Evidence-Informed Habit Change

Coaches, as well as other professionals such as nurses, dieticians and fitness trainers are concerned with changing unhealthy (or unresourceful) habits into healthy ones. Medical literature is full of studies about habit change, also known as behaviour change. Behaviour change interventions come in many disguises including motivational interviewing, client-centred approaches, tailored advice, health coaching and so on. Knowing that the terminology can vary is key to unlocking the literature. Coaching approaches are being aimed at everything from increasing physical activity, stopping smoking, healthier eating and even dental flossing.

In the 1950s plastic surgeon Maxwell Maltz observed surgical patients becoming accustomed to a change in their body (e.g. an amputation) starting at around 21 days post-op. This has been widely quoted as the minimum time it takes to change a habit. We now know that most habits take more time, stamina, strategy and motivation to transform.

Phillippa Lally and her colleagues have investigated the psychology of habit formation. They have found that it can take longer to change a habit than you might have thought. Ninety-six people attempted to change an eating, drinking or behaviour habit found that it could take anywhere from 18 days to 254 days to do so! In a 2012 article published in the British Journal of General Practice Gardner and colleagues propose 10 weeks (66 days) as a realistic time frame for behaviour change.

Ryan Rhodes, presenting his research at the recent Canadian Cancer Society volunteer summit, has found evidence that a physical activity habit can be formed in 6 weeks to 3 months if the new behaviour is repeated at least 4 times per week (the study is awaiting publication). De Bruijn, Rhodes and van Osch have observed that, of course, the positive intention to do exercise does not guarantee successfully engaging in exercise – that’s where habit strength and action planning – the what, where, when, and how – come in. High levels of action planning and habit strength act both independently and together as a catalyst to build stronger motivation to exercise.

Noting that habit strength increased for simple actions (e.g. drinking water) more so than for elaborate routines (e.g. a fitness regimen), Gardner and colleagues champion the ‘small changes’ approach. Evidence from a weight loss study bears this up – the intervention group (given simple advice and a self-monitoring checklist) lost 2kg compared to the wait-listed control group which lost 0.4kg at 8 weeks. Future studies might consider a more realistic control scenario (how about giving them conflicting, constantly changing advice?).

Besides repetition, duration, planning and simplicity, are there any other critical aspects of habits? Gardner and Lally (2013) assessed the level of intrinsic motivation of 192 adults in relation to habit strength and their past behaviour. Self-determined regulation (high motivation) drove stronger habits, independently of past behaviour, than lower motivation. This supports the golden vision of coaches – highly motivated people breaking free of their past to build healthy habits for the present and future.

Outstanding concerns include best practices when reporting behaviour change research – is what the researchers did completely clear to the reader? Often the intervention, the presumed driver of behaviour change being studied, is a ‘black box’ that is not adequately described. It might be a cornucopia of different things – an assessment, an information booklet, coaching sessions, reminders, phone calls, text messages, group sessions, etc. How long was the intervention? And what was the setting? These factors will impact how effective the change is and how permanent it is.

If the intervention was effective, to what should that be attributed – which component was the key driver (or was it due to all components)? Perhaps it was the smiling volunteer who conducted the assessment at the beginning! This question is often impossible to answer as it involves untangling the different components of the interventions. Coaches are welcoming and hospitable – can we also put a value on each question or tool we use?

Who benefits from what sorts of interventions? Tailoring is increasingly important in many areas of health research where historically an intervention was replicated across many people. Individual characteristics are now important. It is a core value of coaching to be both client-centred and tailor our approach to establish and maintain rapport. Mainstream health is starting to take note.

Given the steady flow of coaching-related articles being delivered by PubMed to my inbox (10 to 20 per week, though not all relevant), it is clear that coaching is an important theme in behaviour change and health research. It is unclear though whether this research impacts the approach used by non-health coaches. I’m curious, what is the role of behaviour change research in your coaching practice?


Danielle Worster


Danielle Worster, BA, MLIS, Erickson graduate

Danielle is a life coach working with individuals seeking to navigate change and build healthy habits. Danielle has previously worked with scientists and clinicians to find, appraise and communicate health evidence in Canada and the UK. To look into coaching with Danielle, visit her website Active Ingredient Coaching.


Making Resolutions Stick

By Tania Walter Gardiner

What will make your resolutions stick?

Here are a few things I have learned that support commitment and follow through on intentions for the new-year.

  • Begin by celebrating:  As you close 2012, what are you celebrating?
  • Transitioning into the new-year, what worked well that you want to continue within 2013?
  • What would you like to change or be different to be a better ‘you’ than what you have done in the past?
  • Looking forward into the new-year, what do you want to create?

Be clear.

To be successful in following through on your intentions, be clear on what it is you truly want to create for yourself and determine why that resolution is important to you. Then ask yourself, ‘what steps am I going to take to achieve that resolution?’ followed by ‘how will I know I achieved my resolution?’ then ‘how am I going to purposefully and intentionally commit to my resolution?

