Behavior Change, Employers & Brokers, Health Plans, Health Systems, Medicare Advantage, Partners, Workforce Health | By | 06/30/22 | 4 Minute Read

How to Overcome Behavior Change Barriers

More than 133 million Americans (45%) currently suffer from at least one chronic disease, a number that has risen sharply in the last few decades. Many of these expensive chronic health issues can be prevented with the right intervention, but people often struggle to incorporate meaningful behavior changes. To help them succeed, it’s important to identify what challenges may be holding them back.

So why is it hard to incorporate a new behavior into everyday life? Behavior change scientists have discovered common barriers to change and defined them in behavioral change models and theories such as the Fogg Behavior Model, Social Cognitive Theory, the Theory of Planned Behavior, and more. 

Using the insights gleaned from these models, population health professionals can design their programs in a way that considers and addresses these challenges right from the start. Based on the science of behavior change, here are the nine barriers to change – and the corresponding best practices that every program should include to address them.

 1. The barrier: Overlooking context

A templated health improvement plan doesn’t take a person’s unique needs into account, reducing its effectiveness. 

The best practice: Leverage personal context 

Create programs that personalize the user experience. It should not only reflect the unique starting point of each user, but have the ability to adapt to the changing needs of the user as they continue throughout their health behavior change journey. 

2. The barrier: Choice overload

When people have too many choices to achieve a health goal, they can get overwhelmed and decide it’s easier to choose nothing at all. 

The best practice: Simplify the options

Carefully curate options so that users can choose from a shortlist of equally acceptable choices. This allows the user to quickly choose one that resonates, improving the chances they’ll stick with it while ensuring they make a choice that will actually help them accomplish their goal. 

3. The barrier: Decision fatigue

New health behaviors require conscious action, which can take energy people don’t always have at the end of the day. 

The best practice: Keep instructions simple
Complicated decisions can be especially taxing. Make decisions simple to understand and implement so that they can become habits faster. 

4. The barrier: Old habits

Established bad habits require less cognitive energy to do, making them the default over unestablished healthier habits. 

The best practice: Focus on consistency
To help users build new habits quickly, celebrate and reward consistent effort. This will help overcome the decision fatigue associated with building a new habit while making it easier to distract the user from an old habit.  

5. The barrier: Social determinants

A person’s friends, job, and where they live can all impact the ability to change a socially-inconvenient health habit.

The best practice: Leverage social factors
Seek ways to include a user’s influencers to help reinforce the health behavior change. Programs should also incorporate a clear understanding of a user’s environment and budget so that program recommendations are achievable based on where they live and what they can afford to spend to enable their new health behavior. 

6. The barrier: Incremental progress

Because health improvements can take a long time to notice, people may give up before seeing progress.

The best practice: Make everything measurable
Make sure that users can easily measure what they do so they can stay engaged in their health behavior change on a daily basis.

7. The barrier: Hyperbolic discounting

People will often choose a small short-term reward, such as a doughnut, over a larger, long-term reward like reduced stroke risk. 

The best practice: Focus on short-term results
Show users results on a daily basis instead of waiting weeks or months for the next scan. In addition to tracking things like calories burned through exercise, a program can use measurements like daily blood pressure readings as a proxy for heart attack risk.

8. The barrier: Relapse

People who experience a relapse may lose confidence and find it difficult to get back on track. 

The best practice: Set reasonable expectations
Encourage users to target a daily number, but make sure they know it’s okay if they miss it once in a while. In addition to their daily number, encourage them to look at weekly and monthly trends so they can see the overall directional impact their efforts have. 

9. The barrier: Poor goal setting

Fuzzy goals make it difficult for people to measure success, leading them to give up. 

The best practice: Create SMART goals
SMART stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely. By ensuring each goal is clearly defined, users will have a clear definition of success.  

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Learn more about the science of behavior change

Download the eBook "Why is Behavior Change So Hard?" for more insight into the science of behavior change and the nine common barriers to behavior change that researchers have uncovered.

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