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A Behaviour Change Challenge

Have you ever struggled with maintaining a regular exercise regimen? Are you juggling a demanding job, kids with patchy sleep, a partner, family, friends, life dramas, occasional insomnia and you feel guilty that you don’t seem to have the energy or willpower to exercise consistently and persistently?

Two Strategies Unlikely to Work

Humans use all sorts of strategies to get themselves to exercise more regularly. Judging by the state of our nation’s health, these strategies don’t work very well.

One common strategy is what we like to call the ‘Tony Robbins Strategy’. That is, get massively dissatisfied with the status quo, get massively motivated to change, then set a massive fitness goal and take massive immediate action (Tony likes massive). We usually quit on this strategy within a couple of weeks (if not a couple of days).

Another, possibly more sensible approach, is the ‘Tiny Habits Strategy’ where we instead focus on setting in motion an exercise behaviour so small that even on a tough day we still have the time and willpower to do it. The problem with this strategy (we’ve been experimenting with this with clients since 2014 when we read about BJ Fogg’s work at Stanford) is that it still requires the individual to maintain motivation over an extended period (at least until the behaviour truly is a habit) and this motivation can be undermined by a creeping sense of futility that the small behaviours aren’t yielding big enough results.

One Strategy That Does Work

When changing our own behaviour we usually overestimate our own ability to maintain motivation and willpower and underestimate the impact of circumstance and environment. Whenever a behaviour relies on an individual making a decision repeatedly, on an ongoing basis, the chances of success plummet. What if instead we could simply make a decision once, take action once, and then have the behaviour repeat indefinitely?

There is such a strategy. We call it the ‘Buy a Dog Strategy’. If you want to exercise more regularly then go buy a big, energetic dog that will demand to be taken on long walks (or jogs) lest he/she rip up your house with pent up frustration. This requires no ongoing willpower. It simply requires one decision and one action at a moment in time and for years to come you will be exercising regularly. 

Applying the ‘Buy a Dog Strategy’

Are you trying to change a behaviour in your own life? Are trying to work out how to change behaviour across your organisation? One question to ponder is ‘what is the Buy a Dog Strategy in your particular scenario?’ Can you think of one? We’ll leave that with you to ponder!


Want to learn more?

Find out more about our work in Behavioural Engineering here.

Posted to Behaviour Change and Organisational Culture on 24th January 2020

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