The Blog

Sticking It Out: 6 Research-Based Pointers for Sustained Behavior Change

Best practices around sustained motivation tell us that we need to think holistically, help our friend form new habits and control their lives. There is a ton of research in this area that can be distilled into a few guiding principles.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.


What do you tell your best friend who has been struggling to stick with a weight loss program? Best practices around sustained motivation tell us that we need to think holistically, help our friend form new habits and control their lives. There is a ton of research in this area that can be distilled into a few guiding principles.

You know your friend, so you probably have a pretty good idea about what makes them tick and what will motivate them, but perhaps you will find an employer perspective interesting. There are a few helpful frameworks employers use that might allow us to see our friends and perhaps ourselves in a different light. The first, based on the work of David Maxfield, recognizes that motivation and ability drive behavior and divides these domains into personal, social and structural sources. This recognizes that you are not just looking at your friend but also the social influences and the structural (what is available to them at home, at work, etc.). Thinking of behavior in this way allows us to focus our help in each area to see where there might be problems and where we could improve our approach.

The second is the self-determination theory of motivation. It is concerned with supporting our natural or intrinsic tendencies to behave in effective and healthy ways. To do this, according toRon Friedman, PhD., you can promote your friends autonomy, competence and connectivity.

The final is based on personality theory and requires that we marry the solution to the person's personality type. An easy theory to apply here is from Gretchen Rubin's work. Her four tendencies are the Upholder, Questioner, Obliger or Rebel. The tendencies you have tell us how you respond to expectations. This is important because when we are trying to form a new habit we're setting an expectation for our self. So for the Upholder who responds readily to both outer and inner expectation, both may work while for the Obliger who responds to outer expectations but has trouble with inner expectations you may need to make sure that you or others around them continue to give them a push. Other personality profiles like DISC or Myers Briggs can have application here too.

Considering these theories there are 6 guiding principles that you can use to help change your friends behaviors:

  1. Provide Feedback -- We manage what we monitor so individuals need an easy way to monitor their behavior and receive immediate feedback. Wearable devices are great because of this very reason. For example, we can immediately see how well (or not well) we slept.

  • Have them commit and make it their own -- We need commitment and accountability. If we verbalize our goals to others we are more likely to follow through. We do better if someone is watching. It is nice to have vision of where you want to end up but make sure there are easier, measurable goals along the way.
  • Keep it fresh. Continue to provide opportunities for them to start over or try something new so that they continue to grow and be challenged.
  • Make in intrinsic. Try to make their goals process oriented and not based on rewards or finish lines. Rewards are not enough to sustain behavior change. To continue to want to do something you need intrinsic motivation. Similarly if your goal is finishing a race vs. just racing or running then you are not going to be running long.
  • Make it convenient. Make it easy for them to take part in activities. Set group events up until they are doing it on their own. Individuals like to take part in group events where like-minded people will take part. This creates built-in networks and is very habit forming. It is like having a cafeteria where you know at least one of the group will be sitting at your table, where you don't have to schedule a lunch date every day.
  • Make it the norm. Work with the others around them to also take part in these activities and make bad habits less convenient. Take out the snacks or lower the number of bad choices. Have them use an exercise ball at work rather than a chair.
  • As a human capital consultant I have worked with a wide range of companies large and small on their wellness programs, and these recommendations hold true. They are just expanded to cover an entire population. And while companies might offer a salary and benefits, you have an advantage with what you know about your friend and the support you can provide. My clients would love to tap into that support network to drive change. Now you can tell them to leave it to the professionals.

    Good luck!