Behavioural science principles: achievable actions

Published by Charlotte Hills on

Behavioural science principles: achievable actions

Table of contents

Things I need to be happy

A little while ago I found my childhood diary. And in all its glittery, padlocked glory, it had my New Year’s resolution list from 1998. I was 13 and clearly full of teenage angst. In thick pen I’d scrawled:

1. Keep my room tidy.
2. Stop eating sugar.
3. Get better clothes…”

… the list went on, key bits underlined. I’d really meant it.

Reading the list in my 30’s made me smile. It turns out my happiness didn’t hinge so rigidly on those things. Which is lucky really, given I didn’t achieve them! It also made me smile that at 13, I felt, heart and soul, that I needed them all, and I needed them now.

Did I realise my resolution was wildly unrealistic? Maybe. But I couldn’t help it.

glitter diary planner on desk

Tiny habits

Behavioural scientist BJ Fogg says we have an ‘impulse to set unrealistic expectations, but here we are, still struggling to change, still thinking it’s our fault’. BJ’s advice, so neatly set out in his book, Tiny Habits, is to take your aspirations and break them down into tiny habits.

He says that no matter how much you want the ‘new you’, if you start big, you’re likely to fail. It’s not about making your dreams smaller, but about treating each step to getting there as an achievement. Like Desmond Tutu said, ‘how do you eat an elephant? A bite at a time’.

The thing about steps, bites, or ‘tiny habits’ is that they’re the things you do to get the result you want. They’re behaviours, or actions. So, the actions I’d need to take to tidy my teenage bedroom would include its own huge list – neatly folding my (unfashionable) clothes, sorting through hundreds of unused nail varnishes, getting the vicious Burmese cat off the bed to make it. The list builds up, and up… Man, being tidy is hard.

But maybe you’re one of those tidy people… doing all those things on autopilot? I’ve tried to programme that into my own behaviour, by picking one achievable action, inspired by the TikTok trend ‘don’t put it down, put it away’. Now, if I can put something away in less than one minute, rather than just put it down, I’ll do it. It’s easy, and I’ll feel good about it. When it comes to being tidy, or other personal changes, most of us need to prioritise the actions that will make a difference.

abstract digital habit tracker and planner


Now, when an organisation (rather than just one person) goes through a transformation, there’s often an almighty list of actions that underpin changes like being ‘more cyber secure’ or ‘more inclusive’. Those actions aren’t always obvious! But I love working with clients to shake them out and then whittle them down to the achievable, high impact ones. Those are the golden actions we go after in our designs.

Shortly before the pandemic, we created an awesome digital experience for an energy services provider, to introduce their people to being ‘more digital’. After a bit of digging, we saw that some of their people were quite fearful of it. Had we not taken a behavioural science approach, we might have gone full on ‘hearts and minds’ and given them a pep talk about the wonders of the digital world. However, we understood that changing attitudes alone is not sufficient to change behaviour (Schelly et al., 2012). As Daniel Hardman said in his TedEx talk, “Confidence is something that comes to you after you have made the jump.”

So how did we get people to make that jump? Part of our strategy was to be crystal clear about what small steps were expected of them — things like ‘attending remote meetings’ and ‘saving documents on the cloud’. In the course, we got people to commit to trying these things using a playful interaction. We feel humbled to have played a part in helping people to feel a little less fearful of the digital world before the pandemic hit. A time when many were forced into building their digital skills at breakneck speed. We hope the training softened the impact.

Want my advice?

I love that behavioural science gives me insight into my own mind – one being that I need to take a moment to celebrate the small wins as I aim for bigger things in life. It would have been great advice for my angsty teenage self writing her New Year’s resolutions. It tickles me that the same applies to corporate organisations, whose ambitions are somewhat different from those in a glittery childhood diary. But nevertheless, the advice holds – so whoever you are, or whatever organisation you represent, ask yourself, what are the achievable actions you need to take to see the change you want to see?

If you’d like to explore with us how behavioural science insights can help you achievable goals effectively in your digital learning solutions, please contact us here at BAD.

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