A healthy vegan 'buddha' bowl including avocado, chickpeas and seeds.

Breaking down the 'why' and 'how' of New Year goals

WE Communications Blog: Health

2/12/2019
— Lottie Williams, Account Director 

The beginning of February usually means a look back at the resolutions we made at the turn of the year and admitting it didn’t quite go as planned. In fact, according to research conducted by Strava, 12th January is the day that most of us give up on one of our New Year’s resolutions.

New Year’s resolutions are an example of individuals attempting to change an established behaviour. On a much larger scale, public health bodies are very invested in changing established behaviours linked with poor health outcomes – for example, smoking cessation. And many of our clients in the health space have a similar goal, educating people to help them make healthier choices, supporting better health in the long term.

However, whether we’re looking at a personal goal of getting to the gym four times a week or the macro aim of encouraging the population to increase their fruit and vegetable intake (unsuccessful in the UK, so far), one thing is clear: behaviour change is hard.

But, why is that? And what can we do to actually achieve our New Year’s resolutions?

BEHAVIOUR CHANGE: UNDERSTANDING THE THEORY

This area has been subject to lot of research, with a number of complex models developed to describe successful behaviour change. At a really simple level, it comes down to understanding the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of behaviour change. ‘Why’ describes our motivations for wanting to make changes, ‘how’ describes the way we will make the change. The crucial thing is that both need to be present to commit to change.

Simply wanting to quit smoking but not having a clear plan of how to manage it will lead to failure. As will having a defined plan, with little motivation to follow it. Perhaps your resolution failed this year because you weren’t clear on why it was important – on a very personal level – to do it. Or, you were set up for failure because you didn’t have a clear – and easy-to-follow – plan put in place.

BEHAVIOUR CHANGE: BREAKING DOWN THE ‘WHY’ AND ‘HOW’

To support a behaviour change that has any hope of lasting past 12th January we must identify WHY this change is so important to us. Make it personal, write it on a post it note and stick it on your mirror. The HOW has to be something that’s clear and achievable. Invest some time thinking about what steps you can put in place to help you make the change.

Examples help illustrate what effective change can look like. For background, alongside being a PR consultant I’m also a Registered Nutritional Therapist, where a big part of my day is focused on supporting clients make long-term diet and lifestyle changes.

“My resolution is to eat more vegetables”

WHY: Because I know when I have more vegetables in my diet I have more energy and feel better. It’s important to me to feel good.

HOW: I’ll go to the greengrocer on Saturday and buy some vegetables I’ve not tried before. I’ll look on the BBC Good Food website and download some vegetable-based recipes to add to my meals. I’ll order a side dish of greens when I go out to eat.

This principle is true when we’re considering how to support behaviour change in larger audiences. We need to clearly connect the WHY to the audience. This requires understanding our audience’s behaviours and values, ideally we’ll work with ambassadors from the community to understand this.

The path to change – the HOW – has to be clear, simple and implementable. A complex or vague call to action isn’t going to deliver a change in behaviour. Again, working with the audience in question to create this path to change makes it more likely to resonate.

BEHAVIOUR CHANGE: THE IMPORTANCE OF FOCUSING ON THE SHORT-TERM

A US-based campaign to reduce pollution levels in Chesapeake Bay is a good example.  Heavy use of lawn fertilisershad caused environmental problems in the area. Historic and unsuccessful educational campaigns focused on the long-term environmental impact of the problem.

The new campaign focuses on short-term benefits from the audience’s point of view and gives a clear call to action with advice on how to make simple changes. Reduce your use of lawn fertilisers to save a local delicacy, the blue crab, from extinction. Surveys have shown that the campaign resonated with audiences and resulted in clear changes to how people fertilise their lawns.

So, whether you’re thinking about your personal resolutions, or working on something that requires behaviour change, connect with two simple questions: WHY is this important and HOW will you make the change?