The three elements that can change behavior

The last vestige of childhood tradition for many of us recovering Catholics is deciding what to give up for Lent. This year, I decided to give up sugar. Usually I prefer to give up liver or Brussels sprouts, which I find ever-so-easy to deny myself compared to sweet treats, while admittedly less likely to fit the Lenten goal of character-boosting deprivation.  As a heart attack survivor, I’m not even really a big eater of sweets, ironically.

But lately, ever since I made this stupid Lenten resolution, all I dream about morning, noon and night are butter tarts, cinnamon buns and that divine Espresso Chunk chocolate from Denman Island.

Essentially, what I’m trying to do is kickstart a healthier habit, if only for the 40 days of Lent.

But why is making a deliberate behavior change like this so darned hard?  If you ask Dr. B.J. Fogg, founder of the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University, here’s how he would answer you:

“Three elements must converge at the same moment for a behavior to occur:

  • motivation
  • ability
  • trigger

“When a behavior does not occur, at least one of those three elements is missing.”

There are two types of behaviors, Dr. Fogg adds: one-time and repetitive. His Fogg Behavior Model (FBM) shows how changing ongoing repetitive behavior is the result of those three specific elements coming together at one moment.

So let’s set aside what Dr. Fogg dismissively calls “the fuzzy mass of psychological theories” about behavior change out there, and look at my no-sugar-for-Lent challenge through the FBM lens.

Here’s how I might approach my Lenten goal:

1. maintain my motivation by focusing on improvements to my overall quality of life – like feeling good, having fewer cravings for sweets, or losing a few pounds (which they tell me will make me feel better than the momentary thrill of a homemade Nanaimo bar will);

2.  reduce my ability to consume sugary treats by simply not bringing any cash with me when I’m out for my daily walk so that I’m unable to make a quick pit stop for a Rogers dark chocolate-dipped-in-crushed-almond-brittle ice cream bar on my way home;

3.  remove the trigger by crossing the street in Oak Bay Village to avoid walking past the bakery and thus leaving noseprints on the window and drool stains on the sidewalk.

Dr. Fogg also likes the idea of introducing tiny habits into behavior change strategies, ideally when a tiny habit can directly and conveniently follow a trigger, as opposed to requiring multiple steps to implement.

Examples of good trigger-tiny habits include:

  • “After I brush, I will floss one tooth”
  • “When I hear my phone ring, I will exhale and relax for three seconds”
  • “After my head hits the pillow, I will recall one positive experience from the day”

Dr. Fogg calls my particular Lenten goal a Gray Span behavior (reducing a behavior for a specific period of time, as opposed to permanently eliminating it and facing a bleak joyless lifetime without a single Tim Hortons maple dip).

Examples of other Gray Span behaviors include:

  • Health: Two drinks max at Happy Hour tonight.
  • Environment: Drive a car less often this month.
  • Commerce: Spend less on lunch this week.

Gray Span behaviors, Dr. Fogg explains, are common in interventions for health (“eat less”), environment (“consume less”), and personal financial security (“spend less”).

Compare these goals with what’s known as a Purple Span behavior which is a behavior that we want to increase in intensity or in duration (for example, go to the gym more often this month).

I like these ephemeral Lenten resolutions, because they, like other Gray Span behaviors, are somehow hopeful. Do something for just ___ days, and then work on repeating it.

If you want to.

And I can keep on doing anything for 40 short little days, right?


16 thoughts on “The three elements that can change behavior

  1. Very nice writing…almost as nice as chocolate drizzle script on german chocolate cake! Seriously, these are great insights and tools to help us help patients who have Gray Span and Purple Span goals.

  2. I am trying to give up desserts for the month of March, in hopes that it will lower my desire for them afterwards, and I also am thinking constantly about sweets! Must be part of being human….. I’ll try to apply these insights, & see if they help.

    Thank you…

  3. One other factor to the three I would add would be ‘support’. This can either be from family or friends, or, I suspect in your case, your religious observance of Lent and the support of fellow Catholics. I am more in the Grey Span category rather than abstention, although there is a lot of debate about whether Grey Span approaches are more sustainable in the long run. Depends on the person I guess – and the craving.

    • Thanks Andrew – the advantage of Grey Span changes is its very temporary nature (doesn’t call for a lifetime of change – but it’s a start). In my own case, there is NO religious observance of Lent here but merely the sole vestige of a long-ago Catholic childhood.

  4. Grey Span is working for me (so far!) as I’ve given up sugar as well, for Lent or a similar period of time. I find there is quiet acceptance of my “sacrifice” when I mention the word Lent – interesting in my predominantly secular existance.

    Vestiges of our childhood church backgrounds??

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  6. Ah yes, giving up something for Lent. It was weird for me as a child because I grew up in Louisiana, which is heavily populated with Catholics. And I also went to a Catholic school until the 6th grade. Now, the weird part in all of this is that my family is Baptist, but for the longest I just “knew” I was Catholic.

    Anyway, saying all of that to say that giving up something for Lent was truly a way of life for a long time during my childhood. It wasn’t something I was ‘required’ to do, but I felt compelled. I got away from doing that for a while until this year when I decided to give up FRIED food for Lent. Now, let me just say I’m not one to eat fried foods every day. And I would only eat fried chicken maybe once a month. However, I LOVE french fries, especially those of the fast food variety. So it wasn’t until I gave up the deep fried stuff for Lent that I realized how much I go through drive-thru places and how lazy I was in finding a healthy alternative. When I cook at home, I rarely fry anything. So why do I succumb to those pressures when faced with the myriad of options on restaurant menus? THAT’S the behavior I need to analyze!

    I am finding it easier to give up something for Lent now because I don’t want to disappoint God (which i guess is ‘motivation’). Whereas if I had decided I was just gonna stop eating fried foods (for my health) I would be a huge failure. (wonder why that is??) As for as the ‘ability’ behavior, I keep health snacks and other food options around so I wouldn’t be tempted. And in my mind I don’t want to waste money so why go through a drive-thru when I already have food at home? And the ‘trigger’ would be changing the channel when those mouth-watering food commercials come on or choosing to go to restaurants that only have healthy options. Difficult sometimes, but not impossible. But I have to admit that I’ve had to go out of my way to make better choices.

    Sadly, there are some folks who don’t have that option, but that’s another topic for another day! (addressing food deserts and the lack of healthy food choices for those in lower-income, urban areas.)

    Thanks for sharing this eye-opening info!

    • Hello RoniLynn – well, you’re the first Baptist I’ve encountered who does the Lent thing! Those early childhood traditions stick with us . . . Good luck with your Lenten challenge – only 12 more sleeps to go!

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