Meet Dr Silja Voolma, Habitual’s behaviour change advisor

Dr Silja Voolma is Habitual’s expert on all things behaviour change—from creating the concepts we use in our expert-written app content, to supporting us with scientific evidence. In an interview, Dr Voolma shares her thoughts on personal growth, behaviour change in a health journey, and the future of behaviour change in healthcare and wellbeing.
Annabel Nicholson
min read
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Quick summary

Can you tell us a bit about your background?

I originally trained as a health psychologist and then went on to do a PhD in behavioural science with a focus on public health at the University of Cambridge. Over the last 6 years I’ve been running my own research and design consulting company, where I’ve worked with several digital startups, digital therapeutic startups, and ministries of health around the world to explore how we can use digital experiences to help people with any and all of the challenges that they’re having in their health journey. I also coach individuals on health behaviour change if they are interested in changing their lifestyle.

How did you first become interested in human behaviour?

It actually happened very early in life, when I was around 12. This was the time in my life when my family moved from my birth country of Estonia to Hungary. Not only was it just the second time I’d been abroad, but it also signified the beginning of my life as a global citizen. I started going to an international school and studying in English, which I had never learned before, so my experience of the world changed significantly. I met so many more types of people than in my life up until then. When I was 14 I remember telling my family I was going to study psychology because I want to learn more about people, why they are the way they are, and why we do the things that we do in the way that we do them.

It was a huge transition and I still think about it a lot—it really defined the course of my life and in many ways, I’m very grateful for it. 

Behaviour change is the opportunity to create the freedom to be who you want to be

Throughout your research and experience, is there anything that’s really surprised you about human behaviour and interaction?

I’m constantly surprised by how much we sincerely, and with the best intentions, make changes to our behaviours to achieve ways of being that we think we should be rather than grounding ourselves in what the right next step for us, our families, and our communities might be. I’m constantly surprised by this!

What does behaviour change mean to you?

For me both personally and professionally, behaviour change is the opportunity to create the freedom to be who you want to be. In fact, I tend to avoid the phrases ‘behaviour change’ or ‘habit change’ because they imply restriction rather than freedom. I think we need to collectively reframe how we communicate behaviour change—personal growth measured from a behavioural outcomes perspective removes the restriction, and sometimes negative emotion, of ‘change’. In my opinion, its more about creating awareness and having a way of evaluating progress or patterns, or recognising patterns. ‘Change’ pulls us into the trap of doing what you think you should be doing rather than doing what is right for you.

What is the purpose of behaviour change in a health journey?

We often think of behaviour change as things we should be doing as a solution to a problem we assume is the right problem to be solved, but I think the purpose of behaviour change in a health journey is to identify the right problem.

Behaviour change, or rather personal growth, allows us to understand the change we want to make—and if there even is a change we want to make. The options available to us in the healthcare system aren’t always reflective of our mind, body, life, or identity. I think behaviour change can help bridge that gap to help us make the right decisions for us as individuals.

How did you first hear about Habitual?

It was January 2020, so just before the pandemic hit. I had just moved to New York from Singapore as a way to grow my professional opportunities and invest in my personal growth. When I was sourcing some new opportunities online, I came across Habitual and saw they were looking for behaviour change experts. Pre-pandemic, this was really rare. In fact, I had never seen it before—a startup so early in their growth process looking for behaviour change expertise. It’s much more common for us to be included when a product is already quite mature and established. I like to get involved in product design as early as possible in order to set the most fruitful foundation for behaviour change and to create this freedom of growth that we’ve been talking. If you set this up right from the start, it's so much easier later on. It’s the foundational work that excites me the most, so I reached out and had a call with Napala and Ian.

Never before had I seen a start-up so early in their growth process looking for behaviour change expertise

And how do you support Habitual?

So, I am Habitual’s behaviour change advisor and in-house expert on all things behaviour change, health psychology, and behavioural science. In practice that means consulting with the team members on a daily basis on questions that might emerge, doing behaviour change research projects that are for the longer term, or designing actual behaviour change interventions like I did at the beginning. I also do a lot of speaking engagements for Habitual because I love advocating for this product and this experience. 

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Do you think that behaviour change has been historically overlooked in medicine and wellness?

You know, that is a really interesting question. Depending on what you mean by historically, it’s only in the recent history of medicine and wellness practise that we’ve lost the behavioural change perspective. Modern Western medicine separates the mind from the body while Eastern medicine practises still integrate the mind-body constructs.

Behaviour change is the freedom to grow in ways that are right for you personally. I’m by no means any sort of expert in philosophy but what I’m learning at the moment is that it might be helpful to bring some philosophical ideas, concepts, and frameworks back into how we understand health and wellness—specifically in the Western world. When we separated the mind from the body, we went down a rabbit hole into each one but I think science has come to a point where this crossover is needed in order to really understand the comprehensive human experience.

What are the main behavioural changes people tend to focus on when they start a journey like Habitual and what could they be overlooking that is important?

I think people tend to start a health journey from the perspective of over-emphasising the repetitive action of habits—they focus on whether they’re doing the thing they ‘should’ be doing every day and that is how success is defined. If you manage to do that, then you have successfully changed your habit or adopted a new course, but as humans, we all understand that doing the exact same thing every day in life is impossible!

I think what’s being overlooked is the true definition of a habit, which is not formed when it’s just the repeated choice that you make every day—it’s when it's the only option that aligns with who you see yourself as. This is something that we wrote into the infrastructure of the Habitual programme. There is an underlying mechanism of habit formation in the Habitual experience but it's conceptualised as identity change to help you become the person you want to be.

I think what’s being overlooked in health journeys is the true definition of a habit

For someone thinking about starting Habitual, do you have any advice?

I would invite people to reflect on what health and wellness mean to them. How would they define it? What does it mean in terms of how they want to feel in their bodies and their minds, relationships, environments, and jobs? And just maybe write it down—how would you define health? I think that’s a really personal definition and all of us can feel more confident on our health journeys when we are grounded in our own definition and understanding of it.

I would also say look deeper than the lifestyle choices and health behaviours that we all have heard about in order to identify what it is you’re actually hoping to change. We often want or need to change our behaviours because of an event, such as a diagnosis. We then embark on a journey to change our health behaviours, such as physical activities, sleep hygiene, smoking, drinking alcohol, eating, and that’s what we focus on. I would invite people to look one layer deeper to understand what it is they want to shift or what is driving their patterns of behaviour. The question is never should you move more or should you eat better? The question is what is it that you want to feel and what do you need to do to feel that way?

Conscious awareness is a powerful behaviour change tool where you really try to notice what your patterns are without judgement

Lastly, I would say that one of the most powerful behaviour change tools that I’ve tested is conscious awareness, which is not doing or changing anything, but simply observing yourself and your patterns. In my definition of health, your whole life is health, so there could be any pattern and conscious awareness is where you really try to notice what the patterns are without judgement.

What do you think the next 10 years are going to look like for behavioural science?

I think that in behavioural science, particularly in healthcare and the personalised medicine interplay (which is coming!), we will see a continued focus on big data. So, gathering every data point we can, especially passively from people, and feeding that data back to them in an attempt to change behavioural patterns. What I hope will be added is a bridge between people’s lived experiences and these fun data collection methods that we’re seeing in the tech space to impact behaviours.

I just hope we don’t get too lost in our belief and assumption that data changes behaviour because it doesn’t and as people become more educated on health metrics, they’re not becoming more educated and aware of things like personal growth. That needs to be accelerated for the two to meet and have the kind of impact we think data will have by itself. We need to understand ourselves as much, if not more than we understand these metrics.


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