Behaviour change is very hard!

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As part of an assignment for a client I am developing a “playbook” of techniques to address lots of different examples of resistance to change. It is aimed at Change Agents, Champions, Ambassadors – whatever you call them, those that we hope will influence their colleagues to adopt new ways of working.

My playbook includes ideas for points to raise in conversations, how to role model new ways of working and how to construct stories that enthuse and inspire others to get involved. Listening to the media in the UK reporting that people are reluctant to come out of lockdown is an example of how a new behaviour, when it takes hold is so hard to break. The UK has been in lockdown since late March, so staying at home and being fearful of meeting others for fear of infection has become the norm.

I am having my own mini experience of how to encourage adoption of new behaviour. I live in Spain where this weekend it has become possible for the elderly to leave their homes for a walk once a day, in one of two possible time-slots morning and evening. My father has spent the last 7 weeks creating a new routine as he has not left the house, except for one brief trip to the pharmacy a week ago. This required getting to grips with mask wearing, and the realities of how it is difficult to hold is wallet or do up his seat belt wearing rubber gloves.

The level of stress in our house in the hours prior to this brief outing were high, and I had to provide lots of reassurance that he was doing all the right things, and had all the right documentation in case the police asked him why he was out of the house.

This weekend, the stress was back, because even though my father wants to accompany me on a short walk, it is something that he has got out of the habit of doing. As all of us involved in change will know, we have to promote the benefits of doing something new, we have to make it as easy as possible to do the new thing, removing any barriers to action whilst making the change appear effortless, to role model how easy it will be to “have a go”.

As with all change, we had false starts. He missed the first chance yesterday morning, saying he wasn’t sure it was OK to go out. Instead I went out during the designated exercise time and came back with reports of the elderly and their carers walking our pavements. I was even able to add evidence, as a local policeman had gone past and not stopped anyone. This was an important measure for my father of the approval for exercise.

This removed any reason not to go out, so last night he made the trip. He was very stressed in the hour before-hand and tried to pull out several times (he couldn’t find his shoes, he had just eaten and needed to digest his meal etc). Eventually we left the house, and I could see how nervous he was as he came through the gate. I kept up a stream of reassuring comments, pointing out others who were walking and thanking him for coming with me. We returned home feeling satisfied with our achievement.

But that was the battle, not the war…. and now I am about to ask my Dad to come for his second evening walk. Already he has given me a couple of reasons why he could leave it until tomorrow, so I am back to explaining how much he enjoyed last night. But it demonstrates that one example of the desired behaviour is not sufficient to create a habit. My father is not driving the agenda, I am. Until he has repeated his evening walk for a number of days, it will not be his “normal” and he will still need encouragement.

Mentally I am tired, and this is just a tiny microcosm of the behaviour changes we have ahead of us. So wish me luck, as I wish all of you luck as you make yet more changes to your routines.