Phrases like “staying on track,” “willpower,” and “overcoming one’s weaker self” are commonly associated with training transfer. Trainers (and self-reflective participants) often say, “I wanted to, but I couldn’t overcome my resistance,” “I couldn’t stay on track,” “I need more willpower,” or “I have to try harder.”
In learning and development and learning transfer research, this phenomenon is known as “transfer volition,” and it is one of the 12 levers of transfer effectiveness outlined by Dr. Ina Weinbauer-Heidel from the Institute of Transfer Effectiveness. However, many trainers and participants are surprised by the way transfer volition works and how it can influence transfer.
Transfer volition is defined as trainees’ ability and willingness to dedicate their attention and energy to the implementation of the transfer plan even when there are obstacles and difficulties. If trainees have a high transfer volition, they say, “Yes, I’ll stay on the ball and follow through.” Therefore, the crucial question for trainers is: How can we help trainees develop the ability and willingness to persistently work on implementing their transfer plan?
While many believe that we can improve our ability to persist by simply trying harder and overcoming our inner resistance, research indicates the opposite. In fact, relying solely on willpower can even be counterproductive to effective learning transfer. Research by social psychologist Roy Baumeister suggests that we imagine willpower like a battery that is drained through use and requires recharging before we can use it again.
Baumeister’s research involved a range of studies that consistently found that willpower depletes with use, a phenomenon he called “ego depletion.” For example, in the Radish Study, participants were divided into two groups. Two bowls, one with radishes and one with cookies, were placed in the waiting room before the test. One group was told not to eat the cookies from the bowl while waiting for a test. The other group was allowed to eat the cookies. The group that had to resist eating cookies spent less time on the test than the group that was allowed to eat them. This suggests that using willpower to resist temptation in one area of our lives can make it harder to apply it to other areas.
Living in a society where we are constantly bombarded with temptations and distractions can make it difficult to maintain our willpower. Studies have shown that, on average, we spend three to four hours a day resisting temptations. This can make it particularly challenging for trainees to apply what they have learned in a training program to their daily lives. Therefore, it is important to design transfer processes that conserve volition and make it as easy as possible for trainees to implement what they have learned instead of blaming them for not trying harder.
So, how can we strengthen transfer volition to make sure that more of what is learned is transferred? Here are some practical tips:
Tip 1: Conserve VolitionMake sure that transfer takes as little willpower battery as possible. To help trainees follow through with their transfer plans, turn transfer tasks into challenges using gamification elements, such as completing a set number of customer acquisition phone calls and sharing success with peers. Incentives and tracking tools can also save willpower energy. Trainees can track their progress, and trainers can reward even small steps toward goals.
Encourage participants to couple implementation with something enjoyable. Trainers can encourage trainees to combine the transfer activities with something that brings them joy or pleasure, called motivation bundling. For example, a routine for top-level executives could involve reflecting on their leadership skills while flying small remote-controlled helicopters, which helps them take a meta-perspective. This strategy not only makes transfer fun and engaging but also helps trainees develop a sense of ownership and personal connection with their transfer efforts.
Encourage participants to automate the implementation as much as possible. Trainers can help trainees develop a sense of routine and familiarity with their transfer efforts by encouraging them to combine transfer activities with existing habits or routines, called habit stacking. For example, a trainee could practice prioritizing tasks while drinking their morning coffee. This strategy makes transfer activities automatic and reduces the need for willpower, making it easier for trainees to stick with it over time.
Tip 2: Redirect Attention to Transfer PlansIn a world where everything competes for our attention, it’s easy to lose sight of the things we set out to do after a training. Our job as trainers is to prevent this from happening! Support participants by helping them shape their environment to trigger transfer at the moment of action, such as leaving sports shoes in the car, placing discussion guides in acquisition documents, or even using a laser pointer with a reminder during presentations. Designing an environment with prompts can be a fun and highly effective exercise during training. No participant should leave the training without a concrete transfer plan and a well-primed environment.
Besides workplace design, trainers can also help with reminders. These can be gadgets that participants receive during the training, or even mailed gifts that they can only open at a specific moment during a live online training, creating a sense of anticipation and excitement. Follow-ups, exchanging experiences, photos and videos from the training, and other reminders can also be effective tools.
By the way, the good old “letter to oneself” is a scientifically proven genius transfer tool and can easily be modernized in the form of a (voice) mail, video, or even a physical letter. It can be a highly effective reminder. So, make sure to help redirect trainees’ attention back to their transfer plans and keep them on track toward achieving their goals.
Tip 3: Use self-commitment and social pressureSticking to transfer plans is difficult, but involving others can make a big difference. When we publicly commit to our transfer plans, we are more likely to follow through on them. We can start by writing our transfer plans in the chat or on a digital board at the end of a live online training session—the spotlight effect ensures that we assume everyone is watching whether we will actually follow through.
A professional or collegial coach is also a wonderful transfer tool to help with accountability and progress tracking. Designating a colleague as a “change observer” to provide feedback on specific desired changes during and after the program can really help.
By adopting these strategies, trainees stay committed to their transfer plans and achieve their goals, with the added benefit of support from peers, another one of the 12 levers of transfer effectiveness.
Hot tip for boosting volition: Stop giving out certificates for mere attendance in the training program—instead, tie the certificate to the success of the implementation (such as in an implementation presentation that includes opinion leaders), or list not only the training content but also the participant’s implementation success on the certificate. This can incentivize participants to follow through with their transfer plans and increase their volition to achieve their goals.
Transfer volition is a limited resource, but there are actionable strategies that you can use to conserve it and achieve the desired goals. As a trainer, it’s important to factor in transfer volition when designing your training program and use strategies that help your trainees conserve their willpower. By doing so, you can increase the likelihood that they will be ready, willing, and able to work consistently on carrying out their transfer plans.