Making Meaningful, Long-Term, Behavioral Change

by Dr. Aaron Halliday

Both coaches and consultants strive to help their clients improve their effectiveness and performance in their chosen fields, be it for work or broader self-improvement. They achieve this by collaborating with their clients, teaching them new knowledge, tools, and skills and by drawing awareness to the full extent of their natural abilities. They teach their clients to expand themselves and grow to meet their desired end states and promote a vision of continuous personal development. Such progress requires seeing clients through daily struggles all with the aim of arriving at an entirely new level of performance and homeostasis. It's both challenging and incredibly rewarding, this is why I love what I do.

Habits are consistent patterns of behaviour that require effort to establish or break. They are cued by specific stimuli and are typically followed by specific rewards. Habits are neither good nor bad by their very nature. It really depends on the habit and their alignment with your desired short- and long-term goals. Habits serve the purpose of cognitive efficiency - freeing people from having to plan and consider every detail. This leaves us free to focus on other more important less typical things we encounter throughout our day. This is why you're able to drive your car and talk to the passenger beside you at the same time or go about mentally planning your day while doing cardio. However, problems may occur when habits obstruct us from obtaining the goals we wish to achieve, damage our health, diminish our wealth, and limit the application of our knowledge, skills, and abilities that would otherwise allow us to achieve our maximum potential. By leveraging what evidence-based knowledge science has to provide regarding goal setting and habit formation people can be much more effective in overcoming longstanding obstacles that have impeded their success. Research shows that coaches and consultants are of great help to people and organizations in effecting such meaningful, long-term behavioral change in no small part due to their understanding of the science behind effective training, development, experimentation, goal setting, and habit formation. However, with or without a trained expert of your own there are plenty of things that you can do to improve your ability to establish goals of your own, form new habits and replace old habits that may not be serving you anymore.

People tend to be creatures of habit. This is why habit formation and goal setting are a great means by which coaches and consultants can assist in enacting consistent change in those who are seeking help with various problems. But what does science tell us is the best means for people to effectively translate intentions to long-term change? Here I review what the scientific literature indicates are evidence-based best practices for people to apply when setting and enacting goals to effect meaningful, long-term behavioral change - including: the role of the coach; goal intentions, striving to achieve goals, persistence and engagement in goal attainment to maximize long-term success through habit forming behavioral change.

Effective Coach-Client Approaches

First, let's address the pink elephant in the room and answer the most obvious question: Is coaching effective? Recent meta-analyses have been conducted to critically evaluate the effectiveness of individual and organizational coaching and message tends to be a resounding yes. Coaching is being shown in research to have substantial effects on theoretically and practically relevant individual-level outcome categories such as: performance, skills, well-being, coping, work attitudes, and goal-directed self-regulation and more. Findings generally indicate that coaching is, overall, an effective intervention to assist you in overcoming challenges, increasing your performance and well-being.

The ideal process of effective coaching involves the coach and client working collaboratively; coaches and clients agree on goal intentions, set and plan effective goals, and undertake implementation to a point where behavior modification becomes long-term and second nature to the client. The aim of leveraging habit is to not have to consciously think about engaging in the goal for it to be activated. Much like riding a bike, once you've learned how, you don't have to be constantly putting all of your energy and efforts into piloting, navigating, and maintaining balance as you operate the vehicle. Habit formation takes time and effort, but generally speaking, the worst part of the experience is the beginning - after that momentum builds past a certain critical mass it's all down hill from there.

What makes an effective coach? This is an extremely broad subject area fit for a dedicated post of its own. Research generally indicates that coaches should provide an open and trusting relationship as they provide direction, feedback, and social and emotional support for their clients. They best help their clients by being a source of self-regulation, belief in oneself, and act as an effective assessor of the client's readiness for and ability to change. There is no one single approach to coaching. However, I find it useful to follow the 3-E model: coaches should be Enlightened and Encouraging while Enabling their clients (Nowack, 2009). It also helps if they can understand your values and motivating forces and mesh with your personally so that they can provide you with psycho-social support along the way. Effective communication is also very important, understanding how to give and receive constructive feedback on the part of both the coach and client will assist in a smoother path toward you and your long-term aims while avoiding blunted motivations and hurt feelings grounded in simple miscommunication.

