Doing more of what’s good for you and less of what’s not

Did you know that 80-92% of our efforts to change behaviour fail? That means that when you say you’re going to eat more heathy food, cut out alcohol, exercise more, be less grumpy with your partner, most of the time most you won’t actually do it. Us psychologists call it the ‘intention-behaviour’ gap. 

In organizations, where behaviour change is critical for adaptation and success 70% of efforts fail. Given that $10 billion is spent each year globally on change management efforts, that’s an awful lot of money down the drain! 

But it’s not just about profits and performance. The need for behaviour change is at the heart of society. Reversing climate change, protecting our wildlife and even our own health are all dependent on it. One recent study found that, human behaviour (and therefore a need to do more of the healthy things and less of the unhealthy) accounts for almost 40% of the risk associated with premature, preventable deaths in the US. Why though? Given the money involved and the importance to society why are the figures so grim? 

Change is hard, not because we’re lazy, lack willpower or are undisciplined – it’s incredibly complicated. And here’s why….

Outside-In and Inside-Out

Outside in doesn’t work on its own, to understand your intention means getting at the inside-out too. Using dieting as an example, making a decision to diet because it’s the new year and you feel like you should doesn’t tap into your ‘why’ or your intrinsic motivation (inside-out) making it very difficult to sustain. 

Your Inside Out is Unique 

Your personality, values, preferences and needs are different from mine which means your why is too. Then there’s your history, your personal narrative, your mindset, your past efforts at changing this behaviour which has an impact on your self-efficacy, your self-esteem, your confidence (and yes they are all different). These are just a few of the variables involved in understanding who you are. 

Your Situation is Changeable 

Your environment is constantly changing, meaning that the variables impacting your efforts are too. For example, you may be dieting but find it hard to resist junk food because you’re bored, perhaps you’re really hungry and there’s no other food available, maybe you feel obliged to accept cake because it’s someone’s birthday. 

What You Need One Moment is Different from the Next

Your internal world is constantly changing too. You may for example forget what you’re doing and eat something you didn’t mean to by mistake. You may be in a bad mood, tired or stressed and find it easier to just do what you’ve always done. 

I could go on – but you get the picture. The factors that impact behaviour change are individual, complex and dynamic. 

So if you are driving change efforts for your organisation, be wary of providers who say they have a behaviour change technique that delivers results. Ask to see those results before you start spending your money with them.

And, if you haven’t managed to change your own behaviour try not to be hard on yourself. Behaviour change can be done, the brain is plastic (meaning malleable) throughout adulthood. But possible does not mean easy.  Try not to set yourself up with false expectations. It’s great to be positive and believe that you can, but it’s also good to be realistic. If you expect to do be able to do something and then don’t manage it, that can start to eat away at your self-esteem. 

Here are some of the things that we know can help:

  • Be as conscious as you can. When you’re on autopilot you will just repeat behaviours doing them in the way that you always have done (and get what you’ve always got). 
  • Visualise where you want to get to. This helps focus the brain on the right pathways even before you have made something stick. It’s like practice for the brain. 
  • Be aware of when you’re tired or stressed. What are your triggers, how can you avoid them? 
  • Anticipate challenges that could derail you and plan for them. For example, you can mentally rehearse saying ‘no’ when someone offers you a food you’re trying to avoid, shop carefully to make sure you have only health food at home etc. 
  • Enlist others’ support – social influence and support is incredibly powerful and can help re-direct us even when we’re not feeling that motivated.  

As for habits, frequently touted as the key to behaviour change – yes, changing habits does help, but as I’ve said before and will say again, they are only a tiny part of a much bigger and more complex picture that is YOU!


Norcross, J. C., & Vangarelli, D. J. (1988). The resolution solution: Longitudinal examination of New Year’s change attempts. Journal of substance abuse1(2), 127-134.

Photo: Pexels

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