5 key steps to effective behavior change

Behavior change is a concept many people try to implement every year. The glaring example is the weight loss journey most people begin every January 1st. Other examples include:

  • Improve health
  • Quit drugs or alcohol
  • Stop smoking
  • Become happier
  • Further education/career
  • Learn a new skill or language
  • Take up a new hobby
  • Meet new people

The problem is, behavior change is extraordinarily difficult, particularly in adults. By the time you reach your 30s and 40s, most people have developed habits that are just too difficult to change. As a result, many people feel stuck in a perpetual loop.

But lifestyle change doesn’t need to be difficult. In fact, it can be quite easy provided you’re willing to put in the work up front. The problems most people encounter are a direct result of focusing on what they want to change while ignoring how they can cultivate change.

Behavior change is an incredibly popular concept that can dramatically improve your quality of life. As such, there’s quite a bit of literature at our disposal to help you along the way.

Today we’ll cover how to successfully implement behavior change.

1)Invest a lot of time in the conceptual stage

Most people have a solid grasp of the things they’d like to change. Maybe you want to lose weight, or your health is slipping and you’d like to reclaim your good health. Identifying that you want to change is a critical step in the hierarchy of behavior change, but it’s only the first step.

If we look at your change as a roadmap, we’d consider this first step identifying that you want to go somewhere. But this is just one piece of the puzzle. You also have to identify your long term goals which function as your destination and plot your course along the way.

What is your destination? What is fundamentally driving you towards your destination? What are the roadblocks along the way? Are there ways around the roadblocks? Or, alternatively are their alternate routes to get to the same destination while limiting roadblocks?

Spend a lot of time, hours, developing a solid plan that guides you to your destination. You’ll spend more time thinking about this step than you will actually writing it. So most of it is something you can take up while going for a walk, commuting to work, or while going for a run. Just don’t forget to write it down.

2)Keep your goals front and center

Your goals act as your destination on your journey of change. And every now and again, it’s good to be reminded of your goals so that you can stay on task and keep your eyes on the prize.

But, it’s easy to get distracted from your goals. A very common way of keeping focused for people on a weight loss journey is to post your goals on the fridge or door to your pantry. That way, when you reach for something to eat, you’re reminded of your long term goals so you make better food choices.

However, a much better option is to list your goals in a document and make that document the home screen on your phone. That way, when tempted to stray from your goals, you can wake your phone up to have your goals front and center.

3)Understand your motivations

It’s great that you want to change, but why do you want to change? When you finally make the decision that it’s time to change, what are the primary factors motivating you?

This normally builds up over a long period of time. When people look to improve their health, there are normally several factors that drive them towards this.

For example, maybe they see an older loved one suffering and they don’t want that to happen to them. Or, they don’t want to become a burden on their children when they get older.

Identifying your motivations is important because, well, they motivate you. And when problems pop up or you’re tempted to stray from your goals, those motivations can help keep you on track.

4)Identify roadblocks to achieving behavior change

By the time you decide to make a concerted effort to change, you’ve probably waffled back and forth several times. In those instances, your desire to change was always there, but something got in your way and caused you to lose sight of your goals.

Roadblocks can be people, places, and situations that divert your attention away from your goals long enough for lapses in judgement to happen. Weight loss is ripe with roadblocks of each type:

  • People-Particularly spouses, family members, and close friends. Maybe your best friend doesn’t share your desire for health and always chooses activities that are sedentary, or food establishments that aren’t healthy.
  • Places-Certain places predispose to bad food selections. Chain restaurants, bars, the mall, the movies, etc.
  • Situations-Birthday parties, office parties, business dinners, and vacations all promote poor decisions

The point of identifying these roadblocks isn’t to eliminate them from your life completely. It’s to be mindful of them, reduce exposure to them, and have contingency plans in place when they are unavoidable.

5)Start small on your behavior change goals, earn some wins first

It’s very easy to want to jump in head first with your behavior change, particularly if it’s brewed for a while. If you do it right, you’ll have a good list of long term goals that you want to achieve; those are your destination.

But it’s important to break up your long term goals in to smaller short-term goals that act as the path to your destination. Think of your short-term goals as your turn-by-turn directions.

It’s easy to immediately jump to a long list of complex short-term goals at the outset. Changing your behavior is overwhelming, and it’s important that you don’t burn yourself out at the get-go.

In many respects, changing your behavior is never the first step, measuring it is. For example, rather than setting a goal to start exercising, start with buying an activity tracker and using it.

We use the data from activity trackers extensively here at Hack Your Gut for several reasons. First, they provide concrete data on how active your are, when you are active, and the types of activity you do.

Next, activity trackers give an accurate assessment of your activity levels. We are notorious for over-estimating how active we are. Finally, they measure important factors such as resting heart rate and sleep that we use to measure progress.

Another example is writing things down using a food/symptom journal or using a food logging app on your phone. In addition to giving you great data, it causes you to be more mindful of your eating.

Most people are surprised by their eating behaviors when they start paying attention to them. And the best part is, it also gives you a pretty good list of short-term changes you can make to achieve your long term goals.


Behavior change can be difficult for many reasons. Of course, the biggest reason is that many of the things that people want to change are ingrained patterns that are hard to break. But another major reasons is that people don’t understand how to change behavior.

Change psychology is a science unto itself. In order to successfully implement change, you need to understand this and implement change using strategies from the literature. The 5 strategies listed above are a great start to implementing effective behavior change.

If this seems a little overwhelming, you may want to seek the help of someone skilled in behavior change. Of course, this is a skill that’s common for psychologists and therapists to handle. But it’s becoming increasingly more common for health coaches, personal trainers, nutritionists, and dietitians to have formal training in change psychology.

Coaches in these professions are highly beneficial, both with industry knowledge as well as techniques to help cultivate effective behavior change.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.