How and why it works
As explained in the strategy green by default, most decisions and actions practiced by people on a day-to-day basis happen without conscious awareness. A lot of this is due to the habitual behaviours that we develop in our lives in order to save time and energy. Looking more closely at what actually constitutes a habit often reveal that it consists of several smaller decisions. Starting to cycle to work instead of driving a car, for instance, can depend on changing other habits such as when to buy groceries and what clothes to put on in the morning. Helping people to realise what habits they actually practice and how they relate to each other has proven an efficient strategy to help bridge the infamous gap between god intentions and actual outcomes. In the following example a technique called implementation intentions was used to help people reach their goals.
This strategy is limited to changes that people are more or less committed to do already, but for some reason find difficult to succeed with.
Recommendations for implementation
There are several examples of successful projects focusing on changing habits, especially in the transport sector. One of the most commonly quoted is TravelSmart, a project adopted by the Australian government in order to get more people to use public transport. Key to its success has been the adoption of individualised travel plans that help people to change their habits.
A British charity called Sustrans has adopted s similar strategy to reduce car use across the country. A general recommendation when influencing habits is to target people at points in life when they already are making changes in their lives. Providing someone with free public transport during the first months in a new town is a concrete example of how to combine this strategy with giving an attractive incentive. Another example is the Food Dudes programmes explained earlier.
Example: Encouraging recycle behaviour at work with implementation intentions
A telecom company in Holland wanted to increase recycling of old paper and plastic cups at its offices. The company had already installed boxes on each department building and a special team repeatedly informed and instructed employees on different occasions about the boxes and emphasized the importance of using them. Despite this, the amount of paper and plastic cups that ended up in the personal wastebaskets was not reduced. Two researches in social- and organizational psychology decided to conduct a field-experiment to test the hypothesis that conscious planning, referred to as implementation intentions, is an efficient strategy to change people’s habits.
The experiment involved 109 employees at six different departments of the company with more or less equal working conditions. After a five day pre-measure of the recycling behaviour, departments of the company were randomly assigned to different conditions: Two groups acted as control groups and two other received a personal recycling box for old paperwork, which was noticeably placed near each participant’s desk. The last two groups received instructions to visualize and write an implementation intention plan. Participants in these groups were asked to plan when, where and how to recycle their old paper and used recycle cups. In one of the groups a personal recycling box for paper was also installed near their desk a day after they had completed their plan. Recycling behaviour was measured by the actual presence of paper and cups in each participant’s dustbin, observed at the end of a working day during a period of 10 working days. To test the long term effect, behaviour was also measured two months after the experiment was conducted.
The experiment showed that asking people to plan how, when and where to recycle reduced the amount of paper and plastic cups that ended up in the normal waste with 75–80 per cent and that the behaviour change was stable over time. Also the personal recycling box improved recycling. However, there was no significant difference between those who got both a personal recycling box and had to plan and those that had to plan only, showing that the effect of the implementation intention works just as well in itself.