The power of a sticker…

As the research around behavior change has shown, we humans often do the things we do, not for the benefits explicitly inherent in the activity itself, but for some other outside and still rational reasons.

We turn off the lights when we leave the room because it’s the norm or habit… “that’s what we do around home” – not because we calculate the energy savings as we contemplate leaving the room.  We run in races to set and meet a goal, be with friends, and maybe get a cool t-shirt (Maggie, I’m thinking of you!), not just because that’s the only opportunity to time ourselves and run a measured course.  And, as an anecdote from many years ago (still searching for documentation) – we recycle our old refrigerators, not for a $50 rebate but in exchange for a $10 gift card to the local ice cream shop.

Kids enjoying ice cream truck

Photo courtesy of kazzpoint0 via Flickr

Norms, habits, perceptions, goals, aspirations, and social pressure all contribute to us doing certain behaviors.  A new case in point from my own life:

For the past 7 days, I’ve done more yoga than I typically do in a single month.  You see…there’s a Spring Yoga Challenge going on at my studio (25 practices in 30 days), and I decided to take the challenge and devote myself to my yoga practice for the next month.

The thing is, I have to be honest.  When I think hard about it:

I’m doing it for the stickers.

There’s this sticker board, you see…  And maybe it’s like being a kid and flossing my teeth (I’m thinking of you, Mom…), but we get a sticker after every practice.  And the JOY, of peeling off the sticker from the paper, and putting it by your name is CRAZY REWARDING.

The positively colorful and compelling STICKER BOARD!

The positively colorful and compelling STICKER BOARD!

I didn’t even know until my 4th practice that there are RAFFLE PRIZES for those that complete the challenge.  Really…the stickers do it for me.

Maybe it’s the stickers, but behavior change research shows there’s probably more to this than a happy sticker board.  The Spring Challenge incorporates several “nudges” that research has shown help us change our behavior.

  • The sticker board  is a public and durable commitment – my name is listed along with several others, and our progress is marked next to our name.  It’s much harder to back down when you’ve made the commitment loud, clear, and visible.
  • There’s some social diffusion going on here.  Yoga instructor and my pal, Jonathan, gave me the necessary (even if silly) encouragement to sign up.  I’ve trusted him to lead me into new and strange poses and postures…so it makes sense I would trust him when he says I could/should try this yoga challenge.
  • Timing is not a motivator, but it didn’t stand in the way as a barrier.  Convenient, the Challenge started up right after my last running race, so I wouldn’t be disrupting any training schedule, and I usually turn to more yoga during a recovery period anyway.  (Just to note that timing can matter!)
  • Assisted handstand

    Individually strong… Collectively stronger!

    And, as I mentioned before in a previous post, IPY has a community that encourages certain norms…like doing the Challenge.  My other friends are doing it: Tariq, Monica, Rebecca, Gretchen, Michelle, Jessica…(just to name those I’ve seen most recently) …  And when you show up at Inner Power Yoga, you are always greeted with a smile, a name, some cozy fun chat, and a feeling that you really belong.

There’s community at IPY.  My name on that sticker board reminds me that I’m part of this community.  And in this community we (a bunch of us) are working towards practicing yoga 25 times in the next 30 days.  Pretty powerful stuff, huh?

Crow and extended crow pose

(Yea, this lasted about 3 seconds…)

I’ll keep you posted about my progress, but I have a feeling that even if I don’t complete the 25 practices, I still will have spent valuable time on the mat, deepened my practice, and gained all the benefits that come from a consistent yoga practice…  And maybe the stickers will end up in the recycling bin (however, remembered eternally by my camera phone), but the benefits will last far beyond this 30 days.

You see, it doesn’t matter if it’s stickers or almond butter, endorphins, feeling more confident about yourself, or just showing up because you want to see your friends…what matters is what we end up doing…the benefits will follow regardless.

Lesson: Don’t take for granted what will motivate and compel sustainable or other healthy (even if upside-down and extended) actions and behavior!

Note: Often folks learn about behavior change tools and strategies and they feel that their experience is therefore inauthentic or gamed.  I would argue that these types of structures and strategies are pervasive throughout our day, and we should be so lucky if they are part of and support healthy sustainable activity.  I am grateful for Ursula and the community she has created at IPY, and she created this fun game and challenge which just happens to nudge me (and probably several others) to deepen our yoga practices and dedicate some time to the mat.  There is nothing wrong with this, and I look forward to the fall challenge and many more after that!

