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The Full Mind Weigh™ to Lifelong Weight Management, a program of the Institute for Lifelong Weight Management – teaching you the skills you need to keep the weight off forever!

Habit Change

People often ask me, “What’s the best way to change a habit, or to create a new habit?” There’s so much great information out there about a variety of different strategies, but ultimately we have to try something new and see how it works for us. Here are a variety of approaches for you to try:

A. Think tiny – very tiny

According to Dr. B.J. Fogg, a behavioral researcher at Stanford University, we need to think tiny. Fogg is the creator of “3 Tiny Habits” and he believes that the path to lasting change is to take baby steps and build on those.

And we’re talking really tiny steps!

Here’s an example:

Instead of vowing to go running every morning for five days, just lace up your running shoes. That’s it. You’ve met your goal. Now, I could really get into a program like this! The key is building on small successes and integrating them into our lives. Then we can take the next step and the next step – and we’re “wiring” ourselves for success all along the way.

“Habiteers” are followers of Fogg’s program – some 3,000 strong – and here’s how some of their success stories started out:

  • Do one pushup, not 10
  • Eat one tiny piece of broccoli
  • Floss one tooth
  • Lace up those running shoes; then take them off

The key is that these tiny steps are successes from the get-go. So, we’re constantly reinforcing the successful behavior in our minds.

“I was opening my sock drawer,” Fogg relates, “and when I got some socks out, the word ‘after’ just struck me.” He realized he knew what he always would do after he took out his socks – close the drawer. He’d been trained over a lifetime to close that drawer. There would never be a time he wouldn’t close it. What if he attached a new tiny habit to this chain of events in his brain?

Closing the drawer is what Fogg calls your anchor. You execute your new tiny habit after an old tiny one. Fogg has worked with innovators such as the founder of Instagram – helping him understand how and why people want to share pictures on the Internet. And now he’s working with individuals.

With the Habiteers online program, participants execute three teeny-tiny tasks each day for five days. The idea? They learn the process of habit creation; and once they know how to create habits, they can leverage those habits into bigger positive changes in behavior.

Celebrating yourself for every small success is crucial to the process. “One of the secrets to making a Tiny Habit work,” says Fogg, “is celebrating every single time you complete it.” Remember those fist pumps we see from athletes? Fogg also says we can create little sayings to repeat to ourselves – either internally or externally. How ’bout “way to go” or “I rrrrrrock!” Whatever anchors in the success for you. Some of us may feel silly doing this. According to Fogg, it doesn’t matter. “Just do it,” he says. “The emotion of celebration glues in the tiny habit,” says Fogg. “The reason is that your brain wants to feel happy and excited.” So, do your habit enough times and your brain starts saying, “OK, my key goes in the door, I do one squat, I get happy.”

Tips for success:

  • Create, don’t break
  • Practice
  • Go early or late

Tiny Habits are for the creation of positive new habits, not the ending of negative old ones. Breaking habits is a whole different psychology. However, what you can do is create a new habit that blocks an old habit. Example: you eat too many potato chips at night. Quitting chips would not be a tiny habit. But deciding to take out (not eat) celery and carrots would be one step towards creating a new habit – even if the celery and carrots were simply placed on the coffee table beside the bag of chips.

Practice makes perfect. The first time you assign yourself a tiny habit, repeat it five times from beginning to end to “seal it in.” Morning and evening also seem to be the most effective times. The middle of the day is usually too busy to focus on habits.

So, what tiny action can you take today? Find your anchor, do something tiny and lock it in with a fist pump. I’d love to hear your stories. I dare you – go ahead and put on your running shoes!

B. Think Short-Term

Would you be willing to try something new if it was only for 21 days? According to Laura Vanderkam, author of “An Inside Look at Why we Love Short-Term Habit Change”, the idea of changing something or giving up something for 21-30 days has wide appeal. Gretchen Rubin, whose Happiness Project book chronicled her year of trying to be happier, recently began selling “21 Day Happiness Projects” on her website for people seeking to de-clutter their lives or quit yelling at their kids. “I’ve been absolutely astonished at how popular they are,” she says. “People really seem to love this kind of structure.”


Vanderkam writes, “The appeal stems from a few things. First, change is hard. Short-term change seems less hard”. “It sounds doable,” says Katherine Edwards, a licensed professional counselor who’s blogged about a series of 30-day projects at Ye Old College Try. “It feels like anyone can cut something out for 30 days, including me.” Over the past two years, Edwards has spent a month throwing out five things a day, tried to limit screen time, and only buying produce and dairy at the grocery store for 30 days while she tried to eat through her pantry.


Vanderkam also commented, “Challenges tend to come with specific rules. While many of us know we’d like to change, life is messy. Rules aren’t”. People find it helpful to do assignments “that help them to focus on a specific area from many angles as they’re trying to make changes. You never know exactly what will work,” says Rubin.


Of course, there are potential problems with short-term challenges. Firstly, what happens afterwards? “The key is to think about what you’re going to do on day 22, or day 31,” says Rubin. “It’s easy and even fun to give up sugar for a month–but then what happens? Do you go right back to your old habits? It’s great to de-clutter your life for 21 days, but without changing your habits, all that clutter will just come flooding back. It’s great to use a project to jump-start your actions, and to focus your attention, but it’s very important to think about how you’re changing habits for the long-term, not just making some temporary effort.” As Rubin learned from researching her forthcoming book on habits, Better Than Before “Sometimes a time-limited effort can make things harder! Once you’ve ‘finished,’ you have to start again, and starting again is often harder than starting the first time. So once you’ve got something good going, try not to let yourself stop, even after you reach the end of the designated time.”

