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How Small Steps Lead to Big Lifestyle Changes

A realistic way to change habits.

Key points

  • Your mind and body might resist change – even if that change would be in your best interest.
  • Making small, gradual behavioral changes may be more realistic and effective.
  • Celebrating small successes can help you to continue your progress.
Source: Pexels/Dids

Most people don’t stick to their New Year’s resolutions, and for good reasons. It’s challenging to incorporate new behaviors into your lifestyle as it requires you to alter routines and ingrained habits. The human body is organized to return to a state of homeostasis when changes occur. So, your mind and body might resist changes – even if those changes are in your best interest.

“Why can’t I just do it? Am I lazy?” asked my former client, who set a New Year’s resolution of going to the gym three mornings a week. In February, this client had not once gone to the gym. Was this client lazy?

Psychologist B.J. Fogg notes that when we’re unable to implement new behaviors consistently, it’s not always about a lack of motivation or willpower; we’re just taking the wrong approach. Fogg recommends making small, gradual behavioral changes instead of immediately jumping into significant changes. These small changes in behavior should increase little by little over time until you have achieved your desired change. For example, if your goal is to achieve healthy eating habits, you might start by trying to improve one meal a day for a week—instead of changing everything you eat all at once.

Let’s say your goal is to go to the gym three days a week in the morning. But you haven’t been to the gym in over six months, and you’ve been sleeping in. Therefore, your daily routine consists of sleeping and not going to the gym. You’ve gotten used to this routine, and it might be challenging to change it. Instead of waking up early and going to the gym three mornings a week right away, try thinking in terms of smaller steps.

Here is an example:

Week 1: Set your alarm and get up each day at the time when you plan to go to the gym.

Week 2: Get up early and do a 10-minute exercise routine at home three days this week.

Week 3: Get up early and do a 20-minute exercise routine at home three days this week.

Week 4: Get up early, go to the gym one morning this week, and do a 30-minute exercise routine at home two other mornings.

Week 5: Get up early, go to the gym two mornings, and do a 30-minute exercise routine at home one morning.

Week 6: Get up early and go to the gym three mornings a week.

Because it starts small, this change takes six weeks to implement, which may seem like a long time. But this approach may help you sustain a significant lifestyle change over time. This approach also gradually helps you fit your new behaviors into your current routine. You aren’t reinventing the wheel but simply adding on or making small, gradual changes to your habits. To start going to the gym regularly, you shouldn’t sacrifice other aspects of your morning routine that you enjoy, such as grabbing a coffee or checking social media. You add a new element to your established routine.

This approach is designed to celebrate small successes, which helps to boost motivation. We’re often unprepared for how much time and effort it will take to establish a new behavior, especially if we have to change other habits or routines. Not giving ourselves credit for small successes can sap our motivation. In addition, making big changes all at once can lead to exhaustion or burnout, creating or intensifying low motivation.

A small-steps approach allows you to change your behavior to achieve your desired long-term goal slowly. If you have a new goal or New Year’s resolution, try breaking that goal up into small steps.


MacLellen, L. (2017, January 4). A Stratford University psychologist’s elegant three-step method for creating new habits [Blog post] Retrieved from…

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