Tiffani Bachus by Tiffani Bachus

When working with clients who are trying to change behaviors, the goal is to help them identify and integrate new, healthier behaviors into their daily lives. This involves a lot of focus on changing habits—both establishing new habits and eliminating old, unhealthful ones. Habits are often deeply ingrained, and changing negative habits is rarely an easy or quick process. 

Helping clients to acquire a new habit, or to do away with a routine behavior that is deeply entrenched—one they may engage in without much conscious thought—takes time and a plan. Along the way, we want our clients to feel they are making progress toward their goal, and not to become discouraged. BJ Fogg, Ph.D., of Stanford University, studies the science of how habits form—and the best way to “plan” for creating new, permanent habits and shedding old, unwanted ones. He’s developed a model of how to form new healthy habits that stick. 

Simplicity Matters More Than Motivation

When a behavior is really easy, one doesn’t need much motivation to do it. When a behavior is hard, a great deal more motivation is required. Relying purely on motivation is risky, as motivation by itself is highly unpredictable. In any individual, motivation can change from moment to moment. Think about the clients who tell you how “motivated” and “ready” they are to change: “I will work out everyday this week, because I am so ready to lose weight!” Then, after just after a couple of days of working out, they fall off and stop. Why is that? They are still motivated to lose weight—but maybe the new habit was too difficult and their motivation level wasn’t enough to keep them going. New habits often don’t stick when people rely too heavily on motivation and when the desired habit is too ambitious or complicated. 

The remedy? Start with habits that are simple. Think of this as taking tiny steps or selecting tiny habits. Rather than your clients committing to a general goal like working out every day, encourage them to identify and commit to achievable habits, like working out two days per week or walking five minutes per day. The smaller and simpler a habit is, the easier it will be to adopt without having to rely so much on motivation. 

Emotions Create Habits

Accomplishment and success come with a whole set of powerful, positive emotions. Recognizing and celebrating accomplishments, and taking the time to experience the positive feelings that come with the achievement of a step toward a goal, can reinforce new behaviors and healthy habits. 

Encourage clients to celebrate their new, healthy behaviors with positive, congratulatory sayings. For example:

Making to the gym for a morning workout: “I did it!”

Choosing a healthful midday snack: “Victory!”

Walking an additional 10 minutes on the treadmill: “Success!”

These positive sayings should be used immediately after the behavior has occurred. Clients will feel the surge of positive emotion that comes from being successful and will be more likely to continue the good behavior, which will bring them another step closer to establishing a solid, reliable habit.

We’ve looked at the first two keys to forming healthy habits:

  1. Make the new behavior small and simple—choose tiny habits.
  2. Celebrate accomplishing the new behavior with a positive saying, immediately.

The third key to establishing habits addresses the question: 

“How do I remind myself to do the tiny behavior?” 

Put A New Behavior “After” an Existing Routine

Behaviors don’t exist in a vacuum. Rather, they exist as interlocking parts of daily life. When inserting a new behavior into a daily routine, it’s critical to locate the place for this behavior in relation to the other behaviors that occur around it—particularly to the behavior that comes immediately before it. To establish a behavior as a new routine, it’s helpful to using an existing routine (brushing your teeth, for example) as a reminder to engage in the new, tiny behavior (floss one tooth). 

To form habits quickly, one must know what the new behavior comes after, and use that already ingrained behavior as a launchpad for the new, desired behavior. 

The Tiny Habit method developed by BJ Fogg includes a Tiny Habit “recipe” that employs this formula: 

“After I ______, I will ______.” 

Examples of Tiny Habit recipes: 

After I empty my water glass, I will refill it. 

After I brush my teeth, I will floss one tooth.

After I get dressed in the morning, I will do two push-ups.

After I wash my face at night, I will set out my gym clothes.

After I clean up after dinner, I will take the dog for a walk. 

Remember, when helping your clients successfully create new, healthy habits it is important to: 

  • Pick new behaviors they want to adopt (not things they “should” do).
  • Make the new behaviors simple.
  • Identify a prompt for the new behavior using the already established behavior that comes before it.
  • Find a way to feel good immediately after doing the new behavior. 

Feeling successful and encouraged will help people keep going along the path to new habits and new behaviors that will have a positive impact on their health and wellness.

If you're interested in learning how to guide people toward long-term behavior change, check out the ACE Behavior Change Specialty Certification

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