Starting vs. sustaining a new behavior

Starting vs. sustaining a new behavior

In my recent post about behavior journeys, we explore how audiences go through a series of steps in their transition from the current behavior towards the desired behavior.

The number of steps included in a behavior journey will vary from project to project.

Some may look relatively straightforward and short, like the “ditch the plastic straw” effort.

Other journeys may require longer and multi-layered processes to address complex issues and more difficult behaviors to adopt. Sustainable hunting or fishing practices, shifting food preferences, and lowering personal carbon footprints may fall into this category.

Regardless of whether your journey has only a few steps or many steps, there are two important behavior adoption phases each member of your target audience will experience.

Phase 1: starting the new behavior.
Phase 2: sustaining that behavior.

And each phase requires a different strategy for motivating the audience.

What gets them started will not be enough to keep them going.

External versus internal motivators

For the Making Moves curriculum, I created a Force Field Analysis diagram to capture the specific set of deterrents and motivators audiences are most likely to experience in the context of conservation and environmental programs.

This diagram is an adaptation of Kurt Lewin’s original model from the 1950’s. Click the image above to watch a brief explanation of the diagram, which is a sneak peek at what we cover in the course.

External motivators

On the very left side of the diagram are external motivators. External motivators tend to happen in the social environment around the audience, which they are exposed to but don’t have much direct control over.

External motivators work well to start movements if not many people are currently doing the behavior and to prompt people to act within a set time period, like voting on a specific date.

Think of them as catalysts for getting people out of status quo bias and moving them towards action.

Internal motivators

Inside the bubble are internal motivators, which are psychological and emotional drivers of change. Internal motivators tend to require a longer-term plan to introduce and reinforce the motivator through the harder parts of the behavior journey.

Even though external motivators are great for sparking action (and can be really fun parts of our outreach programs), their benefits tend to wear-out and diminish over time.

Therefore, external motivators should be supplemented or replaced with internal motivators during the “sustained” steps of the journey.

Looking at starting versus sustaining behaviors IRL

Let’s explore this through the lens of a topic we are ALL familiar with. Covid-19.

I know we’re tired of it, but there’s so much to learn from it! Bear with me here.

Starting new behaviors

There have been a number of new or time-sensitive actions and behaviors we’ve asked nearly everyone on the planet to adopt since the start of the pandemic.

These behaviors include:

  • Washing your hands for 20 seconds
  • Wearing a mask (and wearing it properly)
  • Social distancing of 6 feet/2 meters
  • Getting a vaccination shot
  • Going back to get your second vaccination shot 3-4 weeks later
  • Getting a booster shot

Since the start of the pandemic, there have been a number of good communication pieces that encouraged people to get started by using motivators like:

Making it fun
Getting creative with lyrics we can sing while washing our hands and how we can think about physical distancing.

Social proof
Showing examples of relatable messengers demonstrating the desired behavior and sharing why it’s personally important to follow Covid protocols.

Poster shows a close-up of a young person wearing a mask with text that reads you will see me choose to protect myself and my community from the coronavirus by wearing a face mask.

Tangible benefits
Giving audience members a variety of incentives to get vaccinated. Rewards for getting the shot included free donuts and french fries, free beer and alcohol, fishing and hunting licenses, discounts on activities, and even cold hard cash.

I didn’t even get a cool sticker, nor did I when I got my flu shot, and I’m still a little bitter about it.

Showcasing celebrities and politicians receiving their vaccine shots live and on camera. Below is Dolly Parton and Tyler Perry, two huge influencers, getting vaccinated.

[Some of these examples I touched upon a year ago in my pandemic musings post.]

Compared to my force field analysis, nearly all the external forces were used.

This is great!

Yet…we’re just getting started.

What feels to be missing are the communication pieces featuring motivators for sustaining change.

I believe this is a contributor to the regression we’ve seen in mask wearing behaviors, physical distancing, and getting second and third vaccine shots.

You can make 20 seconds of hand washing fun for a little while, but eventually I’m going to get tired of singing Happy Birthday to myself.

And that expiration date on the external motivator is very likely to occur before the new behavior has been fully incorporated into my daily habits.

This gap in the transition between starting and sustaining the behavior is when regression, or more accurately “giving up”, is most likely to happen.

Maybe I should name this behavior pattern as the “starting-sustaining gap”. (Forget intention-action gap or awareness-action gap! Now featuring…the starting-sustaining gap! Woohooo!)

We gave the audience a reason to start something, but we didn’t give them a good reason to keep doing it after the initial excitement, novelty, or fun wore off.

Bring in the internal forces!

Here’s a few ideas for internal motivators that could supplement, and eventually replace, the external motivators to keep people progressing along the journey.

Feedback loops = my actions are making a difference!
Showing the progress and impact being achieved along the way helps sustain motivation and optimism for doing something new. I wrote about this roughly two years ago in this blog on “knowing when to drop knowledge“.

Self-efficacy and empowerment = we can do this!
It can be helpful to acknowledge that behavior change is tiring, so our audience feels like we understand what they’re going through (see my previous empathy blog). We can do this while also reinforcing their capacity to keep pushing forward.

This could be a message of: I know another mask mandate is not what you wanted to hear. But we’ve been through this before so it won’t take long to dust off our mask routine and get back to it.

Responsibility = it benefits me & my family to keep at it.
Civic duty reminders work for some, yet other audience members may need reminders about how they benefit personally from sustaining the behaviors.

For example, continuing Covid protocols allow us to spend time with older family members during holiday times and beyond.

During my research for this post, I found a few examples of campaigns using the above motivators:

These efforts are not yet being done on a large scale, which is unfortunate as they are good examples of shifting messaging strategies for a new phase of a behavior change effort.

More of this is needed to help audiences sustain the new behavior until it becomes second nature.

Coming back to the behavior journey for your own project, consider when the sustaining phase is likely to begin and what support your audience needs to stay resilient.

Remember: what gets them started will not be enough to keep them going.