Sticking to Health Goals: It’s Not About Force

            You have a new health goal for yourself. You’ve decided that it’s going to become part of your daily life…for real this time. You’re feeling motivated and disciplined. It’s finally going to happen. Maybe you get through a few days, maybe a week, and then…you’ve lost your groove and the habit is dropped. Sound familiar?

            It’s frustrating to make intentional choices for one’s health and struggle to implement the change into daily life. So often, we are encouraged to rely on sheer willpower; we are told that we must simply “stick to it”, and if we fail, we are too lazy, too unmotivated, too [insert judgmental comment here]. 

            But here’s the thing: creating a new habit is hard. To go against our typical routine requires a more tactful approach than simply exerting sheer force. In fact, research has shown that when it comes to habit formation, willpower is exhausting and short-lived (Baumeister et al., 1998; Foreyt & Goodrick, 1994). But luckily, there are realistic ways to make health behavior changes easier and more sustainable.

How To Know You've Set Too Many Goals – iIMAGINEblank

Pair the habit with a cue

            In order to make a new habit stick, it’s important for it to become automatic. For this to happen, pair your behavior with a behavior that is already automatic (Lally et al., 2010). Think about it: most of us put deodorant on after showering. This important hygiene behavior is paired with showering–we don’t need to put extra energy in remembering to do it, or considering when is best to apply deodorant during the day. We just do it after showering, because that is how we have become accustomed.

            On top of that, showering is a consistent routine, so by pairing deodorant-wearing with showering we are much more likely to remember to do it. Just as this has become a part of our routine, we can intentionally add in new behaviors cued by another, already established behavior in our routine. If taking medication or multivitamins is your goal, consider pairing them with breakfast or another important part of your morning routine. Every day when I eat breakfast, it is also the time to take my medications. If you want to get more movement in your day, pair a short walk with arriving home from work. When I arrive home from work, it is time to go on a walk. This daily cue will give you a little reminder of what comes next in your day: your new habit. 

Make the behavior accessible

            The easier it is to perform a new behavior, the more likely one is to do it (Verplanken & Melkevik, 2008). If you want to go to the gym tomorrow, you not only have to muster the motivation to go to the gym, but you also have to wake up early, pack your gym bag, change your clothes, and transport yourself to the gym. The more obstacles you can reduce, the less likely you are to throw in the towel when the time comes. So pack your gym bag the night before and sleep in your workout clothes if you need to. Portion out your medications for the week so you don’t have to fumble with each bottle every morning. Cook a week’s worth of vegetables at once, so all you have to do is heat it up in the moment. These may seem like small obstacles, but that simple reduction in effort can go a long way–especially when you are feeling resistant to sticking with your behavior.

Plan for the worst

            When changing a behavior, you need to have an intention to change. However, intentions play a small role when it comes to implementing this change (Orbell & Sheeran, 1998). To follow through with an intention, you must anticipate and prepare for challenges that may take you off course. This is where i-intentions come in.

            Implementation intentions, or i-intentions, are a specific plan of action for a sticky situation you may encounter (Mann, 2015). Rather than simply relying on the statement, “I intend to do x”, one fleshes out the plan: “If y happens, I will respond by doing x”. 

            As previously mentioned, when confronted with obstacles, we are less likely to stick to our intended behavior. When these obstacles come in the form of unique situations that are outside of our routine, we must exert extra effort to decide how to respond. Maybe you’ve gotten used to going on walks as part of your after-work routine, but when you visit family for a few weeks, you are faced with a new scenario that puts your new habit at risk. If you rely on in-the-moment decision making to establish a backup plan, you are less likely to follow through. But by creating an i-intention (If I am out of town, I will walk before dinner), you already have a backup plan locked in. This solution may seem too simple to be true, but it has consistently predicted peoples’ ability to stick to all kinds of health behaviors, from healthy eating to practicing safe sex (Adriaanse et al., 2011; Gollwitzer & Brand, 1997).

            When it comes to forming new habits, we’ve got the wrong method. Habit forming does not, unfortunately, come from creating an intention and then forever having enough willpower to follow through. Instead, it comes from creating the right conditions to change without needing to rely on willpower. With these tips and some patience, you are on your way to realistically and sustainably sticking to your health goals.



Adriaanse, M., Vinkers, D., De Ridder, T., Hox, J., & De Wit, J. B. (2011). Do implementation intentions help to eat a healthy diet? A           systematic review and meta-analysis of the empirical evidence. Appetite, 56(1), 183-193.

Baumeister, F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of                  personality and social psychology, 74(5), 1252.

Foreyt, J & Goodrick, G, 1994. Living Without Dieting. New York: Grand Central.

Gollwitzer, M., & Brandstätter, V. (1997). Implementation intentions and effective goal pursuit. Journal of personality and social                 psychology, 73(1), 186.

Lally, P., Van Jaarsveld, H., Potts, W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world.                    European journal of social psychology, 40(6), 998-1009.

Mann, T., & Postel, D. (2015). Secrets from the Eating Lab. Tantor Audio.

Sheeran, P., & Orbell, S. (1999). Implementation intentions and repeated behaviors: Augmenting the predictive validity of the                        theory of planned behavior. European Journal of Social Psychology, 29, 349-370.

Swanson, M., Branscum, A., & Nakayima, J. (2009). Promoting consumption of fruit in elementary school cafeterias: the effects                of slicing apples and oranges. Appetite, 53(2), 264-267.

Verplanken, B., & Melkevik, O. (2008). Predicting habit: The case of physical exercise. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 9(1),                   15-26.


{Art by Loni Thompson}