Coaches will assist clients in goal setting - outlining the new state (increase, decrease, begin, stop, change approach, etc.), frequency (once, when I become aware of, all the time, etc.), and cues (or reminders) that will be used in grounding behavioral change, goal striving - following through with one's plans related to behavioral change, redefining and revising your goals over time, and managing the various obstacles between current state, goal achievement, and long-term behavioral change.

Intrinsic motivation - motivation that stems from a natural genuine interest or inherent value of something (for example, the motivation that propels people to do them without being paid to do them - heck they may even pay to do them themselves) - is a powerful motivator. Goals linked to what already successfully drives you (intrinsically) as an individual are likely to be most effective in propelling you toward long-term success. When you align your goals with intrinsic rewards, it leverages automaticity and enhances habit formation. It should also help you to prioritize your goals by incorporating and integrating your goals with your own natural reward and value system. You're more likely to make time for things you want to do and it's often easier to do challenging tasks if they're paired with similar activities that you enjoy. I despise cardio: spending time on the treadmill, bike, or elliptical isn't my idea of a good time. However, I do love to play video games. When I found out that I could lose weight while playing Sid Meier's Civilization my motivation switched from something I was doing as a means to an ends to something I did because it was something that I looked forward too. My appreciation for this activity was further enhanced by establishing a rule where I couldn't play this particular game unless I was subsequently engaged in cardio. This was a particularly good move as anyone who has ever played Civilization will tell you that game has a particular way of making hours feel like passing moments. By leveraging intrinsic motivation, I transformed one goal obstruction (wasting time playing video games instead of pursuing my goals) into a goal enhancement and shifted the activity of my goals to one in alignment with my drives.

The Characteristics of Achievable Goals

Goal characteristics cover a number of aspects as discussed below. A common understanding is that they should always be S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely). These guidelines are tried, tested, and true.

In addition to research supporting the S.M.A.R.T. Goals framework, recent research has new additions to the S.M.A.R.T. goal framework. Recent research indicates that challenging yourself with goals that require greater effort, focus, and persistence will push you to make greater overall gains than more simply attainable goals. Think big! This is not to suggest that you should set impossible goals and strive to achieve them. However, simply put, if you aren't pushing yourself hard enough, you may not be experiencing any meaningful growth. Moreover, when you finally do achieve those big "push-goals", you're likely to be much more pleased with your level of achievement and success. People often underestimate what they are fully capable of. Big, long-term goals provide motivation to pursue realistic but (in the eyes of a beginner) unbelievable. Remember, if you experience too much initial challenge in your goal pursuit, you can always reassess, recalibrate the difficulty a little, and pursue the push goal with a better approach or pace that will allow you to succeed.

Short-Term versus Long-Term Focus

The timeframe of your goals should be reasonable for each specified goal that you want to achieve. You cannot build Rome in a day and trying to do so may cause quite a bit of demotivation and frustration as a result. Since short-term goals can me achieved more quickly relative to long-term goals, they may inspire more motivation and may be better structured to prompt a greater degree of self-regulation in those that aspire to achieve them. Conveniently, you can break long-term goals into smaller, more specific, sub-goals that may be better structured for easier goal attainment. This is called nesting and is incredibly useful for achieving large push-goals that may initially seem unbelievable at first, but in truth are quite realistic given the appropriate timespan, dedication, and attention. Experiment with framing larger goals as smaller specified steps, build in tracking and monitoring systems to ensure progress is being achieved in an appropriate amount of time, share your goal intentions not only between the coach and client but also with supportive friends and family.

Mastery versus Performance Goals

Before you set out to climb Everest, you should probably pick up a book or two. It will give you the tools that you need to truly take off when you are ready to try to achieve related performance goals. In addition to this it will also provide a boost to your confidence, self-regulation, and commitment to your goals. If you’ve invested the time in learning about a topic, you may also leverage the sunk-cost fallacy enough to push you over the initial hurdle. You may be more likely to believe that the goal is important to you and be committed to it. Mastery goals focus on obtaining knowledge, strategies, skills, and techniques that allow people to attain and sustain the results they’re trying to achieve. This stems from activities like reading or obtaining feedback from knowledgeable others (e.g., trained experts and professionals). People tend to be propelled further by mastery goals than other goals like those associated with performance or competition. However, this isn't to say that performance goals aren't worth setting. It just may be much more appropriate to set performance goals after a foundation of mastery goals have been achieved. Consider whether you’re pursuing learning or performance goals and how you may want to stage them and stagger them to ensure competence and proficiency before performance-based achievements.

