Five Ways You Can Use Research on Habit Formation to Develop Staff

Eva Jo Meyers
March 2020
counselor watching sunrise over lake

You've probably read those statistics about the number of people who buy gym memberships in January and then never work out. Maybe that's totally you. The stakes for physical fitness are high — we all want to live longer, healthier lives — but the motivation to act, more often than not, simply falls flat.

The same can be said about staff development. The stakes are high; we all want our campers and counselors to have safer, more fun experiences, and we start out each summer with lofty intentions, but leading our staff toward the solid habits that will help us achieve our goals can be difficult to actualize.

Whether at the gym or at camp, our failure to change behaviors is generally not in setting our goals or standards, nor is it in providing high-quality, precamp training, or even in our HR onboarding and evaluation practices. The failure often occurs because we haven't set up the right conditions for strong habit formation with our staff (Nilsen, Roback, Broström, & Ellström, 2012). Believe it or not, a few small changes in your staff development practices can help you get back on the right track. Try these five tips to improve everyone's camp experience — and get everyone regularly "working out at the gym."

Consciously Inspire Goals

Think about some of the habits you engage in; for example, brushing your teeth before bed, using your turn signals when driving, closing the front door as you walk out. Do you remember when, why, or how you formed these habits? Many of our daily habits form unconsciously, but they all offer some kind of reward (fewer cavities, accidents, and burglaries, using the preceding examples) that helped motivate us to form them (Wood & Rünger, 2016). The same is true for our "bad" habits, like checking our phones constantly (dopamine rush), eating a candy bar every afternoon (sugar rush), or biting our fingernails (nervous energy release).

As you plan for your onboarding and first round of professional learning for your camp staff, think about the desired behaviors you want them to develop as habits (meaning, things that are done automatically), rather than just as practices or actions. Now think about how you can help staff consciously identify and work toward developing those habits, keeping in mind that you want to introduce those habits in ways that are both explicit and that will inspire staff to want the reward the habit offers.

This can be tricky, as many of the habits we want staff to engage in are new or even counterintuitive to them. In fact, as you open the conversation, you will probably find that many staff do not realize what their current habits at camp are to begin with.

Let's say one of the items on your list of goals for staff is that they participate in physical activities with campers rather than sitting on the sidelines or always acting as referee. Staff may see themselves primarily as referees, jumping in at even the slightest sign of disagreement, or they may simply dislike running around Consequently, changing this behavior may require considerable inspiration and motivation. For this reason, it is critical to help your staff "own" these new goals, starting with describing what the rewards of each habit are by working with your staff to brainstorm the benefits of a given habit. In the case of participating with campers in physical activity, the list would likely include, among others:

  • "It helps me bond with the campers."
  • "It helps campers who are nervous about playing."
  • "It gives campers a chance to work out their own disputes."

Name the new habits, write them down, and engage everyone in consciously committing to them.

Work Toward, Not Away from New Habits

Research has shown that replacing an old (bad) habit with a new (positive) habit is far more effective than simply trying to eradicate the bad habit through sheer willpower (Gardner, Lally, & Wardle, 2012). Working with our previous example, it is much easier to help staff play with campers during physical activities than it is to enforce, "Don't sit on the sidelines during sports time."

As you are coming up with your list of desired habits, make sure all the items on the list are framed in a positive way so your staff can visualize the goal. The more explicit and descriptive you can be about the goal, the easier it will be for staff to understand what it should look and feel like (photos of how the supply cabinet should look after cleanup, role-plays of an evening routine with campers, videos of counselors playing together with campers, etc.).

It is also helpful to provide staff with a "cue" to remind them that this habit needs to kick in now (Lally & Gardner, 2013). This can take the form of a visual reminder, as in a symbol or short phrase posted near the area where you want the habit to transpire, or a short ritual, like a cheer, mantra, or song that is carried out when it's time for the habit. This works even better when the staff help create the signs or cheers they will use.

As with listing the habits in the first place, it is important to remember that these cues should be positive: "Clean up after you're done," as opposed to "Don't leave a mess."

Aim for Small, Manageable Habit Shifts

One of the reasons that it is beneficial to think of shifting staff behavior in terms of "habits" is that they are inherently small, manageable behavior changes. While this may feel disjointed if you are used to implementing an in-depth "system," these micro-practices can be woven together into that larger picture or system. Conversely, you can reexamine your current system or big picture and break out smaller steps that build toward that system, like pieces of a puzzle, and start thinking of those pieces as the habits you want your staff to develop.

For example, if you are looking at the big picture of trying to increase staff engagement with campers during activities, you and your staff can develop a laundry list of small habits that contribute to this larger goal, (e.g., playing with campers during physical activities, sitting with campers during arts and crafts time, competing together with campers in tournaments, etc.). Once the list is generated, let each staff member choose one practice to work on at a time. In this way you are developing a cohesive system of change without overwhelming staff with trying to keep all the balls up in the air at once.

This also has the benefit of preventing the burnout that can occur when staff are given too many directives at one time (as in, they become unable to do any of the actions because they are overwhelmed). Keeping a laser-like focus on just one practice at a time lets everyone feel like they are contributing to the overall goal, without the stress of having to do it all.

Set up a System for Self-Monitoring and Mentorship

It takes more than two months to form a new habit (Gardner, Lally, & Wardle, 2012), so changing staff behavior may take an entire summer. One way to help the process along is to return to the habits that staff have committed to working on throughout the summer. During staff check-ins, start a conversation on how their habits are progressing with questions like:

  • "Did you use [your habit] today?"
  • "What benefits did you feel from [the habit]?"
  • "What do you still need to work on [with this habit] to make it beneficial?"

Better yet, form accountability buddies between staff, so they can help each other stay on track with the new habits they are trying to form. Provide them time and space to check in with each other specifically on their habit-forming efforts. Add it to your nightly shout-outs, morning check-ins, or weekly meetings. It will only take a few minutes, but if you don't prioritize this goal by building time into the schedule for them to check in, they may not take it as seriously nor do it on their own time.

Think about how to pair your staff. Do you already have a mentorship program that partners new staff with returning staff? This would be a perfect place to add in a habit check-in. If you don't already have a mentorship or accountability buddy system, now would be a good time to consider adding one.
Don't forget to pick a new habit or two for yourself to work on and find your own accountability partner to keep you on track.

Provide Encouragement and Acknowledge Accomplishment

You probably already have a reward or acknowledgement system in place for your staff (e.g., staff member of the week). Rewarding the progress people are making as they establish their habits through recognition, praise, or highlighting the benefits can help everyone stay motivated toward their habit formation goal.

For example, using our ongoing scenario of staff participating in physical activities, during a meeting or check-in, allow staff to reflect on campers who have been participating more or showing better teamwork during games now that the counselors are participating. Or allow individual counselors time to share specific incidents of success with the greater staff. Being able to see that the small actions they are taking are having an impact can be a strong motivator for continuing the habit.

Likewise, identifying the progress can help staff feel that even if they haven't reached the goal yet, it is worth continuing to try. Some good questions to prompt discussion might include:

  • "What worked when you tried it?"
  • "What didn't work?"
  • "What did you learn?"
  • "What would you do differently next time?"

These growth mindset questions can help staff see that every effort has some positive outcome, however small it may seem.

The habit formation process never ends, because once a behavior is solidified into a habit, it opens up the opportunity to pick yet another habit to work toward adopting. At the end of the summer, review all the great habits everyone picked up, record them in writing during your close-out, and bring them back the following year when you start the process all over again. What will they work on this year to build on what they achieved last year?

Hopefully that gym membership is feeling less daunting now. Because, of course, everything in this article applies to your workout goals too.
 

For More Information

Looking for some good books on forming habits? This is a great list: developgoodhabits.com/top-habit-books/


References

  • Gardner, B., Lally, P., & Wardle, J. (2012, December). Making health habitual: The psychology of ‘habit-formation' and general practice. British Journal of General Practice. Retrieved from ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3505409/
  • Lally, P. & Gardner, B. (2013). Promoting habit formation. Health Psychology Review, 7(1), S137 S158.
  • Nilsen, P., Roback, K., Broström, A., & Ellström, P. (2012). Creatures of habit: Accounting for the role of habit in implementation research on clinical behaviour change. Implementation Science. Retrieved from implementationscience.biomedcentral.com/track/pdf/10.1186/1748-5908-7-53
  • Wood, W. & Rünger, D. (2016). Psychology of Habit. Annual Review of Psychology, 67, 289–314.

Eva Jo Meyers began working with youth as a volunteer tutor in an afterschool program for middle schoolers when she was in high school. Eva continued working in afterschool programs and summer camps through college. Over the course of her career she has held positions as a bilingual (Spanish) classroom teacher, as an education director with the Boys and Girls Clubs of San Francisco, and as a Fulbright Scholar in Thailand, studying the influences of culture on pedagogy. She has supported many camps and summer programs through her consulting work and her company, Spark Decks, which offers personal and professional development to change-makers. The author of Raise the Room: A Practical Guide to Participant-Centered Facilitation, she enjoys employing the principles of transformational leadership to support individuals and agencies in developing and reaching their goals.
 

Photo courtesy of URJ Crane Lake Camp, West Stockbridge, Massachusetts.