Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Losing Weight, Gaining Perspective

I'm sitting here, minutes after completing a two-week detox diet, large glass of wine and Green and Blacks chocolate in hand. The headlines from the past fortnight are that I lost eight pounds in weight but gained valuable new perspectives, both on my life and my job as a behaviour change manager.

I've never dieted before. In fact losing weight wasn't the motivation for trying this. I just wanted to do it for two weeks and see what I learnt from it. It was hard going at times, especially in the first few days. Basically, plain chicken or fish and salad or veg for almost every meal. No sauces, no carbs to speak of, and no snacking in between, except a small amount of fruit "if you're hungry"!

But, through the hunger, it was only a couple of days before I realised the main lesson for me, and most of the Western world. That is, because we have food at our fingertips, we have slowly trained our bodies to reach for it at the first sign of hunger. What I've learnt in the past fortnight is that we don't need to. It's purely a psychological crutch, and it doesn't take long to retrain our minds to eat only what we need to, not what we'd always like to, as humans have done for most of history. In that sense, it has changed my life. I'm going to carry on applying these principles to my diet from Mondays to Thursdays, and will reward myself at the weekend.

This brings me on to the second lesson, for communications professionals - long-term behaviour change. As I said, weight loss wasn't my reason for doing this. It was a happy byproduct of my main motivation, which was to see if I would benefit from a body detox. Which led me to reflect on my job, which is basically to try to change people's behaviour to reduce their risk of being killed or injured in a fire.

In a similar way to many other public policy professionals, I've been guilty of signing off on "Do this" or "Don't do this" campaigns without considering what will really motivate people to do it (or not). "Don't smoke", "Don't speed", "Don't be a petty criminal", "Don't forget to test your smoke alarm".

Deep down, I know that most people have a shield against fire safety messages because they don't believe that catastrophic event will ever happen to them, just like they think they won't be caught by the cops, the speed camera or lung cancer.

The past fortnight has reinforced to me the importance of getting past the message our organisations want to put out and tuning in to the messages which will drive genuine behaviour change. Everyone has their own priority, whether that's being there for their family, having a good quality of life, or saving up for and enjoying that ultimate holiday.

We must ensure our public policy campaigns tap into peoples' hopes and aspirations. In doing so, we increase our chances of success through acceptance and understanding that our own work goals of fewer fires, less crime and a healthier society might be a happy byproduct of a different primary motivation.

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