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The Power Of A Post-It: A Look Into The Research And Realities Of Behavior Change

At gravitytank, I spend a lot of my time digging into connecting doing what’s good for you and what you feel like doing. Unfortunately, like many others working in health, while trying to tackle this problem, I have forgotten to do what’s good for me. I realized that it had been months since I had any sustained exercise routine and was feeling sleepier and less awesome as a result. I need to “behavior change” myself!

My behavior change experiments begin with a sophisticated social feedback tool - a Post-It on my work laptop that says “I will work out 10 times in August” with a tally underneath of how many times I have worked out.  I’ve been iterating on this experiment since June, and have learned a few tricks that I hope will help others with their motivation:

You Need More Than Data
In June, with the same Post-It system, I worked out 9 times. Tantalizingly close, right? How could I just miss? Well, without any specific outcome tied to this result, “close” was “good enough” for me. My health probably isn’t meaningfully better working out 10 times vs 9, but I do believe that June’s 9 could easily turn into July’s 8 and soon I’d be back where I started. As a quick iteration I added an incentive program for July—hitting my target means I get a massage. In July, I worked out 10 times.

‘Sticks’ Only Work If You Want Them
A massage worked for July, but I suspect that once the novelty of this bonus wears off, so to will its impact on my fitness targets.  This study from Cass Sunstein tells me that I would be more likely to stick to my goals if I had an “anti incentive” for not meeting my goal. For me, this could be having to deep clean my house or not being able to eat out. Like the majority of individuals participating in that study, though, I don’t want to penalize myself into adherence. Setting an “anti incentive” only works if I’m willing to set it and to follow through on the penalty. Not working out is not enough of a pain point that I am motivated enough to penalize myself.

Watch Out: Targets Can Become Limits
Working out 10 days is good, but maybe I can (and should) do better. Between July and August I took another tweak to my system to encourage even more fitness. Any days over the required work-out amount can now roll-over month-to-month to add up to a bonus massage. If you quickly do the math of how long it will take me to get to my bonus, I’m sure you can see that it does nothing to motivate me. Even worse, by creating an extrinsic reward system I have “crowded out” my intrinsic desire to work out more. Help!

August was successful - 10 work-outs! Looking out to my next round of testing I want to understand adherence and achievement (which I suspect to be very closely related). Stay tuned to find out what the literature and my behavior have to say about these!

Research referenced in this post:

  • Wearable Devices as Facilitators, Not Drivers, of Behavior Change

  • Nudging Smokers

  • When and Why Incentives (Don’t) Work to Modify Behavior

  • Posted by:

    Ann Hintzman

    Ann Hintzman

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