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How to Design for Long-Term Behavior Change—Part 1: New Habit Formation

Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Congats to Germany for winning the FIFA World Cup. Now, the game is over, it's time to get back to some serious gamification and talk about designing for sustained behavior changes.


Last time I told you about my biggest takeaway from GSummit 2014 after I gave a quick recap of the conference. I referenced Prof. BJ Fogg’s session specifically and I am devoting this (and the next) blog post to talk about some of my own work on long-term behavior changes. This is part 1, new habit formation.


The subject of long-term sustainable behavior change has been the center of my work for quite some time. In fact, my recent book—the science of social 2—is entirely devoted to sustainable (long-term) social strategies. But my interest for this subject began when I was studying enterprises’ effort to engage employees internally and customers externally. Despite the abundance of technologies and strategies that drive engagement, many companies’ efforts to motivate employee engagement (or customer engagement) seem at best transient. They either don’t work, or if they did work, their effect didn’t last long. Meaning the “change” was not sustainable. So companies have to constantly repeat their engagement program with their employees (or engagement campaign with their customers). And when they do repeat, the result is usually a diminishing return.


Motivation is Ineffective at Driving Long-Term Behavior

carrot & stick mgmt.pngDespite its ineffectiveness, companies still like to resort to their most familiar tool to drive behaviors—the carrot and the stick. If you want people (employees or customers) to behave a certain way, motivate them with rewards and incentives—a pay raise, a job promotion, a good deal (a discount), a gift, etc. Companies like to leverage these extrinsic motivators because they are easier to control, execute, understand, and their cost can be more precisely quantified. The problem is when the motivation is gone—after someone gets his pay raise, promotion, discount, gift, etc.—people’s behaviors often revert back to their old habit.


As you can see, motivation is only effective at driving temporary behavior changes, because people’s motivations are volatile—they change quickly—and they are easily influence by the environment and the people around them. So changes that are purely driven by motivation are usually not sustainable. To drive long-term behaviors, we need more determination than motivation, but that’s not easy to come by either. So what’s the single most important factor in driving long-term behavior?


The Key Driver for Long-Term Behavior

Two years ago, I was invited by Prof. Fogg himself to speak at a Health Habit conference he organized at Stanford. Since most health related habits are long-lasting, the conference explored possible ways that we can achieve long-term behavior changes. As it turns out, none of them involve any extrinsic motivation, and there are really only 3 paths that people develop long-lasting habits:

  1. If people have an epiphany (a self-realization): This path is intrinsically motivated, so we have little influence over it.
  2. If the context changed: This path involves changing people’s physical and social environment that is often not easily achieved. But when it’s feasible, it’s very effective.
  3. If the behavior is developed through a sequence of baby steps (tiny habits): This path involves designing a sequence of tiny habits leading to the desired behavior. The key is that every tiny habit is a baby step that is very simple. Although designing the sequence of tiny habits could be challenging, it’s at least systematic.


Tiny Habit Behavior Change px300.pngWe will focus on the 3rd path today because it reveals the key factor that drives habit formation. The power of baby steps in driving long-term behavior is in its simplicity. Prof. Fogg’s key insight is that if a behavior is simple enough, then people will do it regardless of their motivation. Clearly, from the Fogg’s behavior model, when the behavior is so simple that it’s all the way to on the right, then you will remain above the activation threshold whether you are motivated or not. Since you are always above the activation threshold, you will perform the behavior when triggered to do so. Therefore, if we coupled this baby step with a positive reinforcement, we can repeat the trigger as many times as we need until you learn the behavior—when it becomes a habit that lasts indefinitely.


So as it turns out, although the motivation factor is important for driving temporary behaviors, the ability factor (the simplicity of the behavior) matters much more in creating long-term habits. Furthermore, when the behavior is simple enough you don’t even need too much determination (which typically fades over time).


Creating Long-Term Behavior Change ≠ Creating Long-Term Behavior

Although we now know the key to creating a long-term habit, that’s only half of the picture. It is important to recognize that creating a habit is not the same thing as changing a habit. Changing a habit is more challenging, because it involves 2 steps:

  1. create a new habit
  2. get rid of the old habit


Change Ahead px250.pngSo now we understand step #1—how to create new habits, in part 2 of this topic (my next blog) I’ll address getting rid of the old habit and replacing it with the new habit. 



Creating new habits (i.e. long-term behaviors) is challenging, and most companies are not very successful with that part. Said another way, they suck at it because they focus on the wrong factor (i.e. motivation) of the behavior model (i.e. motivation, ability, and trigger). Contrary to what most people believe, motivation has little effect in driving long-term behavior. Motivation typically works well only to drive short-term, temporary behaviors.


The crucial factor for driving long-term behavior is ability. The insight is that if you can make a behavior simple enough, then regardless of how people’s motivation might change, they would still be above the activation threshold for that behavior. Once we have that, all we need is a routine trigger to drive long-term behavior; a simple task for a simple behavior change.


While this simple formula helps us create new habits, long-term behavior change requires one more step—replacing the old habit. Stay tuned for part 2 and more insights on designing for long-term behavior changes.



Michael Wu, Ph.D.mwu_whiteKangolHat_blog.jpg is CRM2010MKTAWRD_influentials.pngLithium's Chief Scientist. His research includes: deriving insights from big data, understanding the behavioral economics of gamification, engaging + finding true social media influencers, developing predictive + actionable social analytics algorithms, social CRM, and using cyber anthropology + social network analysis to unravel the collective dynamics of communities + social networks.


Michael was voted a 2010 Influential Leader by CRM Magazine for his work on predictive social analytics + its application to Social CRM. He's a blogger on Lithosphere, and you can follow him @mich8elwu or Google+.