Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Small Change Works, but It's a Hard Sell

When it comes to weight loss, many of us still want instant gratification.

Key points

  • Our human nature can get in the way of embracing small, progressive changes to succeed at weight loss.
  • Small change for weight loss emphasizes strategies that promote permanent behavior change.
  • Making small changes over time requires rewarding effort and process.
Source: Champja/iStock

Let’s face it… most of us are motivated by success. We are spurred on when we succeed at something. We start to incorporate that success into our identity. This can inspire us to continue on a certain path.

Not so with perceived failures. Some of us take failure personally. Rather than learning from it, it can become part of our identity in a negative way.

Given that we like to keep moving forward when we succeed, it would seem that setting up a pattern of small successes for the long haul that is weight loss would help people say on the path.

Unfortunately, our human nature can get in the way (but there are ways around it).

What Our Human Nature Wants

Research highlights two traits that often rule our natures when it comes to weight loss.

1. We want to look good.

Most people (to be fair, not all) do not cite health benefits as a driving motivation for wanting to lose weight. People want to look better, feel better, and have more energy. They can do that by getting healthier, but the connection is not always made.

Case in point: If you lose 5-10 percent of your body weight, there are considerable health benefits. Among other things, you can improve your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar. These are three factors that drive chronic disease processes, which can have major effects on our health.

Statistics tell us that up to half of patients are non-adherent when it comes to taking medications for a wide variety of very prevalent chronic conditions. Most notably, these conditions include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes (high blood sugar).

These chronic conditions are basically hidden from view. It is not as easy to brag about lowering your cholesterol as it is about losing 10 pounds. Nobody sees it, including you.

2. We want it easy.

Following a diet program makes losing weight less complicated. How many diets market themselves as “the easy way to lose weight?” Seems like the ideal solution.

But following a diet program has been shown again and again not to be sustainable. Seeing some weight come off initially is motivating, but motivation flags and long-term adherence rarely happen.

Why? Because motivation is not a behavior. How we eat and the choices we make are day-in and day-out behaviors.

Another aspect of those choices is that making too many at once has been shown to be counterproductive. We do not like too much change at once. And, as seen in dieting, we can do that for a while, but the urge is to return to our old behaviors eventually.

Small change advocates use this information to make their case. Making small changes gives us the opportunity to imprint a new behavior without upsetting the apple cart. These changes can eventually get us to our goals of losing weight, even if improving our health is not top of mind.

The Problem With Promoting Small Change

This all makes sense, but the problem is selling small change and making it sustainable.

People want instant gratification. They want to see some pounds fall off. A long-haul solution can be a difficult sell. It can be tricky to get people to buy into making changes that will impact their health that they will not necessarily see. And having people visualize what they will be like in a year is not compelling when faced with the immediate future.

What sort of carrot can you offer that will work? What strategies can you implement that will get people to embrace making small changes that gradually pile up?

Some Useful Strategies

Here there is hope. Actually, we can use some strategies that are frequently used in diet programs.

However, when applied to making small changes, these strategies can promote self-reflection, awareness, and simplicity. These are key areas to encourage when focusing on making behavior change.

  1. Self-monitoring: Many research protocols involving ways to log daily eating have shown that doing so increases and sustains weight loss. Taken in the context of making small changes, it can be a huge contributor to self-awareness of problem areas, as well as to real successes and progress as the months go by.
  2. Mindfulness meditation: Even meditating 5 minutes a day can reduce stress and impulsivity. This can be an enticement for those who know they struggle with overwhelm, stress eating, or emotional eating. In addition, our environment is rife with distractions that insist that we be better, thinner, and more successful. Meditation can remind us what really matters in life and keep us on track for long-term, permanent change.
  3. Emphasis on simplicity: Often, people follow a diet plan because it is touted as “simple” or “easy.” A small change can be presented as “the new simple.” Presenting a diet plan as “simple” often gets people thinking magically from the get-go. Small change keeps it real.

All three of these strategies require education, guidance, and support. Motivation and readiness to change are also important. The same may be true of many diets. But when a small change is being advocated, there are three big differences.

  • Emphasizing permanent behavior change.
  • Shifting the perception of rewards for the behavior from “I followed my diet” to “I have made a positive change for myself.”
  • The frequent celebrating of successful efforts. It is about the process.

Can this be a tough sell? Probably. In fact, most likely. But many programs are now using the small change paradigm successfully. As the successes pile up, perhaps this approach will become the new norm.


Katz, D.L. (2005). Competing Dietary Claims for Weight Loss: Finding the Forest through Truculent Trees. American Review of Public Health. 26:61-88.

Lutes, D.L., et al. (2008). Small Changes in Nutrition and Physical Activity Promote Weight Loss and Maintenance: 3-Month Evidence from the ASPIRE Randomized Trial. Ann. of Behav. Medicine. 35:351-357.

Duckworth, A., and Steinberg, L. (2015). Unpacking Self-Control. Child Dev. Perspect. 9(1):32-37.

More from Psychology Today

More from Kristen A. Carter MS

More from Psychology Today