I believe that short-term challenges can definitely work. If we give ourselves a 21-day or 30-day challenge we’re likely to keep going after we try it out and see that it wasn’t so hard after all. If we truly believe in the benefits associated with the change or challenge, and we see that it was doable, we’re going to feel encouraged to keep going. Celebrating our short-term successes is important, because feeling successful makes us want to keep going. After the 21 or 30 days we can think about it and decide whether or not to continue. We can even decide to try it for another 21 or 30 days, and then make another decision at the end of that time period. Let me know if you decide to try this – I’d love to hear how this approach works for you.

C. Think in terms of “Bundling”

Another possible strategy is “temptation bundling”, a tactic described in the journal Management Science by Katherine Milkman, an assistant professor in operations and management at the Wharton School. Based on her experience of wanting to exercise more and to manage her guilt over spending too much time with trashy novels, Milkman tried to limit her trashy-novel consumption to the 30 minutes she spent exercising on a machine at the gym. Lured by the “stickiness” of the novel, her exercise/novel routine gradually developed into a five-day-a-week habit.

To test her personal results, she recently enlisted 226 Penn students and staff who wanted to exercise more and divided them into three groups for a 9-week study. Participants were divided into three groups: One got iPods loaded with four tempting novels of their choice, but were only allowed to access them at the gym. Those who were part of the second group received the same audiobooks but loaded them on their own iPods and could take them home, although they were encouraged to only listen to the devices at the gym. Members of the third group (a control group) were each given a $25 gift card (valued equivalently by this population to the loan of four audiobooks) and were simply encouraged to work out more. The participants selected from 82 pre-tested novels deemed highly tempting, including The Hunger Games trilogy, The Da Vinci Code, the Twilight series and The Help.

Initially, the researchers found that those who had gym-only audiobook access attended the gym 51% more than the control group and 29% more than the group encouraged to self-restrict their enjoyment of tempting audio-novels to the gym. The effects weakened somewhat over time, however, with Thanksgiving break arriving in the eighth week of the nine-week study and causing a large drop in gym attendance for all groups. “We find that attendance rates increased meaningfully and significantly with access to the temptation bundling program, suggesting that temptation bundling creates value.”

According to Milkman, the iPods were most effective for those who had the busiest schedules (measured based on participants’ availability to meet with researchers at the outset of the study). The busiest people with gym-only iPod access boosted their gym attendance by an extra 0.21 visits per week above and beyond the 0.46 visit per week initial benefit experienced by average participants in the same group. “I thought it was really cool that the busiest people got the most out of it,” Milkman notes. “But it makes sense that they especially need that extra push to go to the gym.”

When the study ended, participants were entered in a lottery to win an iPod loaded with audiobooks. If they won the iPod, they were asked if they would like to pay the researchers to take this iPod away from them and ensure it could only be accessed at the gym. Much to the surprise of the researchers, 61% of the study participants (from all of the experimental groups) were willing to pay for this restriction on a possession they could otherwise access freely, at an average price of $6.91.

Milkman said that temptation bundling can be applied in a variety of ways outside of the gym. For example, if you tend to overindulge in pedicures or spend too much time lingering over $5 lattes at a coffee shop and struggle to complete tedious work assignments, you could treat yourself to pedicures or lattes only when working on dreaded assignments. “Temptation bundling can simultaneously solve two problems at once in many different situations,” Milkman says. Milkman and her colleagues agree that further research needs to be done on the topic. The most important questions, according to Milkman, include how to sustain the initial benefits found from restricting access to the iPods and how to re-engage people with tempting content after time away from the gym since the initial benefits of temptation bundling in this gym experiment wore off after participants left campus for Thanksgiving break. “You aren’t extinguishing your bad habit,” Milkman says of her findings. “You’re harnessing it. You’re using its motivational power for good. It’s not that you can’t binge-watch Scandal anymore, but you reorient when you do it. It makes something you should do more attractive.”

Try out “temptation bundling,” where you combine a good habit (getting to the elliptical machine at the gym) with a tempting bad habit (binge watching your favorite trashy TV show). Anticipating the pleasure of the bad habit can help create a new and healthy one.


“Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.” – Mark Twain

“You leave old habits behind by starting out with the thought, ‘I release the need for this in my life’.” – Wayne Dyer

To learn more about effective weight management strategies, join my next weight management class, The Full Mind Weigh™ to Lifelong Weight Management. For details, check my website:

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With your continued health in mind,

Doreen Lerner, Ph.D.

Director, The Institute for Lifelong Weight Management

Creator, The Full Mind Weigh™ to Lifelong Weight Management

The Institute for Lifelong Weight Management provides education and training. The Full Mind Weigh™ is strictly an educational program and is not a substitute for medical or psychological evaluation or treatment. If you think you may be suffering from an eating disorder, please consult with a qualified mental health professional who is trained to evaluate and treat eating disorders.