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Success! Factors behind my new composting and health habits

Those that have witnessed one of my CBSM presentations (or read last week’s post) have heard my sustainable behavior change failure story (Failure stories are fun, right?  Read mine here.)

But this post isn’t about my failure…it’s about my recent SUCCESS!  

Four months ago, I started a new job.  This new job meant a longer commute (15-45 minutes longer each way), and longer hours (an extra hour 4 days a week to allow one day off every other week).  But it also meant I’d be surrounded by sustainably-minded colleagues again, and I was looking forward to the challenges and opportunities of the new position.  So, on one hand, I had greater limitations on my time and energy, but on the other hand, I could start with a clean slate and perhaps have the support of my new work environment.

What’s the result?  Two distinct changes that demonstrate the behaviors many of us strive for in our own lives, or to promote in others’.

  • IMG_2140

    The worm bin!

    I’ve been successfully maintaining a healthy and thriving vermiculture  compost for the last 4 months.  Barriers?  …See my failure story.

  • I’ve been exercising regularly and adopted other healthy habits for the last 4.5 months.  Barrier #1: I decided morning was the most fool-proof plan to integrate physical activity into my schedule.  But getting up at 6am is a whole 1.5 hours earlier than I typically was getting up…”Uff da”!  Barrier #2: I hated running…and really exercise in general.

If my story of failure demonstrated the challenge of behavior change, I hope my success story can begin to uncover the multiple and layered factors that make up a new behavior and habit.  (Hint: Note the theme of community and social support throughout these factors…)

Change #1: Composting with Worms!

  • Clean Slate (new job) Composting perhaps seemed like an appropriate way to celebrate the new job and commemorate a return to sustainability, plus summer was upon us in June – a good time to turn a new leaf
  • Cognitive Dissonance (aligning identities) I felt like I had abandoned my sustainable self back at CERTs where I felt the gentle and positive pressure to put forth a little bit more effort to be a bit more gentle on the earth.  Further, I was getting tired of telling my failure story over and over for the last several years.  In my new work place, the Dept of Environmental Protection, I felt it was time to invite my earth-friendly values to manifest.
  • Patio facing the woods (one plus to suburban life)

    Patio facing the woods (one plus to suburban life)

    Infrastructure (patio) We finally had a patio and we made plans to stay in this apartment for awhile.

  • Social Norm (descriptive) At my new job, I met a colleague whocomposts at home.  Iwas referred to her, she beingsomeone that “walks the talk” and Susanne gave me great composting advice and confirmed for me that this is something my new colleagues do and support.In July, my worms arrived and the rest is history.  I’m pretty sure I’ve doubled my worm population and am now looking for solutions to insulate them from the cold this winter!

IMG_1961    IMG_2137

Change #2: Exercising and other healthy stuff!
This one baffles me.  Why would I decide to add exercise to my routine when my commute time is doubling and I’m working longer days?  Plus, I had this aversion to sweating and running…

  • Social Diffusion (example of a colleague)  I thought of my friend and colleague who juggled a family, managed a rapidly growing nonprofit, and yet her morning run was (or seemed to be) one of the most consistent parts of her life.  I’ve looked to her as a mentor for many things, and her running routine wasn’t lost on me.
  • Clean Slate (new job and routine)  Despite the new time costs of the new job, at the beginning of the summer, I was excited, refreshed, and had the morning sun to my advantage.  I think I was also cognizant of the new responsibilities of the job and felt exercise would be an important part of me being able to handle it.  HBR talks about how exercise is an important part one’s mental and emotional (and of course, physical health)…and self-care is an important aspect of a leadership practice.
  • Post-run stretching spot

    Post-run stretching spot

    Self-Perception (changed by action) …since my work colleagues never knew the me-that-didn’t-exercise, all they know is me with my new habit.  This has done a number on my self-perception: my physical activity is a big part of who I consider myself to be now.

