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This New Year, Let’s Make Channels, Not Resolutions

(First posted on

Whether you run a business and want to help your customers or employees change their behavior this year, or just want to work on some personal goals, the barge and channel metaphors from behavioral science should guide your strategy.

Gym attendance and diet attempts increase dramatically in early January. But by the end of the month, the exuberance for self-improvement is gone, the time crunch returns, and distraction and indulgence resume their outsized role in our lives.

The strategies that produce lasting behavior change do not rely on exuberance. Effective strategies focus on creating structure and removing obstacles. It’s like building channels, and then flowing through those channels, on a barge, all year long. The barge and channel metaphors are fitting for behavior change: a barge is not glamorous, it’s easy to get on and hard to fall off, it moves slowly and steadily, and its key innovation is in preserving its momentum. If the right channels are available, the barge can flow past distractions and get where it needs to go. No exuberance required.

Three types of channels for your behavioral barge

Behavioral science research shows that successful behavior change requires a whole network of physical, temporal, and social channels.

Physical channels: Create the clearest, shortest path to the new behavior. Make it physically easy to do. If the behavior is exercise, then the physical channel includes a tidy, comfortable, and nearby workout space, with easy access to clean workout clothes, a bottle of water, and anything else you need to get going. If you use an app during exercise, it should be easy to access and hard to ignore, located on your device next to indispensable apps such as email or text messaging, rather than buried on an oft-forgotten screen beside some game you haven’t opened since 2015.

Temporal channels: People have a better chance of executing new behaviors if they make a concrete plan, and if they pre-commit to carrying out that plan. Even better is to make the new behavior part of a normal routine. Indeed, new behaviors that latch onto an existing routine have a structural advantage. It’s not so hard to flow into a short morning workout after the morning teeth brushing, especially if we committed to it the day before. Making daily exercise the default is another way to build a temporal channel into our lives. Even if some days are skipped, doing our best to make it a daily ritual gives it more staying power than just slotting it in vaguely as “a few times a week”.

Social channels: While a workout buddy can make a workout more enjoyable, it can be difficult to find a time that works for both of you. Easier social channels can be made through text messages or email check-ins. Or you can leverage the power of social commitment by telling a team of your friends and family that they should expect a text message after each completed workout. They can even motivate us by sending encouraging texts the night before (and we can set up calendar reminders so they remember to do that). A few of your closest friends might be willing to talk to you on speaker phone while you do 10 sets of 10 jumping jacks. Have a friend who owes you a favor? Make them part of your social channel.

Channel building is not intuitive

Social channels don’t have to provide exuberant cheerleading. They just have to keep us focused, and help us clear distractions and temptations out of the way, so that we can flow more easily toward our goals. As Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman has put it, the best way to achieve behavior change is by “diminishing the restraining forces, not by increasing the driving forces”. He adds that for most people this is “profoundly non-intuitive.”

There are lots of ways to build physical, temporal, and social channels through our cluttered lives. That’s not to say that channel building is easy. It’s not. For social channels, you still have to ask your friends for help. That may require a well-crafted email about exactly what you need and when you need it. Or a pitch like, “Hey, would you mind calling me for 5 minutes every Sunday until March to briefly discuss my exercise plan for the week?” It might be a little awkward at first. But as they say about fitness itself, if it came in a bottle, everyone would have it.

Technology can help. Commonly used social media and calendar tools can be optimized to do much of the needed social and temporal channel building.

Channel building for business growth in any industry

Many health and wellness companies recognize that behavior change is challenging, but the need for channel building exists across industries. One financial services executive has noted that his firm is always struggling to get employees to embrace new simplified processes that reduce cost and improve quality. And across that industry, consumers continue to be slow to adopt time saving digital and mobile banking tools.

If you have customers or employees who need some behavior change help, you can delight them by developing customized channel building tools and programs, just for them.

For any behavior that people know they should do, but that is at risk of getting crowded out, barge-and-channel strategies will be needed. Sure, we also want to make new behaviors fun, and people still need aspirations and moments of exuberance. But barge-and-channel strategies are too often over-looked, even though behavioral science has demonstrated their critical role.

With a little structured brainstorming, you can open up a host of useful channel building tools and programs to bring behavior change to your life and to your business.

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