Approach versus Avoidance Goals

Approach goals are focused upon working toward a desired outcome. People using approach goals are more successful when the goal has a small range, e.g. stating “between 4 and 6” rather than strictly stating “5”.

Avoidance goals are focused on trying to avoid undesirable outcomes. Avoidance goals are often contextualized ambiguously and (as their name suggests) they should be "avoided" in lieu of an approach-goal-based orientation. If after some reflection you find that your goals are generally framed as avoidance goals, consider how you could recontextualize avoidance-oriented goals to be more approach oriented. For example, rather than, “I will stop interrupting my staff when they talk to me,” you could instead frame it to be “before I talk, I will make an active effort to demonstrate active listening by confirming that I understood what the person talking to me was saying before moving forward with my own talking points.

If-Then Planning

One of the best predictors of whether or not someone will initiate in actively pursuing a goal is the perception and valuation of how important that person perceives the goal to be. An individual’s level of self-efficacy (the degree to which they are confident and believe they are capable of executing) and their perception of control over various factors, however, are stronger indicators of success. Individuals pursuing goals benefit from advanced consideration of the likely barriers to success, likely obstacles they will encounter, and temptations that may thwart them or detract from their efforts. This sort of practice planning allows individuals to realistically prepare and avoid potential pitfalls and likely hurdles before encountering problematic situations. It also provides a framework by which to understand how to deal with unplanned problems that inevitably present themselves as you progress toward your goal. Everyone who has ever been through drivers ed. or sex education classes has some experience with this. The lessons and exercises you practice in advance are all directed to drawing your attention to possible likely threats and how to effectively avoid or mitigate risks to unhealthy, potentially catastrophic or life-altering outcomes. You have opportunities to practice, in a safe, controlled environment where you can role model, consider, and devise effective resolutions to scenarios before they occur in the thick of things. You don’t want to have to explain to someone as they’re fishtailing across a poorly lit freeway during the beginnings of a snowstorm with black ice littering the road that the proper way to correct things is by turning the wheel in the same direction as the skid. Nor is it a particularly good idea to let kids figure out how to avoid pregnancy or practice safe sex on their own. So why would it be any different when you try to avoid consuming extra calories if you're striving for weight loss or when you're trying to commit a certain number of hours to study every week while learning a new skill. Informed practice plans are effective and the research and practical evidence for it abounds. Moreover, practice plans work particularly well if they’re framed in the form of “if-then” statements. “If _____ happens, then I shall do _______…” These can be visually depicted in the form of a flow-chart of behavioral options where the best of all possible conceptualized options are depicted and can be mapped for success. Some “If” triggers are situation based, others are time-based; it may be relevant to employ both to achieve the best possible outcome ensuring goal attainment and long-term behavioral change.

Set and Setting

Research indicates that changes to mind-set and setting (or environment) may also be effective in promoting the formation of new habits and disrupting old. The reason behind this is that changes to set and setting often disrupt old cues that activate prior habits and promote new spaces to cultivate new cues that elicit the habits you wish to promote. New settings force people to be more aware of themselves, the norms of the setting, and the decisions they make within them. This is why behaviour change interventions tend to be more effective during major life course changes such as moving your home or changing jobs. Although natural habit shifts in set and setting are effective in promoting behavioral change, planned shifts, often referred to as environmental reengineering, can be similarly effective. By dropping yourself in a new suitable location that fosters a productive state of mind or making your current setting more convenient and promotional of the behaviours you are trying to engage in more frequently, you may be able to enhance your efforts. I often work at a new coffee shop, book store, or library on my weekends - the smell of coffee and the setting of people reading or working hard promotes my own work efforts on days that I would otherwise be in a location where the abundance of my relaxation and recovery takes place: my home. Habits can be disrupted by changes in macro environments or during life transitions, habit performance can also be altered through choice architecture or convenience. Steve Jobs described his approach to office design by forcing people have to walk through the office, encountering many different people on their way whenever they wanted to get to the bathroom - this was intentionally done all in an effort promote habits of engaging others in order to encourage conversations and stimulate thought, creativity, and innovation.

