Stress Management, Well-being and Self-Care

woman breaking a cigarette in half

Creating SUSTAINABLE Behavioral Change Part 10: What does it mean to create sustainable behavioral change?

by James Porter March 30, 2022

BJ Fogg is changing the landscape of behavioral change. (See my three previous installments on BJ Fogg if you want to know more.) One thing Fogg really wants us to focus on is behaviors, not objectives.  It’s not the outcome we need to think about but the specific behaviors we need to set in place in order to achieve that outcome.  So a goal of losing weight or even eating healthier doesn’t really cut it when it comes to creating sustainable change.  Setting a specific behavior in place to help you achieve those goals, does.

The best way to go about doing this, according to Fogg, is to start with healthy behaviors that you want to add into your life as opposed to eliminating those behaviors you want to stop. Remember self-efficacy here is king. You want to nurture your self-efficacy by cultivating simple habits and small wins that virtually guarantee success. We don’t want to start off with difficult-to-do stopping behaviors like quitting smoking or giving up drinking that might lead to an initial failure and sabotage our self-esteem and self-efficacy.

The next step in this change process according to Fogg is to pick a “magic wand behavior.” In other words, if you could wave a magic wand and suddenly introduce a new behavior into your life, what would it be? Here are four important points to remember about your magic wand behavior:

  1. It has to be meaningful to you.
  2. It can’t be a goal like eating healthier, being more mindful, or getting more exercise.
  3. It can’t be ambiguous. You absolutely have to know when you’ve done it.
  4. It shouldn’t (initially**) include stopping behaviors like quitting smoking or drinking.*

*These are harder to do, and it’s easier to add a new behavior than to stop and old behavior.

**See below for how to stop a behavior.

Let’s say you want to eat healthier; a magic wand behavior might be to eat three salads a week. That’s a meaningful, specific (non-ambiguous) behavior that isn’t a stopping behavior.  To set this new behavior in motion, we need to make it really easy to do. So, for example, going to Trader Joes on Sunday and buying three pre-made salads and putting them in your fridge, or making up those salads yourself AHEAD OF TIME is the way to go. This makes the decision to have a salad – at the moment you are feeling hungry – the easy choice to make.

If we want to STOP a behavior, our best bet is to try putting a new behavior in its place. So, if you wanted to cut down on smoking for example, (and eventually quit) the best approach might be to find some healthy substitute behavior to put in its place. Let’s say you notice that you tend to smoke a cigarette after lunch: Here, instead of smoking, you could go for a short walk right after lunch instead. Thus you’ve inserted a new behavior (which is easier to do) rather than stopping an old behavior (which is harder to do).

About a year ago my 25 year old son told me that he wanted to lose weight. (This is a goal, and not a behavior.) I told him I’d seen a study that estimated about 20% of the calories in the average American diet come from drinking liquids like soda, alcohol and dairy products. I also explained that water, the best liquid of all, has zero calories. If he could just focus on drinking water, every time he wanted to drink a soda or juice, that alone might significantly cut back his calorie consumption.

So he started drinking water instead of soda. As the result of focusing on adding a new healthy behavior instead of stopping an old one (and by focusing on the behavior and not the goal) my son eventually lost over 10 pounds. For most people, a diet is unsustainable because it involves a feeling of deprivation that comes from trying to STOP a behavior and no one will put up with that feeling for very long.  But finding a healthy behavior that you can substitute for an old unhealthy one, like drinking water instead of soda, is a change that is much easier to sustain.  This is what we mean when we talk about creating sustainable behavioral change.

 woman breaking a cigarette in half.

Stopping a behavior is MUCH more difficult to sustain, than substituting a new behavior in place of the old behavior. So chewing on a piece of gum, going for a short walk, drinking a glass of water are all examples of sustainable behaviors you can ADD whenever you feel the urge to smoke.

James Porter
James Porter