Prevent the fizzle.

New years’ resolutions fizzle because change is challenging. A resolution that is aligned with your deepest values and setting values-based goals greatly increases your motivation to follow through. Achieving goals feels satisfying, even during difficult times. Building in accountability that is the right fit for you is an important piece – hire a coach, get a mentor, have a success buddy.


Contributing member: Tania Walter Gardiner,  MA, BA, ACC 
Tania is a certified professional solutions and values focused coach and consultant who works with individuals and teams helping them to gain clarity, focus and direction, enabling them to live their definition of success in business and life. To explore coaching with Tania, visit her website, Integral Connections.

**Please credit the author with any use of or excerpt from this article in any form.

Insightful Focus

By Tania Walter Gardiner

Where are you choosing to focus? Where you put your attention is where you will create results. When we shift our attention, putting

focus on what we want and the way we want to produce results, we become more inspired.

What needs to shift?

If you were to scale your level of focus for today, with 1 just beginning to be focused and 10 being fully and completely focused, where are you on the scale? What needs to shift or change to move you up the scale?

An insightful tip to support moving up the scale is to have a values conversation. Values inform the movement we make in the world and are the core of our being. When you connect to what matters and you have a ‘solutions’ focus you amp up your commitment, momentum and inspiration. The quality of your engagement shifts.

The choice is yours.

I invite you to ask yourself each morning for the next month, “where am I choosing to focus?” Imagine, what might happen if you took action on that focus? What would you be doing? What impact would that have on your family? What results would you generate in business and life? The choice is yours on where you want to focus to leverage the results you truly want to create.


Contributing member: Tania Walter Gardiner, MA, BA, ACC
Tania is a certified professional solutions and values focused coach and consultant who works with individuals and teams helping them to gain clarity, focus and direction, enabling them to live their definition of success in business and life. To explore coaching with Tania, visit her website, Integral Connections.


**Please credit the author with any use of or excerpt from this article in any form.

Kindness is the Key to Unlocking Your Power

By Tracy McMicking

As a recovering perfectionist it has come into my consciousness that kindness, although something I was taught was the right thing to extend to other people, was not something I either regularly or easily extended to myself. As a perfectionist I continuously found fault with myself and my efforts. It seemed that no matter what I did or how well I did it there was always room for improvement. Good was never good enough. That is an exhausting and emotionally expensive way to live. The burden I put on myself to be better, better, better left me feeling constantly defeated and bitter, bitter, bitter.

I know I am not alone in my struggle with that mindset. I have come to experience with clients, friends, family members and even strangers on the street that we are harder on ourselves than we are on anyone else. We talk to ourselves, belittle ourselves and bully ourselves in a way that we would never do to others.

You know the voice.

That bullying behaviour comes from the voice in our heads (also called negative self talk, our gremlin, ego etc). The voice with the running dialogue about what we are doing wrong, the one that monitors and critiques our every move. In my mind it can sound like… what were you thinking when you bought those pants….you didn’t really just say that did you….who do you think you are writing this article….if only you had done this, done that, said this, said that, then maybe you wouldn’t be such a fool. You know the voice. We all have one.

Well here is a radical idea. What if you decided the voice in your head wasn’t worth listening to anymore? What if you decided it was just that, a rambling voice of old fears, lost concerns, outdated mantra’s from generations gone by (yes you get to blame your parents, teachers, coaches, the media etc, anyone who ever said anything that made you feel small that you have now internalized as your truth) that you do not have to believe or give any

credence to? What would that be like?

In my own experience and from what my clients describe, it is like a little slice of heaven. It is like release from prison, like relaxing into a soft pillow, like leaning into trusting yourself, your true self instead of a relentless voice that is never ever going to give you the credit you deserve for being the perfect being that you are.

Kindness is the key to separating yourself from this voice and beginning to create the meaningful and lasting changes you desire – in your body, your work, within your family, your friendships and most importantly in your relationship to yourself.

I said this would be radical.

Try a small act of kindness with yourself every day starting right now. Give yourself permission to acknowledge that voice in your head, extend it some kindness and some compassion for wanting so badly to protect you from harm/embarrassment etc. Let the voice know you are okay on your own, you can be trusted to make your own decisions and successfully run your life. Then notice how it feels to be separated from it, for even just a moment. I said this would be radical.

This simple act can be the beginning of transforming your life from one of struggle to one of joy. It can be the beginning of moving past what is holding you back from everything you want and the start of believing your true self instead of the voice. Change is possible and it begins with kindness. Enjoy!!


Contributing Member: Tracy McMicking, CPCC
Tracy is a Certified Life and Wellness Coach with ten years’ experience supporting busy professionals to live more balanced lives while becoming more productive. She specializes in assisting you to harness your personal power by connecting to your unique Passions, Sense of Purpose and to increase your experiences of Peace. To explore coaching with Tracy visit her website.

**Please credit the author with any use of or excerpt from this article in any form.