7 Behavior Change Strategies That Actually Work!


Searching Google to learn about the best behavior change strategies that actually work will yield an overwhelming number of results and leave you frozen in a state of inaction and uncertain of where to start. This article draws upon my decade of research and the dozens of books I’ve read on the topic of behavior change strategies to detail seven behavior change strategies that actually work so you can begin making positive behavior changes today!

Understand the Basic Elements of Behavior Change Strategies

To deploy lasting behavior change strategies, you need to first understand the core elements involved, or, the formula of behavior change. Whether you’re trying to implement a behavior change strategy to drink a glass of water when you wake up or to a behavior change strategy to stop eating a bowl of ice cream each night before you go to bed, it’s the same foundation. Each process has the same core elements involved that is crucial to your understanding of how and where to make a change. 

There are a few predominant frameworks that detail the core elements of behavior change strategy and each is quite similar in nature and do a good job simplifying the behavior change formula.

Behavior Change Formula I: The Habit Loop

For example, Charles Duhigg, author of the book “The Power of Habit,” describes behavior change using the concept of “the habit loop.” Duhigg states that all behaviors satisfy the three components of the habit loop:

  1. The cue
  2. The routine
  3. The reward

For example, if you currently have a habit of eating a bowl of ice cream each night after the kids go to bed, the three elements would look as follows:

  1. Cue: you’ve put the kids down for bed 
  2. Routine: you walk into the kitchen and immediately head toward the freezer
  3. Reward: peace, calm, quiet, bliss

Duhigg explains that with an understanding of the cue, routine, and reward in the current behavior you wish to change, you can then begin to identify what reward you’re really seeking (hint: it’s not ice cream in the example above) and begin experimenting with different routines or cues until you ultimately reach a state in which you have a cue and routine that are serving the reward you really desire (which may be peace and calm in the example above). 

Behavior Change Formula II: The MAP to Behavior Change

Similar, yet, different, Dr. BJ Fogg, author of “Tiny Habits,” discusses and breaks down behavior change using the following formula:

Behavior Change = Motivation X Ability X Prompt

In this instance, Dr. Fogg advocates that for a behavior change to occur, there needs to be appropriate motivation, ability to change, and a prompt to initiate the change. Continuing with the example above in which you want to change your ice cream eating behavior to something more in line with your goal of losing weight, consider the following:

  • Behavior Change: swapping out ice cream for a healthier habit that supports how you want to feel
  • Motivation: are you motivated? Do you have a clear why behind wanting to make this change? 
  • Ability: do you have the ability to stop eating ice cream each night? (Hint: yes 🙂 ).
  • Prompt: do you have a prompt in place to redirect this past behavior? Yes, this could be as simple as placing a sticky note with your “why” for wanting to make better decisions on the freezer so you see it daily, especially at night. 

By ensuring you have each of the three elements above clearly answered, you’ll make the behavior change much easier to accomplish – so long as you start tiny as the name of the book implies!

Behavior Change Formula III: Easy, Obvious, and Attractive Habits

Lastly, another popular deconstruction of behavior change is from the best-selling author of the book “Atomic Habits,” James Clear. Mr. Clear breaks down behavior change into being able to answer the following questions:

  1. How can I make it obvious?
  2. How can I make it attractive?
  3. How can I make it easy?
  4. How can I make it satisfying?

Upon answering each question above, you’ll be far better prepared to have your desired behavior change work…and stick! 

I don’t share three different schools of thought of behavior change to overwhelm you, rather than to show you there are multiple ways of looking at, and approaching, behavior change and to encourage you to learn more about the approach that most resonates with you. 

For instance, I first learned about habit formation and behavior change by reading the work of Charles Duhigg, but when I came across Dr. Foggs’s work in “Tiny Habits” it was a game-changer simply because it “clicked” with me more. 

Next, I invite you to learn the seven best behavior change strategies that work that I’ve gleaned from the past decade.

Behavior Change Strategy #1: Start Tiny

When it comes to behavior change strategy, the smaller the better.

A key ingredient to lasting behavior change is the perception of progress. If there’s no progress perceived, our willpower and motivation quickly fade and we’re more likely to give up on our goal altogether.

However, by choosing a tiny habit, we’re more likely to consistently execute what we’ve committed to. Therefore, increasing the visibility of, and feeling of, progress, and, ultimately, motivation and willpower to continue going. Plus, the execution of one tiny habit day after day makes consistency more likely, which leads to a gradual accumulation that drives massive progress!

Continuing with our evening ice cream example, a tiny behavior change you could work to begin focusing on may include:

  • Passing on ice cream just one night of the week
  • Having a spoonful (rather than a bowl-full) of ice cream

Behavior Change Strategy #2: Celebrate Every Win

When we celebrate, our brain is flooded with the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine. 

This is the neurotransmitter released when we’re expecting a reward of some type, such as when we smell freshly baked chocolate chip cookies (and expect to be treated to one soon!). 

When you begin to celebrate the completion of your tiny habits, you train your brain to recognize that what you just did is rewarding, and, therefore, condition your brain to want to seek out this behavior more and more. 

The result?

Your brain works with you to encourage and execute this new behavior change because of how good it makes you feel!

In “Tiny Habits,” Dr. Fogg advocates that we think back to how we celebrated landing our first job or dream job (for me, this was a huge fist pump and yell) and then do the same thing every single time we successfully execute our tiny habit. 

This may seem like a bit much, but it gets you physically, emotionally, and psychologically excited about the completion of your tiny habit, which collectively works to hardwire this new behavior as a habit that sticks.