  • Convenience (trail out back, good weather) I’ve got a beautiful trail in my backyard for running (I can see it from my patio) – it skips over beautiful creeks, I witness fox and deer on a regular basis, and this summer wasn’t so painfully hot and humid as the previous ones. On that same token, my gym is near work, and when I go to the gym early, I beat traffic and save 15 minutes or so off my commute.
  • IMG_2221Prompts (reminders)  For my other health-oriented habits, like drinking more water, getting enough fruit, and heading to bed on time, I knew that these wouldn’t take much time at all, but I needed to do them throughout the day – not all at once.  I’m using an app called Balanced, which provides a nice reminder based on frequency (not time of day) to have that glass of water, get up and take a walk, be grateful, water my plants, and get 8+ hours of sleep most nights.

For both behaviors, ACCOUNTABILITY by COMMUNITY played a significant role.  My community – as an example, as a support, and as a positive reward – plays a central role.  At work, I have found a community that supports and congratulates a composting habit, among other sustainable practices.  My partner at home, trainer at the gym, and yoga instructors and fellow yogis provide a supportive community for my new healthy habits.  Community can be the tipping point: A friend, who has really picked up running, said that she had tried to “be a runner” for the last 10 years, and finally felt like she was one now that she was doing Team in Training and has a community to run with.

For all the research studies and linear processes of community-based social marketing, it is important to remember that behind the “social norms” and other tools, it is community that is truly still the most potent lever and key to persistent change.  Actions not supported by a community will not last.

Build a community that (at least looks like it) supports a certain behavior, and we can begin to unlock that composter, energy conservationist, garden grower, yogi or runner in each of us!

Change hurts: Influencing behavior is a messy business | Grist

Article: Change hurts: Influencing behavior is a messy business | Grist.

This is a great article from Grist summarizes an initiative called Tidy Streets, a feedback exercise that communicated to an entire street (and the world) their energy use over a period of time.  While there was initial change (the novelty effect?) the end findings are less than sustained behavior change:

‎”If you give people feedback on energy use, it does have the effect of reducing energy usage in the short-term,” Bird says. “What is trickier is, how do you get sustained sustainable behavior? Anybody who tells you they know how to do that, maybe hasn’t done it.”

It’s trickier than we think. What makes YOU change your habits or pick up a new practice?

There’s no silver bullet, but maybe silver buckshot. Our changed actions are a product of our perceptions, our peers, our resource (time and money and abilities), and our environment. Bird has found a great way to bring awareness, as he credits himself, but I agree with him that awareness is different than sustained behavior change. Awareness is part of it, but how do you build a culture?

I also appreciate the article’s coverage of the boomarang effect, though a misnomer, it’s really a messaging issue.

Got social norming? (Skim or whole?)


from https://i1.wp.com/www.lnxresearch.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/iStock_000004364391XSmall.jpgA large part of Community-Based Social Marketing involves activating and increasing visibility around social norms.  Social norming is nothing malicious or scary.  Rather, it’s something that affects us each and everyday.  Granted, we don’t like to admit the extent to which the behavior of others molds our own, but to understand human behavior, we cannot ignore the power of social norms.

A great example of social norming is recycling and curbside pick-up.  As recycling was becoming more common practice, the presence of the distinguishable recycling bins helped build a norm.  As you went outside on recycling day, the row of bins by your neighbors sends you cues: “This block recycles.  You live on this block.  You should probably recycle.”  “Where is your bin?  Don’t forget to set it out!”

Social norms tell us what is acceptable, and it allows us to know if we’re sitting well within the bounds of social acceptance.  That being said, social norming is different for different groups.  As Social Norms in Large and Small Networks describes, the size of group can have a real impact.

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Four “unwieldy truths” about getting to sustainable behavior


Wes Schultz is a professor at California State University – San Marcos, and is one of the leading American researcher around community-based social marketing, in an article he has prepared for Conservation Biology (to be published in 2012), that he shared with me, he hits home what I consider are the most powerful and useful takeaways from this field so far.

Wes Schultz clearly defines the problem of our deteriorating environmental conditions to be human-caused, and therefore the solution must also come from humans, namely through changing behavior.  This is characteristic of what other social fields call “wicked problems” or “adaptive problems”.  If we were rational, long-term thinking creatures, we wouldn’t have this problem.  But the challenge is that we are human, and we are much more than economic or rational beings. Continue reading