- Behavior goal: What we need to do to get there, our actions, the means to our end.
The reasons for setting these goals are two-fold.
First of all, we need to set the right direction to ensure our behavior goal takes us where we want to go. Just as we need a blueprint before we start building our house, we need to define our goals before we start designing our lives.
Second, knowing why can provide us with motivation and make it easier for us to stick to our behavior goal. Building a habit and doing something over and over again can seem hard or annoying if we don’t have a clear reason for why we do it.
So before we move on, think about your aspirational goal. What is the one thing that you wish would be different in your life? There might be many things, but it is important that we start by focusing on one thing.
Your aspirational goal is important as we will now continue and define our behavior goal.
The Behavior Model
We have learned a lot about ability, motivation, and triggers, but not how they interact. To understand this, we will use the Fogg Behavior Model which will provide us with a handy framework for understanding what it takes for a behavior to happen (1).
Looking at the diagram below, we can see how Motivation is represented on the Y-axis going from low to high and Ability is represented on the X-axis going from hard to easy.
Depending on our ability and motivation to complete the behavior we can find a place for the behavior on the diagram.
In the next image, I have simply plotted out a couple of possible behaviors depending on our general ability and motivation to complete them.
Lastly, we will finalize the diagram by drawing what we will refer to as “The Action Line.” This line helps us separate the behaviors we can and can’t do.
This separation is quite simple; we simply won’t do behaviors that are too hard or that we are not motivated to do. These behaviors all fall below the action line.
As an example, we can combine the last two diagrams to create the one below.
As we can see, we will not manage to complete our get-slim-diet. While we are motivated, we soon realize that it is really hard (and dangerous) to starve ourselves.
The good news is we will be able to start each day with some meditation and a nutritious morning smoothie.
With the diagram completed, we know that we can do any behavior above the action line. The only thing remaining is to make sure we don’t forget to do them; we need to set a trigger.
The triggers job is to ensure that we are called to act on the behaviors above the action line.
We could set a trigger for the behaviors below the action line also, but what good is a reminder if we can’t act on it?
To summarise, we will fail to take action if:
- The behavior falls below the action line
- The behavior is too hard
- Our motivation is too low
- We are not triggered
We succeed to take action if we are triggered while being sufficiently motivated and able to do the behavior.
For a one-time behavior, we just need to make sure it falls somewhere on the right side of the action line. It might be tough to do, but if we have the motivation for it, we will still do it this one time.
For building habits or long-term behaviors, we need to be a bit more considerate when deciding our behavior goals. Since motivation will vary and likely decrease over time we can get in trouble should we make our goal too hard.
If we want to start eating healthier, it is therefore risky to commit to a diet which forces us to use a lot of motivation. We will stick to it for a couple of days or a week, but as the days go by and our motivation dwindle, we suddenly find ourselves below the action line.
The old advice of starting slow and taking small steps now makes much more sense. If we start with something easy to do we are no longer needed to rely on motivation to act. We will do our behavior the first week AND the fifth week, on good days AND bad days.
For a behavior to happen, we can see how each of the three elements of Motivation, Ability, and Trigger must converge at the same moment. We can also now see that if a behavior does not occur, it means that at least one of those elements are missing.
Set Behavior Goal
When you decide what your behavior goal will be, first consider what behavior you can do that will take you closer to your aspirational goal.
Once you have an idea of what your behavior goal might be, then consider how you can fit it in the Fogg Behavior Model.
We want the behavior to be at the sweet spot where we are able and motivated to complete it = somewhere safely above the action.
To understand this better, let’s look at how I found my sweet spot for swimming.
While I’m not an excellent swimmer, I plan to enter into a 5 km swimming race. The race itself will be very hard, but since it will be a one-time action, I expect that my motivation for finishing will get me through it on the day.
To train for this, I plan to swim for 15 minutes twice a week after my regular workout at the gym. Swimming for 15 minutes is quite easy for me, and while I could probably benefit from longer training sessions, this means that I will at least never miss a session and get regular practice.
This is a straightforward example, but in practice, it does not have to be harder than this. Just remember:
- Only rely on motivation for one-time behaviors
- Make repeated behaviors ridiculously easy to do.
Designing behavior is an art.
Some would like to call it a science, but doing so would fail to acknowledge its unpredictability and variance. There will always be more we don’t know than we know.
For this reason, we need to approach each design with the mindset of a scientist. It does not matter if we on a given day succeed or fail to complete our behavior, either way, it just becomes a data point we can collect.
What if we fail? Well, then our design is probably a little bit flawed. Still, we can’t be afraid to get our hands dirty, and we will never find the perfect design unless we experiment.
The only way to succeed is to experiment, have fun, and to find joy in learning more about ourselves.
We have now through four articles learned the foundations for changing and designing any behavior. You should now feel confident to start designing in your own life.
In this article, we learned that we will complete any behavior (1) we are triggered to do and (2) is above our “Action Line” for motivation and ability. We should first set an aspirational goal to understand why we want to change and then decide on an easy behavior goal that can help us get there.
To help in your ongoing experiments, this is now our mini behavior design checklist:
I hope you have found this article series useful and I would love to get your thoughts and feedback. Please feel free to contact me here.
We will continue to explore behavior in a second series aimed to help you further add to your behavior design arsenal and take your knowledge of designing behavior towards mastery.
The “How To Master Behavior Design” series will start in October and will cover topics such as personality, rewards, keystone habits and flow. To make sure you don’t miss out, join my newsletter here.
Until then, happy designing.
- B. J. Fogg, B. (2009). A behavior model for persuasive design. 40. 10.1145/1541948.1541999.
I recommend you also check out BJ Fogg’s behavioral model website here.