So, the next time you pass up on ice cream or limit yourself to one bite, make sure you do a big fist pump and happy dance! 

Behavior Change Strategy #3: Gain Crystal Clarity on What Success Looks Like

Before embarking on the journey to forming a new habit, it’s important you take time to gain clarity on what success looks like. This behavior change strategy will help you to effectively align the appropriate action steps and expectations to be successful.

Too often we’re guilty of setting vague goals that carry no detail as to what constitutes success; therefore, we never feel the validation and triumph of success because we’re not certain what we’re aiming for.

For example, when setting a goal to cut back on the amount of ice cream you eat each evening, is that a specific amount each night or a number of times per week that you do eat it?

Be specific about what success looks like so you can best measure and gauge progress, which is what will keep fuel on your motivation to ingrain this new habit.

Behavior Change Strategy #4: Gain Crystal Clarity on What Success Feels Like

Not only should you gain clarity about what successful implementation of this new habit looks like, but you need to know what it feels like. Behind every health-related goal is a feeling (or collection of feelings) we’re chasing. 

For instance, you may wish to weigh a certain amount on the scale. Maybe, though, its’ not really the number that you’re after. Instead you want the feelings of confidence, accomplishment, pride, and control. You know you will feel that if you put in the work to hit that goal.

When you gain clarity on the feelings you’re after, this clarity will provide awareness. Awareness tells you what needs to be done to begin feeling that was as soon as possible. It will guide you down the right path and ensure you take effective actions. 

Next time you listen to your favorite song as you look out at the stars instead of ice cream, note this moment. Recognize that it led to you feeling calm and in control. When you gain clarity on what you’re really chasing, you’re better equipped to align a beahvior change strategy that works!

Behavior Change Strategy #5: Make Your New Habit Irresistible

The best behavior change strategies are the easiest to implement. In the words of habit expert James Clear, “The more attractive an opportunity is, the more likely it is to become habit-forming.”

I understand that there may be a handful of habits you work to implement in your life. Some of them you’re only doing so because you know they’re good for you. For example, eating four to six handfuls of vegetables per day…

The more irresistible you can make your new habit, the more likely it will stick. In the example above, you could consider sneaking vegetables into meals that you already enjoy, such as:

  • Sauteeing spinach, peppers, and onions into your omelets
  • Sneaking spinach into a smoothie
  • Stir-frying broccoli and snap peas into your rice or pasta dish
  • Squeezing a handful of spinach between the meat and cheese of your sandwich

Doing so creates a win-win situation: you get to eat a meal you enjoy and reap many nutritional benefits simultaneously! 

Let’s continue with our story of ice cream. I’m now hungry for ice cream, by the way! I recognize the difficulty. It is difficult at first to think of an alternative habit that’s as irresistible as eating ice cream. When you are clear about how you want to feel and why you want it, a shift occurs. The feeling itself is incredibly rewarding and takes on an irresistible presence of its own. 

Behavior Change Strategy #6: Anchor and Stack Your New Behaviors

If you’re looking for a way to immediately install a new habit, then anchor it to an existing habit. 

For instance, let’s say you want to begin drinking more water during the day and don’t know where to start. Each morning, you’re already in the habit of brushing your teeth – this is an existing habit. 

To increase the likelihood of drinking more water, you can anchor this new habit to your morning teeth-brushing ritual. Place a glass next to your toothbrush, which will make it infinitely easier to remind you to drink that water.

In our ice cream example, putting the kids down to bed is the previous cue that prompted you to eat ice cream. That habit is in place – putting the kids to bed. Now, try a different routine, such as stargazing or a cup of tea, in place of ice cream. Anchoring this new habit to post-bedtime for the kids will increase the likelihood it sticks.

Behavior Change Strategy #7: Make Your New Habit Easy and Obvious 

Let’s continue with the example from above. Placing your empty glass next to your toothbrush will make it easier to drink water in the morning. This is better than relying on yourself. You don’t need the discipline of going to the kitchen as soon as you wake up to grab a glass of water.

You’ve made the new behavior change obvious.

Now, make it easier. Consider filling up a glass (or shaker bottle since it has a lid) with water the night before. This way you may immediately begin rehydrating to start your day!

You may also consider temporarily removing ice cream from your house so it’s easy not to indulge each night!

Behavior Change Takes Time

At this point, you’re well-equipped to begin making positive behavior changes in your life. 

But remember this: behavior change follows a process and you cannot skip steps.

Mistakes are a part of the journey. Embrace them and learn from them. Focus on consistency rather than perfection. So long as you remain steadfast in your commitment, you’ll see improvement. You absolutely will reach a point of automation. This is where your behavior change is happening on auto-pilot and here to stay for good!

For more information about how to improve your behavior change process, check out episode 173 on The 5% Way Podcast, “9 Things to Know To Make Building And Breaking Habits More Effective.”
And when you’re ready to follow a proven path to rebuild your relationship with food, improve your self-care habits, and rewire your brain for positive, powerful action, click here to apply to join The 5% Community and join women just like you who are working to feel, look, and be their best!

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Paul Salter

Paul Salter is a Registered Dietitian and Founder of The 5% Way. Since 2013, Paul has worked one-on-one with nearly 1,500 men and women, helping them to collectively lose tens of thousands of pounds of body fat and keep it off for good. He’s also published nearly 1,000 articles, two books, and 175 podcast episodes (and counting) on all things related to our five core elements of sustainable weight loss.

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