Researchers identify 123 techniques for self-managing motivation and behaviour

Researchers at the University of Helsinki have compiled a list of strategies which can help in maintaining motivation and changing behaviour.

The article published in the Nature Human Behaviour journal introduces a compendium of techniques that people can use to manage their own behaviour and motivation. The list contains a total of 123 techniques collected from six previously compiled lists on behaviour change techniques, and from literature reviews in the fields of sport psychology, occupational psychology and educational psychology.

“These existing lists had a great deal of overlap, so we merged techniques whenever appropriate. We also identified a handful of new techniques in the literature that could be used in self-enacted behaviour change interventions,” says Docent Keegan Knittle.

The list includes both cognitive and emotional strategies, as well as strategies for managing one's environment and social relationships. It provides people with the opportunity to choose the techniques they believe will work the best in managing their personal motivation and changing their behaviour in relation to any aspect of life. The techniques can also be offered by healthcare professionals and those in other sectors to be used by their clients and patients.

The listing includes familiar and demonstrably effective means, for example, for self-monitoring of behaviour, planning and setting behavioural goals. The compendium also includes less well-known strategies, such as serving as a role model, self-kindness, critically assessing personal beliefs and finding meaning.

The study put together techniques which people can personally utilise to modify their habits or maintain their motivation throughout the entire process. This is contrary to the previous tradition in the field, where the focus was on what psychologists, physicians, nurses and other professionals do in helping patients or clients to change their motivation or behaviour.

“People are increasingly interested in what they can personally do to reach their goals. This list makes the techniques available to everyone in, we believe, a user-friendly form,” Knittle says.

The techniques listed in the compendium also include clear instructions on how to use them in one’s personal life.

Environment strongly guide behaviour

According to the researchers, people can identify in their everyday life techniques related to self-reward or punishment; after attaining a goal, you can give yourself a nice reward. Such carrot-and-stick means can be replaced or supplemented by a range of alternatives. Changing your surroundings is one way of self-managing motivation and behaviour.

“Factors of the social environment can strongly affect human behaviour. For instance, poor management practices can undermine motivation, but people need not be helpless victims. Instead, they can personally strive to fight negative effects originating in their surroundings even in difficult situations,” says Assistant Professor Nelli Hankonen.

Going forward, the research group considers it possible to develop an online resource which would guide users through the motivation and behaviour change process using the techniques in the compendium.

“We intend to keep investigating to what extent people can be taught to understand the dynamics of motivation and to use the toolbox for self-management,” Hankonen says.

The project was funded by the Academy of Finland.

Further information:

Nelli Hankonen, assistant professor, research project lead, phone +358 2941 24895 .

The article is available in the Nature Human Behaviour journal, and the compendium is available in the OSF platform.

Excerpts from the compendium

#25 – Restructuring the physical environment

Definition: Change the physical environment in order to facilitate performance of the target behaviour or create barriers to the unwanted behaviour.

Example: Your surroundings can help or hinder your efforts to change or manage your behaviour. Change something in your physical environment to make the wanted behaviour easier. For example, if aiming to start running, keep your jogging gear in the same place near the door so that it is there when you need it. If trying to cut down on snacks, limit the availability of snacks by keeping them out of sight or in a locked cabinet.

#32 – Goal integration

Definition: Modify (or choose ways of doing) the behaviour such that it allows for simultaneously engaging in other valued behaviours and/or pursuing valued outcomes.

Example: It is sometimes possible to combine a new behaviour with other valued activities. For example, if spending time with family is important to you, combine family time with physical activity by going for a walk together. You could also try walking or cycling during your morning commute. This way, physical activities are part of what you would already be doing anyway.

#114 – Normalize difficulty

Definition: Recognize (or remind yourself) that it is common to face difficulties when pursuing behavioural changes.

Example: Changing behaviour is not easy. Remind yourself of this when facing difficulties in pursuing behaviour change. Knowing that other people have faced the same challenges can give you the strength to keep going. For example, when making a plan to go to the gym 3 times a week, remind yourself that there will be setbacks and times when you will not reach your goal. Recognize that this is normal. Do not interpret this difficulty as a personal failure or as something to stop you from trying.

#121 – Identify ways of dealing with pressure 

Definition: Take steps to manage or limit the effects of pressure (external or internal) to perform the target behaviour.

Example: Feeling forced to perform a behaviour can make you feel bad about doing it. If someone pressures you to change your behaviour, tell them they are not helping the situation. Or, if someone criticises your efforts with negative feedback, avoid or tune that person out to help you keep focused.