Strategies for Successful Habit Change

When you work with people to inspire and guide lifestyle change, whether you’re on the medical or fitness side of things, you are a coach. Having transitioned from fitness into physical therapy, living on the bridge between the two professions has given me a unique perspective on this. Regardless of my practice environment, my goal has been, and always will be, to develop robust independence in my clients. It is my belief that coaches don’t dictate, they educate. From what I’ve seen, the problem is that most coaches have the altruistic desire but lack the relevant knowledge to do this effectively.

I had a great conversation on this very topic today with my friend Brooke Mars who coaches out of Vermont Sports and Fitness in Rutland, VT and decided to share the outcome. Read on for a quick summary of the best strategies for successful habit change.

The first step is the development of self-efficacy, which is a person’s belief that they can succeed in a specific situation to accomplish a task. The most powerful method of developing self-efficacy is to have an individual achieve the outcome they desire, which seems contradictory. With consistency and a good strategy though, it can be done.

1) High Five for Self-Reflection

Anyone who has worked with me knows that I absolutely LOVE high fives. Sure, they may be dated and old school, but they will be my go to until a suitable replacement is discovered. Every client, in every session, gets a high five when we’re done, but it isn’t free.

To earn the high five, the individual needs to tell me one thing they did well during the session. This causes them to reflect on their recent performance and identify small successes, which build on each other over time. No matter what they say they get an enthusiastic “hell yeah!” and a stellar high five.

The only wrong answers are “I don’t know” or “nothing”, and with individuals who struggle I often give them ideas for the first few sessions. Within a few weeks, everyone is ready at the end of training to shout their success and get the best high five of their day.

2) Assess Behaviors After an Accomplishment

When a client reports an accomplishment, how you respond matters. Being a cheerleader and celebrating someone is fantastic, but without reinforcing the behavior that led to their achievement it’s empty and low skill.

Let’s say your fat loss client reports losing 2 pounds last week. Celebrate their success but follow it up by asking what they did differently to get that result, or what they believe led to it. This will cause them to reflect on the individual behaviors that led to the desired outcome, which brings me to the next point.

3) Emphasize Behaviors, Not Outcomes

The best coaches have their clients focus on behaviors that lead to outcomes, not the outcomes themselves.

Let’s consider the fat loss client from above and say that their goal is to lose 10 pounds but they struggle with nighttime eating and poor sleep habits. You could give them best training plan on earth, but if they tank a bag of Cheetos before bed and sleep 5 hours tonight, success will be limited and self-efficacy/motivation will suffer.

For this client, behaviors that support good sleep and less eating at night are an important step towards their goals. I would recommend stopping work and drinking a mug of caffeine free hot tea with lemon (I love mint tea at night) an hour before bed, and then immediately brushing their teeth. The tea causes the body to drop its temp and prepare for sleep, stopping work calms the mind, and brushing their teeth stops snacking.

In this situation, the behaviors lead to the desired outcome and provide the client with frequent small successes that build self-efficacy.

Side note: I keep using weight loss for examples because it’s simple and something most can relate to, but these strategies apply to many aspects of health, fitness, and resiliency.

4) One Thing at a Time

My final suggestion is to avoid changing too many habits at once. Try to introduce a new behavior every 2-4 weeks. Evidence on habit change shows that the length of time to make a new behavior permanent varies from person to person and habit to habit, but a good timeline is ~2 months. This doesn’t mean you can’t work on multiple habits at once but you will be most successful when you attempt to change one habit at a time and give that habit 2-4 weeks before starting a new one. Some people can improve faster, some slower. Do what feels best for yourself and remember, it’s not a race.

At the end of the day, success starts from within. Believe in your ability to improve and you’re more likely to do so. Focus on behaviors, not outcomes, and don’t judge your performance based on arbitrary goals. Emphasize your success while striving for better, and never forget where you came from. When you compete with yourself, compete with who you were yesterday, not with who you want to be in the future.

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“whether you think you can, or you think you can’t — you’re right” – Henry Ford

Do you have your own thoughts, ideas, or experience regarding habit change? Don’t be shy, and share! Comments and discussion are encouraged.