Is it a behavior or is it an action?

Is it a behavior or is it an action?

When we’re mapping out plans for achieving conservation goals, we start to realize how many things we need people to do.

They might be new things, things done differently, big things, small things, first things, last things, easy things, hard things, pre-requisite things….and before you know it, we’ve got a Dr. Seuss book!

As we sort through these many things and begin to prioritize which ones to focus on, I always like to ask:

Is it a behavior or is it an action?

Both, at the core, are asking people to do something. But the difference lies in the frequency in which they need to do it.

A behavior for an individual is a new habit and, among a group, is a new social norm.

For individuals and groups, it represents a new way of doing things that should always be done in this manner moving forward (or until a new norm comes along).

For example,

  • Recycling: separating trash every time you throw something out (happens several times a day).
  • Reusing: bringing reusable grocery bags with you every time you go shopping (happens at least once a week).
  • Reducing: taking shorter showers to conserve water (happens roughly once a day).

An action is exactly that – a thing done; a one-time act that someone or a group does when it’s time to do so.

Such as,

  • Vaccinations: getting a flu shot once a year during flu season.
  • Inspections: getting your car inspected once a year.
  • Policy changes: changing laws and policies, which happens less frequently (ideally).

To make things trickier, you can also consider a third category of medium frequency actions. These do not occur at the high frequency of behaviors, but do need to happen monthly or quarterly, like reviewing and updating your finances.

The reason these still live under the action umbrella is because people will, more than likely, still need external prompts and reminders to do these actions. As opposed to them becoming natural, internal habits.

Why do these distinctions matter?

There are four reasons why it’s important to know if you’re asking an audience to take an action or adopt a new behavior.

It helps to prioritize behavior objectives.

Low-frequency and medium-frequency actions can be important “stepping stones” that help prepare and move an audience towards a new behavior.

They may also be necessary to create the right “conditions” for behavior change to occur. For example, attending a training to build capacity for doing the behavior.

It impacts your project’s sequencing.

Knowing if you’re asking your audience to take a series of actions only, or actions that lead to a larger change, will impact how you design your project timeline.

It will clarify what needs to happen first, what can happen simultaneously, and if you need other stakeholders to take an action before your audience can adopt a new behavior.

It impacts your communication approach.

Getting people to take an action requires less lengthy and less intense communication efforts. This can be achieved through short bursts of reminders (like flu shot reminders).

However, new behaviors and norms take a longer time to form. This requires multiple communication approaches over an extended period of time (like remembering to bring your own grocery bags).

It impacts your choice of messages.

Getting people to change their behaviors requires messages that reinforce the benefits, demonstrate that it’s a good norm to adopt, and includes personal motivators for change.

Whereas actions don’t require as much heavy lifting to convince people. These messages can serve more as a reminder with only a few reasons for why it’s important.

Interested in digging deeper on this topic for your own behavior change program?

Then check-out the details of my online course. The seven-week program helps you identify actions and behaviors in the very first lesson before we dive into audience segmentation, barriers & motivators and crafting messages that motivate.

You’ll be part of a dynamic group of behavior change enthusiasts all working to protect the planet, and the fun doesn’t stop when the course ends – we’re building an exciting alumni program with over 100 members that keeps the learning and exchanges going. Join us!