Behavior Change

Examples of Behavior Change Goals Through Small Steps and Tiny Habits

Kinsey Mahaffey
Kinsey Mahaffey
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As a behavior change specialist, many of our clients like to set new goals for the New Year. By this time of the year, however, it’s estimated that a large majority of people who set New Year’s Resolutions have already given up. If you work in a larger gym, you’ve likely seen this trend in action each year as the number of memberships and gym attendance increase in the first quarter, and then gym attendance decreases significantly by March.

When you think back to your January goal-setting sessions with your new and existing clients, you will likely remember their excitement as they set their new goals. They seemed motivated, ready for change, and excited to accomplish their goals. You even made sure that they set SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Realistic, and Time-bound) to increase their chances for success. So…what gives? Why don't our clients always see success?

Perhaps our clients chased the results instead of pursuing lifestyle change. They went hard in January and tried to completely change all of their habits at once.

Most people can do a sudden shift like this for a short period of time, but if they want to achieve their goals and see them last, it will take sustainable change to get there. There are many variables involved in achieving health-related goals, but creating an action plan can help your client make a move from just having good intentions to having good results.

What's the status of your client's current goals?

Before jumping straight into an action plan, this might be a good time to sit with your clients to review their goals. It's essential to have the right goals in place before you try to make a plan to achieve them.

Here are a few questions that you can ask your client to get the conversation started:

  • Do these goals still reflect the results that you’d like to see?

  • Do you think that any of your goals need to be adjusted? If so, how would you adjust them? Perhaps your client has already achieved one or more of the goals they set initially, and they're ready for a new challenge. It's also possible that they want to adjust their goals to make them more realistic or relevant to where they are in this season.

  • Would you like to set any new goals?

Once you've revisited and revised your client's goals as needed, have your client write down their goals and write down why each goal is important to them—identifying their “why” will help the client focus on their intrinsic motivation for reaching the goal. Intrinsic motivation describes behavior that is driven by internal rewards.

You can contrast this with external motivation:

when an external reward or avoidance of punishment influences behavior. An intrinsically motivated client would choose to go to her workout because she enjoys her sessions (internal reward). A client who is extrinsically motivated would attend her workout. After all, she doesn't want to be charged a late cancellation fee (avoiding punishment).

A research study from Mata et al. (2011) shows that intrinsic motivation is one factor that increases the likelihood of improved exercise and nutrition behaviors in women. If your client is having a hard time figuring out what their “why” is for achieving each of their goals, you might ask them a simple question like, “How will this goal positively impact your life?” or “Why is this goal important for you to achieve?”.

Outcome vs Process Goals

Goals generally fall into one of two categories: outcome goals or process goals. An outcome goal states the specific outcome that your client would like to see. "I want to lose 15 pounds by the end of my 4-month training program". A process goal states what will need to be done to achieve that goal. "To lose 15 pounds by August 2021, I will eat three balanced meals per day and exercise for 30 minutes a day, four days a week". To put it simply, an outcome goal explains where your client is going, and a process goal describes how to get there.

To formulate your client's plan of attack to reach their goals, you need to be specific about what they will need to do to succeed. You need to know how much of what they need to do by when. Your client's goal is weight loss, and their focus during their program will be exercise and nutrition. Their process goals might look something like this:

Outcome goal: Lose 15 pounds by the end of September 2021

Process goals:

1. Attend three personal training sessions per week and walk 30 minutes a day at least five days per week.

2. Eat three balanced meals per day, including 1-2 servings of vegetables per meal, 4oz of lean protein, one serving of non-processed carbohydrates, and one serving of a healthy fat source.

3. Eat out a maximum of 2 times per week.

Once you’ve nailed down your client’s process goals, it’s time to make a plan!

If you need additional help on setting realistic goals for your clients, see this article Helping a Client Set Realistic Weight Loss Goals.

Make a plan of attack

As with any plan of attack, you need to know where you’re going, how you’ll get there, and where to start. The outcome goal tells us where we are going, the process goals tell us how we’re getting there, but how do we know where to start?

To find their starting place, assess your client’s current behaviors to determine their baseline. Go through each goal with your client and ask where they are currently with each one. Let’s use the process goals from the example above. After talking with the client, here’s an example of what you might end up with:

1. Goal: Attend three personal training sessions per week and walk 30 minutes a day at least five days per week.

-Current workout routine: Attending three personal training sessions per week and walking 30 minutes a day, two days per week.

2. Goal: Eat three balanced meals per day, including 1-2 servings of vegetables per meal, 4oz of lean protein, one serving of non-processed carbohydrates, and one serving of a healthy fat source.

-Current nutrition habits: Not paying attention, I eat when I can.

3. Goal: Eat out a maximum of 2 meals per week.

-Current nutrition habits: Eating out seven meals per week.

Next, have your client arrange these goals from the easiest to achieve to most the challenging to achieve. After some thought, your client comes up with this order:

1. Eat out a maximum of 2 times per week.

2. Attend three personal training sessions per week and walk 30 minutes a day at least five days per week.

3. Eat three balanced meals per day, including 1-2 servings of vegetables per meal, 4oz of lean protein, one serving of non-processed carbohydrates, and one serving of a healthy fat source.

Your client will tackle each of these goals one at a time and in this order. If your client is flexible on the amount of time to reach their goal, you can dive into this process and focus on mastery of each goal behavior before moving on to the next process goal.

This is best for creating long-term behavior change and cultivating a healthy lifestyle. If your client is time-crunched, you can systematically break down the behavior to help them work toward their goal on-time. Either way, your client will see good results along the way.

