When you’re in public health, you become intimately familiar with the term ‘self-efficacy.’ It’s a vital piece of many behavior change theories that explain why people do or do not do certain things.
Self-efficacy is simply the confidence you have to do a particular thing if you set your mind to it. How confident are you that you can brush your teeth tonight? You probably feel pretty confident that you can. That means you have a high self-efficacy for teeth brushing. How confident are you that you could bike consistently throughout the winter? This is going to vary widely for people. If you’ve figured out what gear you need, what route to take, what to wear for a winter ride, and you’ve biked during winter before, you’re probably quite confident that you can bike through the winter. If you’ve only biked irregularly through the summer and don’t know what’s up with studded tires, or what the heck you would even wear, you’re probably much less confident.
Self-efficacy has been shown to be an important determinant of whether someone completes a behavior or not. Many public health practitioners who work to change behavior spend a lot of time thinking about how to increase the self-efficacy of others. If you want to make a positive change in your life, you can harness self-efficacy for your own purposes.
How do you build self-efficacy? There are three main ways:
- Mastery experiences: Being successful at your goal will increase your self-efficacy. Mastering small pieces of the goal will help you build confidence one step at a time. You don’t need to start by biking ten miles to work every day, simply start by biking one mile to the grocery store once per week. As you get more confident with the small goal, you can build up to slightly larger goals slowly but steadily.
- Vicarious learning: Seeing people who are similar to you accomplish what you want to accomplish can help you build confidence. Talk to others who are doing what you want to do to see how they do it, what barriers they faced, and how they overcame them. Don’t be shy, ask them for advice.
- Social persuasion: Encouragement from others can help you build self-efficacy. Tell people your goals so they can cheer you on. You can do this!
I was hyper-aware of self-efficacy when I was trying to figure out winter biking. I could feel this big internal barrier: I wanted to bike in the winter, but I was nervous and not sure how to get started. I started talking to all these people who had biked in the winter. I kept talking about it, with anyone and everyone. I learned about their experiences and made a game plan. Then I just had to get out there and actually do it.
Those first couple weeks of biking in the ice and snow were scary. I fell on the Greenway my first day, when I only had one studded tire on the front. Since I got my rear studded tire, I haven’t fallen once. But that hasn’t stopped me from getting tense when I encounter different types of ice or snow, or new situations. The trick is just doing it, and then doing it again, and to keep doing it until it becomes part of your routine.