How to motivate yourself to change your behaviour

I watched a TED talk recently by Professor Tali Sharot on how to motivate yourself to change your behaviour. It was quite eye-opening as I saw some of the theories play out in my own life. You can watch it here, and I highly recommend it. The talk named three main aspects that help to motivate yourself to change your behaviour: social incentives, immediate reward, and progress monitoring.

Social incentives

I suppose in a way this can be almost like “keeping up with the Joneses” or some friendly competition where you are compared to others. The talk gave two examples: one about encouraging hand washing on a hospital ward and another about receiving an energy bill showing energy consumption.

In the hospital scenario the social incentive is that you are ranked against co-workers for hand washing before entering a room and in the energy bill scenario you see that you are better than the average neighbour on energy consumption but not the best in the neighbourhood.

Social incentives can be seen in video games where players are ranked against each other and in life when friends start exercising and you want to join in. I found listening to this really interesting, because for me social incentives would only be successful if there are lots of people involved in the friendly competition.

For instance, my husband has been encouraging me to read for so long but last year I only read two books. Whilst at university (studying English Literature) I was on a course with dozens of students all reading and I read on average a book every other day.

Immediate reward

The next aspect is immediate reward. In the talk, the hospital scenario’s immediate reward was to see your progress straight away on a board by the sink, as people running this experiment would update the board immediately after viewing someone wash their hands on camera.

In the energy bill scenario the immediate reward was a smiley face, short and sweet. The talk explained that receiving or seeing something tangible and certain now is better than waiting for uncertainty in the future.

Again this translates well to video games, for instance in any music or dance based video game for each note sung or move danced well there is an “excellent” or “perfect” that appears on screen. When exercising with friends you can see benefits straight away such as better mobility or strength.

I’ve seen this when dog training and the dog understands when it performs or shows a trick it gets a treat, and then willingly offers the trick all the time to get more treats. You see it in school, or in children generally, where they are rewarded a sticker for good work or for doing the chores at home. Maybe the book I am reading, or trying to read, just isn’t rewarding enough hence why I haven’t finished reading it yet.

Progress monitoring

The last aspect is progress monitoring. The talk stated that highlighting progress is more effective than highlighting decline. In both hospital and energy bill scenarios progress monitoring was showing your progress throughout the year on a graph showing an upwards trend.

In video games you complete the game or have a new high score and move onto another game. In exercising you complete the beginners class and move onto the intermediate class or have a new “high score” on what you can lift.

In dog training the dog perfects the trick and is taught another. In school children have progress reports at the end of the academic year before moving onto the next. I suppose in reading the book is finished and then you move onto another (hopefully more enjoyable) book.

The talk ends stating that not one solution fits everything. Fear induces inaction, whilst the thrill of gain induces action. So to really motivate change in your behaviour one must focus on positive strategies.

I found this TED talk really interesting and motivating, trying to see how it can fit in aspects of my life. And like Sharot I see that it doesn’t always fit. Maybe I have just read enough in my life. Or maybe I need to find a better book.

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