Changing our behaviour is hard, even when we know what we want to change about ourselves. We have to recognise that desire to change is often not enough.
That’s because the emotional centres of our brain learn from ‘doing’, not just ‘knowing’ what we want to change. And if we don’t practice behaviour change constantly, we will often end up falling back into old habits.
To achieve sustainable and lasting improvements in performance, we need to start with changing our mindset and attitudes. We can then support these by using some specific actions and technology to help embed these new habits.
We’ve put together six steps to help you. Each of these is rooted in the psychology of behaviour change.
Step 1: Adopt a growth mindset
The ‘growth mindset’ is the belief that our talents and abilities can be developed through stretching challenges, learning and persistence.
This concept has been researched extensively by Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, and her colleagues. It is in direct contrast to the ‘fixed mindset’ – the belief that talents and abilities are set in stone and everyone has a fixed amount that can’t change.
A meta-analysis of 113 academic studies has shown that people with a growth mindset tend to set goals and use strategies associated with learning and mastery, rather than focusing on demonstrating performance relative to others. In addition, people with a growth mindset are less likely to experience negative feelings about their progress towards the goal, such as anxiety or being easily discouraged.
These goal-related behaviours in turn are linked to successful achievement. So, start with the right mindset.
Step 2: Unearth the attitudes holding you back
Even though you have a conscious desire and goal to change, you might unintentionally behave in ways that obstruct the very thing you want to change. This can be frustrating, particularly when you aren’t aware you are doing it. Developmental psychologists Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey call this an ‘immunity to change’.
Before commencing a new goal, think about any competing commitments you have which could hold you back. Then identify the core attitudes (‘big assumptions’) which underpin these competing commitments. For example, you might want to change to become a better listener and more open to taking others’ views on board.
A big assumption could be that if you don’t make important decisions yourself then other people might think you are indecisive and weak. But this assumption closes you off from new ideas and potential solutions.
Much of the time you may be unaware of these core attitudes, as they are often long-standing and deeply embedded.
Equally, it is quite likely that in the past there would have been positive pay-off from having them, such as protecting yourself from failure or not relying on other people. This is perfectly normal – we all have them.
Going through this process can be uncomfortable, but challenging your assumptions is a necessary step to transformational change.
The way we see the world is filtered through our attitudes, which then shape our thoughts and feelings, and in turn drive our behaviours. Recognising unhelpful attitudes is essential to move forward.
Step 3: Set the bar and aim high
Organisational psychologists Edwin Locke and Gary Latham have spent decades researching and developing their theory of goal setting. Their findings are very well-established, but two key points are worth repeating because people don’t always put them into practice.
If you really want to change behaviour, be clear and specific about the performance level you want to achieve – don’t just aim to do your best. Secondly, make your goal really stretching.
Clearly it still needs to be possible, but keep in mind that it is the most difficult goals that produce the highest amount of effort and performance.
In the example of improving listening skills, you could set a goal to actively listen to anyone who disagrees with you and always ask at least three questions that explore their point of view. Setting goals is critical to successful behaviour change. Give yourself a proper challenge – you might surprise yourself.
Step 4: Think it through
Committing to changing behaviour based on the first three steps above will provide a solid foundation. The next step is to have clear intentions about how you will implement a goal in practice. A meta-analysis of 94 academic studies found that this has a substantial effect on whether a goal is achieved.
To establish these intentions, take the time to plan when, where and how you will put the desired change into action.
This will help you recognise situational cues, clarify appropriate behavioural responses and be conscious of things to avoid. Are there certain situations, team meetings or teleconferences for example, where you don’t exhibit your required behaviour?
Identify these occasions and notice when they happen.
What practical steps can you take in these moments to behave in the way you want to? In the listening skills example, this might be around not filling silences or asking more questions to clarify your understanding.
Creating implementation intentions has been shown to be positively associated with goal striving, shielding yourself from distractions, knowing when to halt unproductive goals and avoiding overextending yourself. So, make sure you think it through.
Step 5: Practice, practice, practice
To achieve sustainable change, ideally you need to turn a desired behaviour into a positive new habit. A key study by Philippa Lally and colleagues at UCL explored the process of habit formation. They found that repeated daily practice of a new habit increases the strength of the habit, until eventually it becomes automatic.
So early on conscious effort is required, but gradually it should get easier and more instinctive. Try to identify in advance at least one situation every day where you are going to practice your desired behaviour.
The time it takes to embed a habit can vary greatly depending on the person, the behaviour and the context. In Lally’s study, the median time was 66 days for a habit to reach ‘automaticity’. In our experience, we find a good place to start is to encourage people to commit to 21 days of consecutive practice.
This gives people focus, gets the process underway and creates momentum.
Step 6: Track with technology
The ubiquitousness of smartphones provides an opportunity to use technology to support behaviour change. Mobile apps can be used to send regular reminders and then track and reward progress towards achieving a goal. In addition, they can be used to provide useful content on-demand to reinforce learning (e.g. videos, tips, articles, etc) and connect people for social support.
Research on the impact of mobile apps on behaviour change is still emerging, particularly in relation to workplace learning. However initial signs are promising.
A review of studies into whether mobile apps can influence health behaviour change found statistically significant positive results for 17 out of 23 studies.
One particular study focused on mental and emotional health apps found that using apps increased motivation, confidence, control and positive intentions, and this increase was associated with perceived behaviour change.
While it’s difficult to change behaviour, it can be achieved through commitment, focus and application. The six steps described provide an evidence-based roadmap to help with the process of changing behaviour and developing positive new habits.
So, here’s what to do. Start with your mindset and attitude, follow it with setting goals and defining intentions, then practice daily and track your progress with the help of technology. This will give you the best chance of making behaviour change stick.