Building and Maintaining Habits

Dr. Erin Nitschke

Image: Pexels - Karolina Grabowska

At first glance, behavior change or establishing a new habit seems simple enough. We are accustomed to meetings being canceled, children falling ill, or the weather interfering with best laid plans. The “change is easy” perception exists in part because we oversimplify its nature. It is often perceived that change requires two ingredients: a decision and willpower. The truth is — behavior change is a nonlinear challenging process. It is a multifaceted journey and to make meaningful changes in lifestyle behavior, we need to understand what makes changing a behavior so hard.

What influences behavior?

Human behavior — all behaviors, health-related or not, are subject to external influences. Perhaps one of the most common ways to examine the complexity of change is through the biopsychosocial model. This model examines the intersection between biological, social, and psychological factors that influence a person’s behavior. This model reinforces the evidence that behavior is not about choices made in isolation; it is about conscious choices made consistently over time. Such choices are influenced by a person’s biology, their social environment and support, and their mindset and past experiences. While this model does consider three important factors, it’s missing a critical piece of the behavioral puzzle — a person’s environment.

The environment, or the ecological lens, demonstrates how behavior is influenced by individual characteristics, close relationships, social networks, life environment (such as neighborhood structure, transportation, and walkability of a community), government regulations and supports (which influence food availability and prices), and social and cultural norms or expectations. In short, change is not a choice; it’s a complex process.

It’s important to understand this so that we are better able to shift the internal narrative we tell ourselves and grant ourselves grace when we are confronted with the need to change some aspect of how we live.

Being Clear about Goals

A common reason for goals to go unmet or abandoned is because we lack clarity around what we want to achieve. Secondary to that, a common focus of a goal is the product — or the end result/outcome (i.e. weight loss). In lieu of focusing on the outcome, a goal that focuses on the process is more effective. Let’s look at two examples.

Product example: “I want to lose 20 pounds.”

Process example: “I want to increase my activity by engaging in movement three days a week for at least 20 minutes.”

The second example is more realistic and specific. It also includes a process — or an action that a person can take to get to the product (or, the weight loss result). Remember, change occurs as a result of decisions made consistently over time.

If you are ready to set a goal, use this as a template to capture your thoughts and then post the goal where you can see it and recall it during times of diminished resolve.

Woman eating salad while working

SMART-ER Approach to Goal Setting

S — Specific. What do you want to focus on and achieve?

M — Measurable. How will you track your progress over time?

A — Attainable. What will you do to achieve your goal (this is the process or action)?

R — Relevant. How will you be/get better from achieving this goal?

T — Time. By when will you complete this goal?

ER — External Resources. What tools or resources will help support you and your progress?

Let’s look at an example together:

I want to lose 10 pounds and increase my energy levels in 15 weeks by exercising 5 days a week and managing my portion sizes. I will track my exercise using a weekly tracker sheet, meeting with my personal trainer, and recording my food using an app. By accomplishing this goal, I will feel better and have more confidence and energy. The tools that will help me accomplish this include smaller plates, a kitchen scale, measuring cups, a healthy recipe cookbook, an accountability partner, and the Ate app.

You can use this as a template to outline your own goal and practice sharing your goal with your social support network. Sustainable change happens when our goals are clear and relevant to us.

What about willpower?

There’s this misconception that people just need willpower to sustain a change or habit. However, willpower is a mind-body response, not a virtue. This means, it is, by nature, in inherently limited. For example, the longer someone uses willpower for an extended period or on one or two occasions, they will have a decreased ability to continue to do so on future occasions.

When an individual must rely on willpower, they are really relying on self-control; people make decisions based on emotion — not reason. Consequently, we need to develop strategies to conserve willpower.

Strategies for Conserving Willpower to Sustain Change

When setting goals, focus not just on what you want to accomplish (the result), but on how you will accomplish it (the process you will follow or engage in) and tactics for dealing with or overcoming high-risk situations. Some strategies might include:

The strategies that you use will vary based on the goals you set for yourself and what you feel supports you and your progress the best. These are just examples to help you brainstorm ideas that are relatable to your situation and the future you want to create.

Building and maintaining habits starts with clarity of goals and a solid goal setting process. We also must remember to grant ourselves grace and space while embracing the process of change and acknowledging its complexity.


ACE (2019). The Professional’s Guide to Health and Wellness Coaching.

Dr. Erin Nitschke is a professor of exercise science at Laramie County Community College. She holds certifications including NFPT-CPT, NSCA-CPT, ACE Health Coach, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Therapeutic Exercise Specialist, and Pn1. Erin is an editorial author for IDEA, NFPT, where she writes regularly on topics related to personal training and health coach skill building, behavior change, and career success.

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