4 Tips to Making Behavior Changes That Stick


Whether you want to lose weight, save money or get more sleep, you’re going to have to change your current behavior to achieve your goal. Most people only think about the positive aspects that a change will bring about, but if you really want to succeed, you need to consider the downside of the choices you’re making.

I’ve taught my patients that the key to making behavior changes stick is to anticipate the obstacles ahead of time so you can problem-solve and be prepared when you hit a roadblock. And don’t forget about the positive aspects that your behavior change will bring about. You’ll need to remind yourself of those benefits to motivate you when you’re feeling challenged.

Here are four tips to make behavior changes that last:

1. Set a very specific, easily measurable and realistic goal.

General goals such as “I will exercise more” or “I will start saving money” are not measurable or specific, which make them easy to blow off. You might even tell yourself that you’ll do it tomorrow or start next week, but all this does is prevent you from starting to make a change.

Make goals that you can hold yourself accountable for, such as “I will exercise for 20 minutes on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays” or “I will put $25 per paycheck into my savings account.” When you set a very specific goal, you’ll know exactly what you need to be doing, and then you’ll know if you’re on or off track. Once you’ve made that goal, be sure it’s realistic so you’re not setting yourself up to fail.

2. Anticipate the obstacles.

You’ve considered the pros of changing your behavior, which is probably what got you to set the goal in the first place, and now it’s time to think about the cons. There’s a downside to making behavior changes so now you need to get really honest with yourself about the pain you’re going to feel in order to reap the benefits. Take yourself through a typical week in your mind and see where you’re most likely going to drop the ball. What obstacles will come up as you work toward your new behavior goal?

3. Problem-solve how to handle the obstacles.

Now it’s time to figure out your action plan for facing the challenges that will inevitably come up as you work toward your goal. For example, if one of the challenges you identified is “I usually feel too tired after work to make the 6:30 p.m. yoga class,” then you better start figuring out a way to get energized or find a class at a different time when you’re more likely to go.

4. Ask for support.

Tell at least one friend (but preferably even more) about your plan and regularly check in with them about your progress. Being held accountable for behavior helps us follow through even when the stakes are really low. Better yet, team up with a friend who is setting a similar goal and do it together. A study at Brown University found that people who teamed up with a successful buddy lost twice as much weight as those who didn’t have a weight-loss partner.