Challenges with challenges

February 1, 2010

As I reported earlier last month, January was a No Drinking month for me. No drinking alcohol, that is. The idea came to me as an approximate corollary to the various “try a plant based diet for x days” campaigns out there, with the theory being that if our food choices are a balance of social needs mixed with long term habits, then the best way to “walk a mile in an omnivore’s shoes” would be to give up something equally social and habitual. Hence, drinking.

The original idea was to give up alcohol and caffeine, but as I mentioned in last week’s porncast, I’ve managed to convince myself that drinking coffee is the best retirement planning I can do (it may reduce the chance of brain issues later in life,) and since I didn’t want to disrupt my identity that much, the java got a pass.

How My Month Went

The impact of the change was about what I expected: most of the issues were social in nature. On a number of occasions, others changed their plans around my “temporary quirk,” which isn’t to say that my friends do nothing but drink, but when meeting with only one or two others, they didn’t want to drink alone or in front of me, which may or may not be the experience of a new vegan in front of meat eaters – I suspect that omnivores would be more considerate if they knew it was a temporary change.

Physically, I didn’t feel that different. It’s hard to say if I got more done or not, since lately I’ve been trying to avoid doing “work” after 7 or 8 at night (partly in a quest for balance, but also because it helps me sleep better) and those would be the hours that I’d usually enjoy a drink or two (despite how some of this might look, I honestly didn’t spend all of, say, December, absolutely pickled to the gills!) My weight also stayed pretty much the same. I’m not sure if this wrecks my theory that the two decisions (meat vs booze) are similar, since many new vegans report amazing changes. It’s possible that someone in relatively good health before the challenge wouldn’t notice much difference, but I was under the impression that there are usually noticably positive physiological changes that would reinforce a change in diet, long term.

Personally, the only change I noticed (other than a few more dollars in my wallet) was a distinct awareness of the calendar as I waited for February, and I think there’s something there that needs to be watched by any group promoting a “try it for a while” approach.

The Puppy Dog Close

In sales, there’s a technique known as the puppy dog close. It’s used when they get you to take the item you’re considering home with you, because hey, if you don’t like it you can always bring it back. Named for the case where the “item” in question is an adorable puppy, you take the puppy home “just for the weekend,” but of course by the time Monday’s come around, you’re in love with your new best friend, and the sale is made. What’s interesting here is that the puppy does the work of closing the deal, not the salesperson.

Vegan trials are kind of like that, in theory: you take a new diet home with you, and while the organization promoting the trial does some of the work through support, advice, and other guidance, the diet is what does the work. In a perfect scenario, the positive changes brought about by the lifestyle changes outweigh any social or other logistical issues, and you’ve got a new convert, hopefully for life.

Except when you don’t. If your prospect (or you, if you’re the one doing the trial) spends more time cleaning up after the puppy than enjoying playing, or if you’ve found someone who just doesn’t particularly care for dogs, then instead of “if this initial time is this awesome, imagine how the rest of my life will be!”, you’re going to end up with “OK, when’s this going to end?”

Rigging the Game

For maximum success with a challenge type program, I recommend a few key focus points to make sure your participants are more likely to sign up in the first place and that they’ll stick with the program even after the initial time period has elapsed.

Set expectations: Just like your high school English teacher taught you, tell people what they’re going to experience up front. This means a couple of things, including anticipating issues and not only warning people that they’ll come up but providing solutions in advance.

Review results: maybe more important is the second part of your English teacher’s advice: when you’re done, tell people what you told them. Did you deliver on your promises? Did your prospect feel clearer-headed? Did they lose any weight? Did they drop their cholesterol? If you can reinforce those results while also pointing out that the changes will be as temporary as their diet if they revert to their old ways, you’ll have a better chance to keep them on track after the challenge is over.

A good example of post-event reinforcement can be found at the Toronto Vegetarian Association‘s Veggie Challenge program (disclosure: I’ve worked with them in various capacities over the years, though not specifically with this program other than through tabling at events.) In their case, it’s a one week challenge, but at the end participants are encouraged to write in with their stories (and prizes are offered as an incentive to submit.) Stories are powerful, and we’re most likely to believe the stories we tell ourselves, so this can be a great way to create a positive feedback loop.

Form teams: couples taking a challenge together can be more powerful than people going solo. Larger teams, like a workplace department or a school class, can be even more likely to succeed and even continue after the initial time period is over. Why? Because it just takes just one person to voice out loud the thoughts that might be in the back of your head: “I’m thinking of keeping going.” Those words take courage to speak, but just like a lot of other words, having someone else say it first makes it a million times easier to say it yourself.

Test for motivation: I quit drinking for a month to test a theory. When January ended, I had a new awareness that this kind of thing was possible, but I’m about as likely to continue with this as I would if the challenge was to stand on my left foot whenever I talked on the phone. In other words, there was no association in my mind of a desire for lasting change; I just wanted to see what it was like (while researching for Taste Better.)

If your prospective vegan is just looking for a challenge, you might have some long term success, but I think they’ll be more likely to do like I did: by day three they’re probably already thinking about what their next challenge is going to be.

If someone’s not looking for lasting positive change, it’s possible they’ll find value by sheer luck during the trial, but it’s a lot easier to find something if you’re looking for it in advance. You don’t need to make crazy promises; these things are often best raised by the prospect. Simply ask them why they’re looking to give it a try. And remember, if you don’t like their answer, you can always suggest alternatives, and then there’s always another option…

Don’t accept just anyone: this might sound like sacrilege, but not everyone’s ready to take a challenge for the right reasons. Do you really want another “yeah, I tried that, worst month of my life!” story going around to counteract the work you’re doing? If it’s a close call, this also works as what’s called a takeaway: that idea you presented that totally didn’t appeal to the person just seconds ago suddenly becomes a lot more interesting when it’s about to be taken off the table. Our brains are hardwired to seek validation, and often the act of taking an option away “until you’re ready” sparks a need to prove we’re worthy of the task. Of course, this can’t be the only motivation, but if you used it at the beginning you might be able to leverage it at the end to keep the challenge going.

Still Sober :)

As I write this part of the piece, I’m about eight hours into February, and so far I haven’t hit the liquor cabinet. In all honesty, I’ll probably wait until Thursday’s Office Hours to crack open a bottle, and that’s just because I think it’ll be fun.

To be clear, my analogy between quitting booze and quitting meat isn’t perfect, but it’s the closest analogy I can think of. Some of these ideas came directly from experiences I had in January, but the exercise also brought about a certain amount of focus on the issue that gave me some insights.

All that said, you’re welcome to give it a try and share your results and thoughts – as many people have pointed out to me, February is the best month to do these things, what with the 28 days and all. What tricks did you use to make sure you weren’t, as our friends in Hunter put it, “Straight Edge for November (Can’t wait ’till December)?”

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