Monthly Milestones and Baby Steps

When I started training, I spent so much time setting goals with clients that looked good on paper, but they seemed hard to implement. Over time, I learned that it helped break down their goals into smaller, short-term goals to help them take immediate action and feel successful.

The best way to achieve any goal is to break it down into smaller, more achievable steps. This approach will help your client gain quick wins early on in the process and build momentum to help them keep going. There are two strategies that I’ve employed to help guide clients in this process: monthly milestones and baby steps.

Monthly Milestones

A monthly milestone is a goal that you can achieve within a month. An additional benefit to using a monthly milestone is that it's a lot easier to focus on a single goal for one month rather than staying focused on many goals for a more extended time.

To set the first monthly milestone, break down one of your client’s long-term goals into a smaller, more attainable goal to focus on for the month. Once your client has listed their process goals from easiest to hardest, you will begin by tackling the easiest goal first.

Using our example above, your client wants to work their way toward eating out only twice a week, and they currently eat out seven times per week. You can discuss with your client whether they think it’s realistic to progress toward this goal in one month or if they'd like to break it down further to tackle it over two months or more to allow for more time to master this new habit.

If they dislike cooking and meal planning, it might take more time to adjust to this new routine. However, if the client is very comfortable with cooking and meal planning, they truly might adjust in one month. Gauge where your client is and allow them to guide the process with your input along the way.

Baby Steps

Once you’ve set your first monthly milestone goal, you will break the goal down into baby steps to work your way toward the goal week by week by the end of the month. It’s critical to be flexible and to get your client’s input as you go through this process.

If you determine what the baby steps look like on your own, you risk making it too easy or too difficult for your client. Either approach might result in their losing motivation and/or not seeing the results they’re looking for. Let’s look at an example conversation for how you might work with your client to break down the first goal:

Trainer: Your goal is to eat out only two times per week, and you currently eat out seven times per week. What do you think is an easy goal to start with for the number of times you'll eat out this week?

Client: I think I could try only to eat out three times this week.

Trainer: I know that sometimes work can get busy for you. On your worst work-week, would it be really easy for you only to eat out three times per week?

Client: Um…yeah, maybe not.

Trainer: I want you to choose a number that seems so easy to you. It would be silly not to accomplish it. What would that number look like?

Client: I think I could eat out only five times per week. That's better than seven but probably easier than three.

Trainer: So, eating out only five times this week would be pretty easy for you?

Client: Yes, I can do that.

Trainer: Great! That’s your goal for the first week.

This conversation allows the client to gain ownership in the process and enables the trainer to ensure that the goal is very realistic for the client to achieve. Each week, you will check in with your client to see how it went and determine if they're ready to move forward by reducing the number of meals eaten out per week or if they need another week of practice at this number of times eating out per week. You can continue this process until they are regularly performing the long-term goal behavior.

Here’s an example of what a relatively fast progression might look like with this goal:

Monthly Milestone Month 1: Eat out only 2x/week by the end of the month

Week 1 Goal: 5 times per week
Week 2 Goal: 4 times per week
Week 3 Goal: 3 times per week
Week 4 Goal: 2 times per week

Only progress to the next challenge when your client has mastered the current challenge and feels ready to move forward. There's no sense in increasing the challenge if they haven't yet succeeded at the current level. If your client needs some time to adapt, you might stretch out the process over two months (or more, depending on your client):

Monthly Milestone Month 1: Eat out only 4x/week by the end of the month

Week 1 Goal: Eat out five times per week
Week 2 Goal: Eat out five times per week
Week 3 Goal: Eat out four times per week
Week 4 Goal: Eat out four times per week

Monthly Milestone Month 2: Eat out only 2x/week by the end of the month

Week 1 Goal: Eat out three times per week
Week 2 Goal: Eat out three times per week
Week 3 Goal: Eat out two times per week
Week 4 Goal: Eat out two times per week

By breaking down the process goal into smaller short-term goals, you're setting your client up for success by helping them focus on a specific achievable target. Once your client reaches their goal, the new goal becomes maintaining this behavior while tackling the next goal on their list.

Their efforts will quickly snowball and give them results as they continue to take small steps toward their outcome goal. They will ultimately end up in maintenance mode, or they might find a new way to challenge themselves once they've reached their initial goals. It's up to them!

As you navigate this process with your clients, it can be helpful to look back monthly or quarterly at where your client started so that they can appreciate how far they’ve come. Because your client is taking small steps toward their goal, their perception might be that they haven’t gone very far. The beauty of this process is that they go farther than they thought without straining through the process.


In this process, we start big picture by making long-term SMART goals, and then we strategically narrow down their goals until we have smaller, more achievable baby steps that will help our clients change their behavior one step at a time.

Celebrate each win with your client along the way, but always stay forward-focused to help your client continue to make progress. Before you know it, they'll be striding through the finish line. One baby step at a time!


Mata, J., Silva, M. N., Vieira, P. N., Carraça, E. V., Andrade, A. M., Coutinho, S. R., ... & Teixeira, P. J. (2011). Motivational “spill-over” during weight control: Increased self-determination and exercise intrinsic motivation predict eating self-regulation.

The Author

Kinsey Mahaffey

Kinsey Mahaffey

Kinsey Mahaffey, MPH, is a Houston-based fitness educator, personal trainer and health coach who developed her commitment to lifelong fitness while playing Division I volleyball. She’s passionate about helping others cultivate a healthy lifestyle and enjoys educating other fitness professionals who share this vision. She’s a Master Instructor and Master Trainer for NASM. You can follow her on LinkedIn here.


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