Motivation and Reinforcement

Even if a person has moved through stages of contemplation, preparation and action it may not mean they have the will to actually achieve the goal. Ultimately (in accordance with multiple psychological theories pertaining to goal setting and behavioral change) clients are ready to change when they are ready to change. You can’t force anyone into a position of readiness, but when they are ready to make the change, you can be there as a supportive friend, family member, or trained expert ready to guide and facilitate the growth. It is important to be aware of motivation theory and have a deep understanding of proper application of positive reinforcement that may prove necessary to initialize motivation directed at goal progression. Understand that although habits may be formed via external motivation (traditional carrot and stick motivation) it is notoriously worse than intrinsic motivation at promoting desired end states.

As people make progress toward their goals they usually begin by conceptualizing their progress in accordance with what they have achieved. However, as they move forward and get closer to obtaining their goals, they eventually switch to focusing on what progress remains to achieve their desired end state. This tends to result in a phenomenon where motivation is highest at the start and end of the process but wanes notably in the middle. One way that individuals can avoid such wanes in motivation is by dividing large goals into smaller, more easily achievable sub-goals. This way progress can be measured, identified, and reinforced with the rewarding feeling of sub-goal accomplishment while you make (the sometimes lengthy) progress toward goal achievement and behavioral change.

A Timeline for Behavioral Change

Evidence shows there are large time differences concerning the establishment of habits - anything between 18 – 250 days is common, depending on the complexity of the behaviour, the person’s motivation, and the personality of the individual. A general timeframe is approximately two months to establish any behavioral change to the point where it is an automatic habit, and feels natural. While behavioral changes bring about measurable neuroplasticity (biological and chemical changes) in the brain, unless these behaviors are continued, actual performance may not improve. Also neuroplasticity is a two-way street, if you don't actively and consistently engage your habits and skills they may revert to your original state when behavior is discontinued for long periods of time. As neuroscientists often say, “Use it or lose it.”

Talent Isn't Everything

Angela Duckworth, author of "Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance", describes her theory of achievement to flow from two primary equations:

1. Talent x Effort = Skill

2. Skill x Effort = Achievement

What this means is that you have a natural predisposition for achievement in a given domain due to factors like your genetic make-up. However, the degree to which you nurse that talent with effort (training, learning, mastery, developing proficiency) will determine the amount of skill that you have. Moreover, the amount of effort that goes into your work interacts with your skill to yield your level of achievement. There are quite a few interesting natural implications from this theory of achievement in that if you have zero or near zero values in any category you will yield zero achievement. This is to say if you have absolutely no talent for something (people don't have wings and tend to fly like a brick we jump out of airplanes without mechanical help) your likelihood for achievement is likely to be the same as if you had no effort or had cultivated no skill: quite small. The other thing that this indicates is that effort plays quite a valuable role. Another way of writing such an equation as above is the following:

(Talent x Effort) x Effort = Achievement

Which simplifies to:

Talent x Effort2

This suggests that even if your raw talent happens to be small and that means your initial skill is low, the amount of effort that you commit to something has a tremendous impact. Persistence and skill development through effort yield big rewards. The power of persistently committed effort especially over long periods of time is not to be underestimated.

