Use the habit loop to establish new daily habits that will help to achieve a desired outcome. Follow a six-step approach to creating new, goal-oriented habits with your clients.
Step 1: Establish Goals and Milestones
Contrary to popular belief, habits do not take 21 days to form. The time varies greatly from person to person and can be as long as 66 days on occasion (Gardner, Lally & Wardle 2012). The automaticity of habit formation is a long process that requires consistent implementation and coaching. It’s therefore important to set expectations about the journey. Focus and buy-in are paramount for habit formation and retention.
Our clients often come to us with ambitious goals, like losing 60 pounds, becoming a starting quarterback, or lowering blood pressure and cardiovascular disease risk. These objectives can seem overwhelming. Once a client’s goal is established, it’s important to “chunk” it into smaller, less daunting, more realistic outcomes. For example, instead of focusing on losing 60 pounds, a good first milestone is to lose 5 pounds in the first month. Establishing milestones helps the client manage expectations, which increases the likelihood that a habit will form.
Step 2: Identify Motivational Factors
To be motivated means to be moved to do something (Ryan & Deci 2000). Motivation can be both intrinsic and extrinsic. The client who wants to lose 60 pounds may have been told by her doctor that she might die if she doesn’t lose weight. This scare tactic is an extrinsic motivator—the motivation comes from an external driver. This form of motivation is a powerful way to get someone started on a new behavior, but the long-term effectiveness is poor.
Intrinsic motivation involves doing an activity for the inherent satisfaction, not for a separable consequence. Losing weight may be intrinsically important to the client because she gains a sense of accomplishment, feels more self-confident, finds a mate or accelerates her career. Intrinsic motivators are long-lasting compared with extrinsic factors.
Motivational factors are closely linked to cues and rewards, and identifying them influences the habit loop. Motivational interviewing tactics such as expressing empathy, establishing rapport and assessing readiness to change are useful for identifying motivational factors (Bundy 2004). (See the sidebar “Four Motivational Interviewing Techniques” for more.)
Step 3: Pick a Goal-Oriented Behavior
Parents struggle to get their kids to eat vegetables. The reward (“Vegetables are good for you”) is not valuable for most children, and attempts to force vegetables on them will often meet with strong resistance. Autonomy is a powerful tool for stimulating behavior change and sustaining it over time (Ryan et al. 2011). It’s a parent’s dream to have a child eat veggies of her own accord. Likewise, personal trainers dream of a client who makes healthy decisions on his own. Here’s a key: In order for clients to establish a habit, they must select the habit.
Let’s go back to the kids and vegetables example. To get your child to eat her veggies, you must give her the power of choice. Before dinner, select three green vegetables for her to choose from: kale, green beans or broccoli. She picks the one that sounds most appealing, and because she was given the power to select it ahead of time, she becomes more likely to eat a vegetable with less resistance in the future.
When working with a client, select two to three goal-oriented habits, provide the rationale for how each habit supports the goal and then give the client the power of choice. While it might seem appealing to engage in multiple habits at one time, focusing on one simple habit at a time may lead to greater behavior change (Gardner, Lally & Wardle 2012). For example, give a weight loss client three habits along with their benefits:
- Walk and track 10,000 steps per day. There is evidence that regular, “incidental” physical activity is effective for weight loss and overall health.
- Drink 2 cups of water before every meal. Not only can this help with satiety, but water is calorie-free, and proper hydration may aid in fat loss and contribute to overall well-being.
- Get to bed by 10 p.m. every night. A good night’s sleep supports the body’s ability to lose weight.
The client selects the habit he wants to focus on first, which creates a sense of ownership.
Step 4: Create the Cue and Reward
Once the client has selected a behavior, provide a few potential cues that will trigger it. For instance, if the client opts to drink two cups of water before every meal, offer the following cues to choose from:
- Set a reminder alarm.
- Keep a water bottle next to the computer screen.
- Schedule water consumption on a calendar.
Next, help the client select a reward to reinforce the behavior. The more valuable the reward (the more intrinsically and extrinsically motivating it is), the more likely the client will be to engage in the behavior the next day. For example, if the client meets the goal by dinner, he can have one glass of wine. While it can be argued that alcohol consumption could impede the client’s weight loss goal, it’s perhaps more important for him to feel that he can successfully accomplish a new behavior and form a healthy habit (Gardner, Lally & Wardle 2012).
Step 5: Eliminate Disruptors
The Institute of Motion defines a disruptor as a factor that may inhibit, slow down or even prevent desired outcomes (Institute of Motion 2017). Clients use disruptors as excuses for not accomplishing a new behavior. If you can help clients identify disruptors, you can overcome pitfalls before they occur.
As an example, not having water readily available and accessible disrupts the behavior of drinking two cups of water before every meal. Therefore, the client’s first action should be to purchase a water bottle that’s easy to fill and to transport. Brainstorm potential disruptors with the client and create action plans to eliminate them.
Step 6: Follow Up
The last step in creating a habit is to hold the client accountable to the new behavior. Research shows that a simple text message is a powerful tool for behavior change (Cole-Lewis & Kershaw 2010). It creates a stronger trainer-client bond and lets the client know he isn’t on the journey alone. The text message could be a simple check-in: “Hey, did you drink 8 cups of water today?,” although this approach could come across as authoritative or bossy. A better solution is to be playful: Take a picture of yourself drinking a cup of water while making a thumbs-up. This may seem silly, but it’s a nonthreatening way to let the client know you care about his progress.
SIDEBAR: MANAGING EXPECTATIONS
Don't expect your clients to be successful at mastering a new habit every day. If a client goes 3 days without meeting a daily habit, intervene with a new one. Co-create a list of goal-oriented habits that are simple to execute, and allow the client to choose the one she feels most confident about. Starting over at an early stage is less detrimental to self-confidence than waiting too long, and it can help both the trainer and client identify a clearer path.
SIDEBAR: FOUR MOTIVATIONAL INTERVIEWING TECHNIQUES
According to the American Council on Exercise, motivational interviewing is a "communication strategy in which a coach partners with a client to explore ambivalence about a given behavior change" (ACE 2015). Use the following four techniques, in addition to the habit loop, to help a client reach his goals.
- Ask open-ended questions.
- Use affirming statements that highlight the client's strengths.
- Employ reflective listening, a process by which you (the coach) make an informed guess about what a client has shared.
- Summarize what the client shares.
For more information, visit acefitness.org/acefit/healthy-living-article/24/5302/4-techniques-to-master-for-motivational/.
Be sure to also check out NASM's blog post on nutrition and behavior change.
IDEA Fitness Journal, June 2017
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