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You wake up one morning, look in the mirror, and notice you’ve put on weight. You summon the courage to step on the scale and prove your observation right; you’ve gained 14 pounds. This activates a train of judgemental thinking around how you got to this point, and your mood follows your thinking. The rest of your morning routine to get ready for work is distracted by your internal dialogue. You’re frustrated that you gained this weight, and you decide that you’ll make an effort to lose it.

Many can relate to this scenario. We can be our own worst critics, and can make promises to ourselves that we never follow through on. What we think we want to do and what we do aren’t always the same. We may decide to act, but ultimately do nothing. Why? Because we don’t have a game plan to manage our motivation to move from thinking to action.

This micro skill of changing behaviour provides guidance on motivating ourselves to make behavioural change.

Awareness – The first thing to understand about behavioural change is that it’s hard. So are getting a university degree, having children, keeping a healthy, loving relationship, and working for 30 years.

In a recent TedX talk by Mel Robbins, an author, life coach, TV host and CNN commentator, she introduced the concept of activation energy as being the primary ingredient for behavioural change. In chemistry, activation energy refers to the least amount of energy required for a reaction to take place. Her point was, to create any kind of behavioural change requires more energy than to stay the same. She used the example that if you want to face activation energy head-on, start your day one hour earlier than you normally do.

One first step toward changing behaviour such as diet and exercise is accepting that it takes effort and energy to create new habits to replace old ones that are routine.


The good news about behavioural change is that day 100 is much easier than day one. Going into any change, such as losing 14 pounds, requires not only intentional energy but realistic expectations. Losing one pound a week as a target suggests it will take around 100 days to lose 14 pounds.

Deciding to change behaviour also requires clarity on your motivation. It may be to support your health by lowering your risk for chronic disease and to increase your level of energy so you’re able to play with your children. Such motivation is much more likely to work than simply saying you want to lose a few pounds.

Having realistic expectations and clarity on your purpose can help make change possible. This can help fuel the activating energy required in the early days to do what’s required day after day to achieve your desired outcome.

Action – Here are five steps that can assist in making behavioural change:

1. Define your desired outcome – Once you pick something you want to change, write out your goal in one simple, clear statement: “My goal is to lose 14 pounds.” Stick that note on your computer, so you can see it every day.

2. Set realistic expectations for how long it will take to achieve your goal – Don’t look for immediate results. Set realistic expectations to prevent unwarranted judgment and frustration, as change takes time. So does moving from pushing oneself to do something that feels hard to transforming it into an easy and enjoyable daily habit.

3. Define why the goal is important to you – Be clear on your motivation that you can draw upon during those moments when you don’t feel like doing anything.

4. Build your action plan and implement it quickly – Once you decide to make change, get moving at it quickly. Determine your action plan, and focus on what you’ll do and how you’ll do it. Measure your progress daily.

5. Anticipate hard before easy – The excitement of a behavioural change plan can wear off fast. Staying committed to dig down and push through with new behaviours can be hard. But as Ms. Robbins taught, likely not much harder than pushing yourself to wake up an hour early. There’s often no escaping the fact that we need to create more energy and internal drive to change than to stay the same.

Bill Howatt is the chief of research for work force productivity at the Conference Board of Canada and a co-creator of the Employee Recommended Workplace Award.

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