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micro skills

Having a plan to keep you on track will help you make changes permanent.Getty Images/iStockphoto/The Globe and Mail

This is part of a series looking at micro skills – changes that employees can make to improve their health and life at work and at home, and employers can make to improve the workplace. The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell have created the Employee Recommended Workplace Award to honour companies that put the health and well-being of their employees first. Read about the 2017 winners of the award

Registration for the 2018 Employee Recommended Workplace Awards have closed. Companies can pre-register for 2019 at

How often do struggle with self-control?

To provide more context, consider your food choices at meal time. A motivated person who is aiming to eat better could set the rational goal to increase their daily fruit and vegetable intake and cut out unhealthy calories.

On the surface, this is a rational decision. So then why do so many people fail to follow through? Some may believe the reason is a gap in self-control. There's a school of thought that suggests human beings are more likely to make an irrational rather than a rational decision.

The science of behavioural economics suggests that most people in the moment of making behavioural choices don't weigh the costs – nor calculate the benefits – of their decisions. Many focus on immediate happiness (such as what will make them feel good now), regardless of the long-term impact (such as overeating and gaining weight).

This model applies to many choices that impact many elements of life, including finances, relationships, jobs, mental and physical health.

This micro skill provides a framework for how to make better daily decisions using some lessons from behavioural economics. One way to use this micro skill is to make better daily dietary decisions rather than picking unhealthy default options (such as choosing a salad instead of fries, water versus soda, fruit versus cake or other sweets) that aren't good for our long-term health.


Through a behavioural-economic lens, many people are prone to making errors in judgement that bias their decision making. It's also common to omit information. Often, a poor choice doesn't have immediate consequences, but can have long-term effects. For example, one pound equals 3,500 calories, so if you slip on your calorie intake each week by 1,000 calories, over six months you'll gain nearly seven pounds.


Making a less-effective nutrition choice increases the likelihood of chronic health risk (for example, preventable diseases, obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease).

When it comes to making decisions, we're more likely to opt in to a heathy future choice than partake in one today. Deciding to make healthy choices begins with being accountable and wanting to enjoy both today and our future to their full potential. One common behavioural change challenge is understanding and accepting that positive gains or gratification are often delayed, as well as losses.


Pick one behaviour you want to change.

Behavioural change program

For this program to work you need to be motivated and ready to make the desired change. The goal is to increase the likelihood that your decision will be made rationally rather than irrationally.

Write out your desired behavioural change: For example, "I want my daily calorie intake to be between 2,000 and 2,200 calories. I want to consume foods such as fruits, vegetables and proteins that promote health."

Build a daily decision tree programming card that you'll keep with you at all times and read every morning, at noon and before you go to bed. Respond to each of the following statements in fewer than 30 words to create your program.

My daily decision card

1. Define the risk for not changing. "Not eating healthy foods increases my risk for cancer, heart disease, diabetes and negatively impacts my mental energy."

2. Define the impact on your health. "Eating the correct daily calorie intake with the right foods will help me achieve and maintain my health and body weight goals."

3. Define the benefits. "By making good daily decisions with respect to my diet I'll increase my energy and self-confidence, and maintain my ideal weight."

4. Define the barriers. "Time to prepare healthy meal choices. I'll create my daily diet plan to make my meal decisions for the day."

5. Define cues to action. "Before each meal I'll visualize that if I eat this healthy meal it supports my health goals. I want my daily meal decisions to be good for me now and in my future."

Program success factors

To increase the likelihood that your behavioural change program will become your automatic daily opt-in option:

· Understand the importance of keeping things simple. Use your daily cue card as a guide so that you don't have to process or think about what you're going to do each day. You have already created your daily options.

· Commit to learn about the area you want to improve. Continuous learning reinforces and expands our knowledge base.

· Be clear on what's in it for you. Remind yourself daily why you're acting for benefits now and for tomorrow.

· Use a daily journal or checklist to log your progress toward your goals. Understand that this isn't about being perfect. One day doesn't define you; a pattern of days does.

Bill Howatt is the chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell in Toronto.

This article supports The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell's Employee Recommended Workplace Award. This award recognizes employers who have the healthiest, most engaged and most productive employees. It promotes a two-way accountability model where an employer can support employees to have a positive workplace experience.

You can find all the stories in this series