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Easy Does It: Why Small Steps Lead to Big Lifestyle Changes

Amanda Gregory, LCPC, EMDR Practitioner

Do you struggle to incorporate new behaviors into your lifestyle? Does it sometimes seem impossible to change your established routines? If so, you’re not alone. Many people find it extremely challenging to add new behaviors into their daily lives.

A former client of mine set a goal of going to the gym three mornings a week. After four weeks, this client had not gone to the gym even once. I could hear the frustration and confusion as they said, “Why can’t I just do it? Am I lazy?”

Psychologist B.J. Fogg notes that when we’re unable to consistently implement new behaviors, it’s not always about a lack of motivation or willpower; we’re just taking the wrong approach.

Dr. Fogg encourages making small, gradual behavioral changes instead of jumping into significant changes right away. These small changes in behavior should increase little by little over a period of 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.

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, which can also create or intensify low motivation.

Let’s say that 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 in and not going to the gym. You’ve gotten used to this routine, and it might be challenging to change it. Instead of trying to wake up early and go 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 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 and 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 and 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 this 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 to sustain a significant lifestyle change over a period of time. This approach also helps you to gradually fit your new behaviors into your current routine. So 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 simply add a new element to your established routine.
A small-steps approach allows you to slowly change your behavior in order to achieve your desired long-term goal. If you’re finding it difficult to make changes to your behavior, it may be useful to connect with a therapist. Contact Symmetry Counseling to schedule your appointment today.

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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