However, even though scientific evidence stresses the importance of committed effort over time in yielding results the saying “practice makes perfect,” has some qualifying factors to be appended if it is to truly bring results. If you were to practice learning a musical instrument every day for hours on end, but only practiced the same song, you would never truly achieve mastery of the instrument. You have to stretch yourself progressively and make quality use of your time. Moreover, research does generally indicate that individuals are born with a predisposition toward a range of skill or performance on most tasks. Although, your practice may nudge it one way or the other there is likely to be some unknown maximum limit to your ability. Just as the equation above indicated, a zero or near zero value in innate talent would suggest that you would have to pour in massive amounts of effort to yield notable achievement. This isn't to suggest that goals should be abandoned if you do not hold a lot of natural talent. In fact, some goals would likely suggest the opposite. For example, people unfortunately born with genetic predispositions toward poor health would likely benefit from putting a lot of effort into maintaining health and achieving health-oriented goals. This does, however indicate that you should be discerning of the goals you set out to achieve as effort is a limited resource and therefore goals should be prioritized on the basis of value. This also doesn’t mean that your efforts are useless unless you’re born at the peak of human mastery. You may never outrun many Olympic athletes, but mastering new things and reaching personal push goals are worthwhile to strive for in and of themselves. There’s a mountain of research indicating that there is great variability in the amount of progress people can make through practice and effortful pursuit of personal interests. But for practice to be effectively applied, it must be carefully targeted, measured, and applied with an effortful aim to challenge or stretch your existing skillset. Research indicates that rather than 10,000 hours of rehearsal practice, highly focused attempts to refine the wide range of critical but vital skills required for complex tasks hones expertise. As does critical self-evaluation, effective reception and use of constructive feedback, and constant refining of methods. Plug away as long as you want, but it won’t get you anywhere if you’re just going through the motions and are not engaging, refining, and applying yourself in the face of informed critique. Not everyone can become an Olympic gold medallist with practice, but no practice and poor practice is unlikely to get you there even if you have it in you to win gold.

Quitting Can Be the Right Decision... But Avoid Quitting Prematurely

People facing unattainable goals may actually benefit in a number of ways from ending the pursuit of toxic goal. There comes a point where quitting may actually be the best strategy due to the physical and emotional costs of pursuing the unachievable. This is precisely what drives the suffering of many a perfectionist. However, by accepting the unattainable nature of some goals (having made an earnest attempt and having revised where appropriate to no avail), quitting often allows people retain better mental and physical health outcomes than those who push themselves beyond limits. Remember, once you have released yourself from the unattainable, you are free again to refocus and recommit yourself (hopefully more successfully) to other goals, whether at work or in your personal life. This means you now have more of the limited resource - effort - to work with and can dedicate more time, thought, and energy to goals that are a better fit for you, your values and objectives.

Leveraging Technology

Technology can also be effective in promoting healthy behaviour. Fitness tracking apps and wearables are a fantastic example of how people can use personal data to compete with their prior performance or compete with fellow users online. These systems are also often gamified to provide another level of competitive fun while pursuing your goals. When individuals are productively socially networked like this it can blossom into supportive communities where a rising tide lifts all boats. However, there are clear differences between healthy and unhealthy competition and supportive and toxic social networks. There is a long way to go with regards to studying the net effects of these new technologies. In my personal experience, having more of your own objective data to work with is almost always a good thing provided it is leveraged correctly towards the right ends. However, be aware that there are margins of error with all technology and that the accuracy of a Fitbit may not be the same as an apple watch or other device. This isn't to suggest that one is better than the other. In truth, each device usually excels in one particular area over its competition. However, for data to be useful it must have a degree of accuracy. Using the wrong tool for the job may provide you with garbage data and the golden rule of statistics also holds true for goal setting: "garbage in, garbage out." Do some research before purchasing your device and make sure you have your goals outlined prior to making a decision. Remember, there is no such thing as a silver bullet or a single product that will fulfill all your needs. Select your goals and then choose the right tools for the job.

In Short

There are things you can do to enhance your success at every stage of the goal process from goal readiness, goal intention, goal planning, goal pursuit and ultimately to flourishing behavioral change. Although the commitment of time is a prerequisite for achieving your goals, dedication and the commitment of time alone are often insufficient for personal development, long-term habit formation, goal achievement, and meaningful behavioral change. In order to maximize your success you need to work smarter. This may mean that approaching your goals comes with a steep learning curve on the initial outset and may require a great deal of forethought, research, or external help provided by a trained expert. By staggering conflicting goals and subdividing larger goals into smaller targets, modifying how goals are framed, and having an if-then plan of attack for possible challenges you can maximize your likelihood of success. By working with a trained professional you are provided with rare and expert insight, social support, assistance in more directly achieving your desired outcomes through optimal tracking, modifying, and reinforcing your progress you stand an even greater likelihood of success achieved at a more accelerated rate. There is no progress without some degree of struggle, but by working smarter, rather than harder, you’ll experience fewer bumps and bruises along the way.