Becoming a better self-coach
With great effect, lockdown also introduced us to new routines, such as distancing and handwashing. Lockdown worked by exposing us to a powerful cocktail of prolonged exposure to key influences. This is no minor insight. Our collective progress, beyond lockdown, will rely on our capacities to continue upholding new behaviours without this cocktail of influences. With no vaccine, surviving any second wave of COVID-19 may depend on how well we become effective self-coaches.
One thing effective behaviour coaches grasp; no single, ‘silver bullet’, solution is consistently successful. Combinations of influences have a better track record because behaviour has multiple drivers. In our work, we activate all the key drivers at the same time. To envision the overall structure of our approach, think of domains of influence as the three floors of a building. The floors are Personal, Social, and Structural influences.
Personal interest and the expectation of being good, quickly, can help initiate something new. Positive emotions act for less time than their negative counterparts, meaning, for example, that fear and grief hold sway far longer than joy and awe. Given the most positive emotions operate for only short periods, this drive soon fails; other influences take over. Alongside personal factors, the people and the groups who surround us - immediately (friends and neighbours) and more distally (social media) - all create social pressure and social trends. This social domain houses a major behavioural influence; the social judgement of others. A further, third, domain of influence comes from the places and spaces we occupy. The structures that surround us can get under our skin in some way. Tiresome processes and provocative advertising both do this well. Signs, posters, and reminders all act as behavioural cues and nudges. Reward systems and accountability processes are part of this too.
Extending the metaphor of a building, the three floors are cross-cut by two towers. The towers reflect motivation and capability. In daily life motivation is about ‘want’; what we want for ourselves (personal), what others want from us (social), and what systems and structures want from and for us (structural). This sits alongside capability, which is about ‘can’; what I can already do or work on to improve (personal), how others help or pressure me do better (social), and the signposts and/or systems that make it easy to be involved (structural). Using the idea of a building with three floors and two towers, this yields six areas of influence. Next we use typical behaviour change examples, showing how we work to activate each point of leverage for different positive behaviours.
Personal motivation: Here the aim is to make something undesirable more desirable. If you really dislike a behaviour, it’s harder to give it a go. So, it would seem appropriate to take little steps to make yourself enjoy it. Rather than attempting to run a 5km with little or no running experience, using Couch to 5K can be a useful tool in building up your running and enjoyment little by little, so when you come to run a non-stop 5km, it’s an enjoyable and rewarding experience.
Personal capability: How can you surpass your limits? Ask yourself, what is the biggest small thing I can do today to change my behaviour? Start there. The baby steps are crucial to building up your ability and confidence to be able to do a behaviour. It might be lowering your alcohol consumption one pint at a time or smoking five less cigarettes a day. The more you do this and surprise yourself, the more positive the end result will be.
Social motivation: Harness peer pressure. Which individuals ‘pressure’ you into doing things? They can have positive and negative effects on your behaviour. For example, the negative effect may be encouraging you to have one last drink “for the road” when you need to drive home. The same individuals can also powerfully encourage you to get up early for a gym class before work.
Social capability: Find strength in numbers. Seek out people like you to inspire you to engage in a behaviour. Unfortunately, aspiring to be like Paula Radcliffe or Usain Bolt is unlikely to work, unless you are their next biggest competitor in the field. Instead, seek out people you see as similar to yourself. Recruit them into your support “tribe.” Your newfound tribe will keep you hooked on the new behaviour and help in developing your capabilities.
Structural motivation: Design rewards and accountability. We respond to rewards and praise, so it is important to in-build this into behaviours we want to do and repeat. In addition, create some form of accountability associated with the behaviour. For example, making plans with your “tribe” to go for an early morning swim is a powerful structural effect. It combines the social motivation arising from the social pressure to not let them down by failing to turn up.
Structural capability: Change the environment. Changing the environment around you doesn’t need to rely on huge structural changes to roads and infrastructure commissioned by local governments, although that may enhance your ability to change your behaviour. It is also important to change your environment around you. Becoming aware of cues that instigate a behaviour can help you identify if you need to remove these cues or add new ones. For example, not buying a family size bag of crisps from the supermarket means that cue is removed from your kitchen cupboards so the temptation is not there to snack. On the other hand, getting your running kit out the night before you are going to run in the morning decreases the likelihood of you skipping that run.
Excellent self-coaches activate these spheres of influence regularly in their daily lives. They aim to create plausible options for themselves. Accepting these options won’t always work, they have clear plans for quickly getting back into positive ways when setbacks occur. Self-scoring of performance in each area (1= weak effects, 5= powerful effects) works well too; it adds all-important accountability (structural motivation). Composite scores can be created for each floor (personal, individual and structural) and for each tower (motivation and capability) of our imaginary self-coaching building. Most importantly, they keep activating all six domains of influence; they are unavoidable drivers of behaviour.
Alexandra is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow working on the Active Calderdale Sport England funded Local Delivery Pilot (LDP). Alexandra works to evaluate system changes within the LDP and document these alongside case study stories.
Jim McKenna is Carnegie Professor of Physical Activity and Health and Head of the Active Lifestyles Research Centre in the Carnegie Faculty.