Does this sound familiar? You land a new client and they are eager and excited to train with you. They enjoy the workout you designed for them and then collaborate to determine some next steps they can do at home to support their progress. You feel good about the session, hopeful that you are going to be able to support change with this client, only to discover the following week that they have not done a single thing they said they would do. Each week you work together to come up with unique and important new positive steps to take, but it is no use; they aren’t doing any of it. You (and your client) may be feeling like you are running up against a brick wall and start to wonder, “Why won’t they just do what they say they are going to do?”
You are not alone. This is a common frustration for people in the health and fitness industry. It can lead to judgments about the client’s willpower, discipline or commitment to health and fitness. Understanding human behavior and why someone does or doesn’t do something can help both you and your clients move forward in a productive way.
The Information-Action Fallacy
In his book Tiny Habits, Dr. BJ Fogg talks about the “Information-Action” fallacy. Most people think that if you offer people the right information it will change their behaviors. This is not true. Information alone does not reliably change behavior. If it did, everyone would eat a diet consisting only of nutrient-dense whole foods and always get adequate amounts of daily exercise.
When we make assumptions about a client’s lack of commitment, we are missing an opportunity to ask better questions. What you really want to know is “What is getting in the way of you being able to do this behavior?”
Fogg offers a reliable formula that will tell us whether or not someone is going to create—and stick to—a new behavior. Fogg purports that no behavior happens without this formula Behavior = Motivation + Ability + Prompt (B = MAP). In this model, a behavior only happens when the motivation, ability and prompt converge in the correct way.
First, start by asking the “Discovery Question.” For example, “What is making this behavior hard to do?” You want to deconstruct any barriers to their successful completion of the behavior. For example, perhaps your client wants to walk four times a week for 30 minutes. Seems easy enough, but they aren’t doing it. Instead of giving up and moving on to new behavior, first understand what is getting in the way. Really dig deep here—is it time? Ability? Weather? Routine? Desire? Once you understand what is getting in the way, you can work together to remove those barriers.
Creating Supportive Environments
After you have identified the barrier, it’s time to create the environment that supports the behavior the client wants to create. Does the environment need to be altered to better support the behavior? Or does the behavior need to be adjusted to better support the environment?
Using the example of walking four times per week, altering the environment might include things like mapping out the specific route so the client knows where they’re headed, or getting a treadmill at home if walking outside is uncomfortable. Other possibilities include waking up 30 minutes earlier to fit in a walk or laying out exercise clothes the night before as a reminder. The key here is understanding what is getting in the way of walking consistently and adjusting the environment to fit the behavior.
If the client cannot adjust the environment, can they adjust the behavior? For example, the walking goal could be completed by breaking up the walk into three 10-minute walks to make the behavior easier to accomplish, or by doing two 10-minute walks on six days per week instead of four 30-minute walks per week. Again, understanding the barriers is the most important factor.
The next time you find yourself feeling frustrated about your client’s apparent lack of discipline or willpower, try asking better questions. By understanding what might be getting in the way of completing the behavior, the client can adjust either the behavior or the environment to better suit their needs.