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How much can a polar bear?

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Recently, someone asked me – in the context of population health – what’s the single biggest mistake I see. There isn’t one tactical mistake that puts all the others in the shade. I’d say it’s the approach that puts wellbeing programs on the wrong path. A path from which there is no way back.

I’ve worked on figuring out how to make people get and stay healthy for a long time now and found that too many of us look at wellbeing as different buckets. Mental health. Financial wellbeing. Physical health. Environmental safety. And so on. Yet, that’s just not how life is. Human beings are way more complicated than that. Life is a whole bunch of jumbled up issues.

We need to address the fundamental “fix it” mentality. This impossible expectation that rolling out a one-size-fits-all wellbeing initiative will land us in a place 12-months from now, where we can pinpoint an ROI and cross all the worries off our to-do list. 

Working backwards from an extrinsic end goal doesn’t work.

Too often, ‘delivering wellbeing’ rests exclusively on addressing one single problem at a time. Drink more water, move more, eat less, get more sleep, meditate. It’s all done in a calculated box-ticking way – 8 glasses of water a day, 10,000 steps, 2,000 calories per day, 45 minutes of meditation, rather than working to understand each person’s circumstances and then helping them understand what they need. What this does is create a new problem, whereby people lose contact with their innate resourcefulness.

This approach permeates every aspect of health in modern society, from workplace wellbeing to the healthcare system itself. Rather than start with the whole person and how they may be thinking and feeling, instead, the focus jumps to very specific, very impersonal and very reactive interventions.

Think about how most approaches to getting people healthy start at the desired outcome. We want people to move more, so how do we manipulate this behavior? We start with setting a goal of 10,000 steps and we induce “behavioral change” by dangling various carrots. Take 10,000 steps and earn back the cost of an Apple Watch. Get active, share your data and earn a discount on your insurance. Hit our weekly target and score a free Starbucks voucher.

But I learned a long time ago that you cannot expect to sustainably change people’s behavior. You certainly can’t really change anything important by rewarding them and punishing them.

Start from the beginning: get people to feel something.

The secret to changing how people behave lies in changing their minds. Changing how they think and feel. Once you’ve done that, then they’ll change their behavior. What’s more, they’ll do it for free and they’ll stick with it. Not because you offered the right reward, but because you took the time to understand them; you educated and excited them into changing for good. You showed them how the world could look, if they made some changes.

Let me give you an example. This morning I went for a run. This isn’t about to turn into some boring exercise blog, stick with me here. When I got back I put the rubbish bins out. Please, I’m begging you, stay with me for this paragraph. I put both bins out. One for general waste and one for recyclable items. For the first 20+ years of my life, there was no recycling. Everything went into one bin.

The following 20+ years has brought about a change in my behaviour. Yes, there are two bins to put out now, but also, every time anything goes into the garbage, it has to be sorted in a particular way. Everyone in my household has to follow this behavior. Whether you’d been doing it the old way for 8 years or 80 years, you had to change. Not just my household, but every house in my street. Every house in every street in every part of the developed world.

Why does this approach work?

As far as I know, nobody is getting induced or paid to make this extra effort. Equally, I’m unaware of anyone having a police SWAT team drop through their ceiling because they put the milk carton in the wrong bin. So why do we all do this?

Two reasons. 1. Our local council sent us an extra bin. 2. And this is the important one, because governments across the world made an investment in informing and educating people about the environment. They changed how we felt about the impact we made on the planet. They made us connect making the effort of doing the right thing (putting a plastic container in the right receptacle), with positive outcomes (our children growing up in a world that still has polar bears).

We changed our own behaviors based on having new, relevant and compelling information. Ask yourself: “How does this square up with how I approach improving the health of people?”.

Are you stuck at the wrong end, trying to change people’s behaviors? Or are you working on changing how they think and feel?

Governments quite rightly get a lot of heat for their, often, didactic approach and not giving people the freedom to think for themselves. But this is an example of where they got it right. You can too – but it starts with understanding how people think and feel. Find out more.

More to explore

Man in a white t-shirt is facing away from the camera. A snake is peeping over his shoulder looking towards the camera.

The deadliest animal in the world isn’t what you think.

“Dad, what’s the most dangerous animal?”.  Now this is a a good question for a Dad who runs a data science business focusing on human health and well-being, because helping people identify and quantify risk so they stay alive (and healthy!) is what we do. At HeadUp Labs, we’re really good helping people identify what their big risks are. But what are the biggest risks to your kids? It’s not something like heart attacks or strokes… so, what is it? Hint: it’s something much bigger.