How to really change your behavior this new year — hint, one thing won’t get you there

January 1st is coming and you’re likely preparing to break free of past behaviors and become a better you. However, January 12th is also coming up fast. Odds are that you will have given up on many of your new years resolutions by then, with others falling off the wagon soon thereafter.

So what can you do to make this year different than the many years previous? Well, for starters you can try something different than what you did each of those other years. Here are some thoughts on what that different strategy might look like from a recovering goal-breaker and behavior change enthusiast.

The one thing

If you’re looking for a silver bullet to weight loss or learning a new skill, this isn’t the right place for you. There just isn’t one thing you can do to create lasting and deep change. That is my number one rule for behavior change. Behavior change is difficult. It’s complicated.

Your inner scientist

In order to create long-lasting change you may need to change how you see the world a little. I’m going to ask you to put on your nerd glasses and start seeing the world through a different lens — the lens of a scientist. One of the first myths we need to overcome about our new years resolutions is the idea that if we make a mistake and have “fallen off the wagon,” it’s over.

Edison famously said “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Behavior change is a little like creating the light bulb. You need to become an expert in the field of what works and what doesn’t for you! That takes experimentation. With this key assumption, lets don our nerd lenses and get into creating long-lasting change in 2018.

Vital behaviors

There are a few vital behaviors that lead us to the nasty behaviors we’re trying to rid ourselves of in 2018. There are also a few vital behaviors that will help us do the new things we want to do in 2018. Our task is to find those vital behaviors — the things we do that have the greatest impact on the behavior we’re trying to change — and turn them to our advantage.

Here’s an example for you to consider as you look for vital behaviors and think about how to create lasting change. Several years ago I decided I wanted to lose 10 lbs in the coming 3 months and keep it off for a year. Even though we hate to admit it, we all know that if you consume less calories than you burn, you lose weight. It’s that simple. I’d tried to lose weight before and had been moderately successful a few times, but I’d never been able to keep the weight off for more than a few months.

As I entered nerd mode and worked to achieve my goal I got a calorie counter app to help me understand where my calories were coming from. After each meal, I entered the foods I’d eaten and got a calorie count back. I asked my wife to discuss my calories with me each day and help me find a good strategy for cutting back, but not being miserable — I love Tillamook’s Udderly Chocolate ice cream and I just didn’t know if I could live without it!

During this time I spent a few hours one evening researching what experts had found to be the vital behaviors that lead to weight loss. I read through one of the great behavior change books ever written “Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change.” I found that someone had already done the research and identified what vital behaviors would help me lose weight. Across a broad group of people, 3 vital behaviors stood out as having the greatest impact when it comes to weight loss: 1) weighing yourself every day, 2) eating breakfast daily, and 3) exercising at home.

I began implementing these behaviors. Eating breakfast wasn’t typically a problem for me, but I wasn’t weighing myself daily or exercising at home. I placed our scale by the shower so that I would see it every morning before getting in the shower, and I entered my weight into my calorie counter app. I also started restricting my audio book time to exercising time. I love reading. By restricting my reading time to exercise time, I made a behavior I typically loath — running — enjoyable. I also found I ran more when I was reading a particularly gripping book.

There were days I messed up, but I felt I was doing pretty good. There was only one problem. The numbers on the scale weren’t going down! I was still consuming as many calories as I was burning. Frustrated, but not willing to deny good science, I took a deeper look at my vital behaviors.

Returning to my calorie counter I noticed a trend. Meat was a big source of my daily calories. My wife and I had been talking about eating less meat in our home. What if I cut meat out of my day-to-day diet? That would eliminate a big chunk of calories. My wife agreed to this and we began only eating meat once a week at home.

With the addition of this vital behavior — eating meat only weekly — the numbers on the scale started to slowly drop. 3 months from the time I started my goal I had gone from averaging 175 lbs to a consistent 163 lbs average weight. That was 2 years ago and I still maintain the same average weight.

A framework for behavior change

In the above example, I leveraged several of the keys to behavior change that are mentioned in Influencer. The researchers and writers of Influencer break basic behavior change into the following categories: personal motivation, personal ability, social motivation, social ability, structural motivation, and structural ability.

Note: After re-reading this I realized I use a ton of food examples. The principles apply to much more than just weight loss!

Personal motivation — what we most often focus on. This is the reason for the change in behavior. This needs to be strong. In my case, I kept thinking “I don’t want to die of a heart attack before my grandkids come around.” It’s different for all of us. Find out what your motivation is, and keep it top of mind. I was also leveraging this when I made running — something I hate — desirable by rewarding myself with reading time while doing it. I share a fun motivation idea in my sample plan at the end of this article.

Personal ability — what we regularly miss when considering goals. More motivation can’t solve every problem. Sometimes we lack basic skills. I didn’t know how many calories were in the food I was eating. I needed to learn to count calories.

Social motivation — never underestimate the power of good social motivation! In my case, my wife would listen to me talk about my behavior change efforts. Hearing how many calories I consumed was a regular part of our conversations every day. Friends can be excellent social motivators, but you can also consider finding a coach.

Social ability — once I determined the greatest opportunity to decrease my calories — drastically reducing my meat consumption — there was still a big obstacle. Would I have to be creating my own meals separate from my family every day? Fat chance of that happening! Lucky for me, my wife was willing to try a “much less meat” diet and it became socially acceptable to not eat meat in our home.

Structural motivation — did you know that you are very likely to reduce your food consumption by eating on a smaller plate? That’s an example of an easy structural change that could have big impact.

Structural ability — I leveraged this concept by pulling the scale out of storage and placing it right next to the shower where I could easily weigh myself each day. How is your physical environment enabling your good or bad behaviors?

Our odds of creating successful behavior change improve the more areas of influence we engage in our change efforts. Putting one of these areas of influence to work isn’t enough to give you the best odds possible at creating lasting change.

How I’m going to structure my goals for 2018

If you have read all this and put together the following plan for achieving your goals in 2018, you’re killing me!


Here’s an example of a plan built to leverage the power of vital behaviors and the 6 areas of influence.


As you look forward to 2018 and your resolutions, please consider this framework as a helpful tool for you to actually accomplish your new years resolutions. Remember, if you miss a day it isn’t failure. If you’re doing things right, you’ve just found one more way that doesn’t work in helping you change your behavior. Adjust and try again tomorrow.

If you’re interested in this framework or learning more about behavior change I recommend the following books:

  • Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change by Patterson, Grenny, Maxfield, McMillan, and Switzler
  • Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success by Patterson, Grenny, Maxfield, McMillan, and Switzler
  • The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhig
  • Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work by Chip and Dan Heath
  • Nudge: Improving Decisions and Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard Thaler
  • Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck