Five Tips to Help Your Clients Make Actual, Lasting Behavior Changes

Making lifestyle changes can feel a bit like showing up for a restaurant reservation, or to pick up your reserved rental car, only to find out your reservation was never held: The intention was there, but the most important part was missed: the execution.

  • “See, you know how to take the reservation, you just don’t know how to hold the reservation and that’s really the most important part of the reservation, the holding. Anybody can just take them,” Jerry Seinfeld famously said when his rental car reservation was botched. 

Anyone can take a reservation—and anyone can come up with lofty goals to change their nutrition and lifestyle and truly intend to follow through—only to fall short when it comes to putting the plan into actual action. And this is especially true when it comes to making lasting, long-term behavior changes. 

So how do we help our clients actually hold the reservation—aka follow through and actually make the changes they want to make to see the results they have always wanted? 

After 12 years working with clients of all kinds, Registered Dietitian Jennifer Broxterman—the founder of NutritionRx and the creator of the Two-Brain Nutrition Coaching Course—has become an expert in helping her clients change their mindset and environments to allow them to take baby steps that foster large scale, long-term, sustainable lifestyle changes. 

  • The first step is simply to acknowledge that change is hard, Broxterman explained in the Two-Brain Nutrition Coaching Course. 
  • The second step is to then recognize your role as a coach. It’s not enough just to tell them “broccoli and leafy greens should be eaten often for good health,” she explained. “It’s to create an environment to help them make changes.”
  • And thirdly, it helps to get your clients excited about the journey they’re about to embark on.

OK, that all sounds great, but how exactly do you do this? 

Five Tips from Broxterman

1. (Imperfect) Action Creates Motivation (not the other way around)

Oftentimes, we delay making changes until we, one day, magically feel motivated. The result is, of course, that we never get started because we’re forever waiting for the motivation to arrive. 

Action and forward momentum are what build motivation. So it’s critical to get clients to complete easy action steps right off the bat to get the ball rolling and to build excitement and feelings of accomplishment early on.

What might this look like in real life? Here’s an example client of Broxterman’s, who was in her third month of nutrition coaching, and each month, she had added one key action to focus on and track her consistency:

  • Month 1: MORE VEGGIES → translated to tracking her vegetable intake at lunch and dinner with a simple check mark to represent eating a half plate of vegetables
  • Month 2: BETTER PROTEIN CHOICES → translated to tracking her protein intake at breakfast, lunch, and dinner with a dot
  • Month 3: REDUCING STRESS EATING at night by focusing on a positive replacement activity (walking outside or on her treadmill) → translated into a quick pop of green highlighter 

A second common hurdle is a fear of being imperfect. Many of us feel that unless we feel motivated enough to start eating perfectly, what’s the point?

Food for thought: It helps to talk with your clients about the idea that action, however small and imperfect, creates motivation, not the other way around. Even small steps, as small as filling up a water bottle every morning to make sure you’re drinking enough during the day, can translate into little wins (you drank water that day at lunch instead of a soda) that get the ball rolling for bigger ones. And with that ball rolling comes small successes that compound over time, leading to more and more motivation to increase these small successes.

When talking about this concept with a client, it’s also important to address perfectionism and the individual’s perception of failure. 

Lifestyle change is not linear. The intention is not to eat perfectly all the time. Instead, the client should expect a journey filled with success and failure, ups and downs, wins and losses, and a ton of kind, compassionate and honest self-reflection.

One of Broxterman’s favorite lines is use failure as feedback.

2. Iceberg of Success 

We wrote a whole article about the Iceberg of Success, but here’s the long and the short of it:

Consider nutrition change like an iceberg with mindset at the bottom and willpower at the top, and environment, habits and knowledge sitting respectively in between. 

Many inexperienced nutrition coaches give their clients all the information and knowledge they think the person should know about what foods to eat, what to avoid, and how to break down their macronutrients, and then they expect the client to take this knowledge and insert willpower to make changes. 

This can be likened to trying to put a roof on a house before the foundation is laid and the walls are built: It sets the client up for failure.

Instead, behaviour change, like a house, starts by building a strong foundation: Tackle and re-work the client’s mindset first, then work on creating more supportive environments (physical, social and online) to help foster change, and then begin helping the client develop new, healthy, consistent habits to further this change. 

3. Baby Step Actions to Achieve Larger Goals

We have all been taught about the importance of goal setting, maybe even about setting short, medium and long term goals, but we aren’t often taught about how to execute our plan to help us achieve our goals. 

Broxterman recommends client-centric goal setting, meaning you meet the client where they’re at, and then let them be the driver of their own goals. 

This is incredibly important as a coach: Recognize that what you’re willing to do isn’t what the client is willing to do, so it’s important to let them decide what they’re willing to do to achieve their goals, while you become the supportive passenger helping them get to their destination (as opposed to the annoying backseat driver). 

Once they have determined some goals they’d like to achieve, you can work with them on a very doable, realistic, step-by-step plan to create new habits that will support these goals.

For example: Let’s say Josh comes to you and wants to lose weight, and you determine he’s lacking vegetables and minimally-processed foods in his diet.

Enter the Healthy Plate and the Seatbelt Rule!

The what?

The Healthy Plate essentially breaks up a meal plate into three areas: half the plate is dedicated to vegetables, 25 percent of the plate to (healthy) protein and 25 percent of the plate to other whole food, high-fibre carbohydrates.  In an ideal world, if all our meals were broken down this way, with appropriate portion sizes, we’d probably all be doing OK. 

The Seatbelt Rule says that, just like how you put on your seatbelt before you turn on your car and start to drive, you should put two servings of vegetables (which equates to about the size of your outstretched hand) on your plate before you do anything else. When you do this, there’s less room by nature for the less healthy options that might be on the table for dinner. So let the vegetables claim their territory first, and you’ll build in some automatic portion control into your meal. 

Back to Josh…

Step 1 for Josh might simply be to employ the seatbelt rule during lunch and dinner for one month. You’re not asking him to do anything else for 30 days than to put two servings of vegetables onto his plate each day (and it’s OK if he isn’t 100 percent compliant) for one month. That’s it. 

While this is just an example of a type of action you can recommend to your clients, the larger picture is to break action items into simple, tangible, measurable actions that will begin to lay the foundation for larger change. Keeping it simple, straightforward and not overwhelming is the key.

And always, always make sure the client is onboard with and ready to embrace the plan.

Pro Tip: Ever heard of the term anchoring habit? Basically, the concept is about using something that is already a habit as an anchor for a habit we’re trying to build.

  • For example: A dentist might tell you to floss your teeth at the same time as you brush them. Brushing is already a habit, but you’re not flossing enough, so it might be easier to get you to floss in combination with brushing, as opposed to telling you to brush your teeth five days a week at noon. 

Sticking with the vegetable theme…

Do you ever buy a boatload of vegetables with the best intentions, but then they end up wilting in your crisper before you had the chance to eat them? 

Enter the veggie bucket: Every time you go grocery shopping (let’s assume grocery shopping has become a regular habit in your life), before you even put your veggies away, spend five minutes chopping them up and throw them in a tupperware (aka veggie bucket) to keep in plain view in your fridge. Now when it’s time to add veggies to your plate, they’re already ready to go.

4. Track Progress

Just like we track our deadlift and max pull-ups in the gym, tracking progress with our nutrition also goes a long way in keeping us on board our journey. 

The important thing here is to have you clients track their progress. And we’re not talking about them weighing themselves everyday and tracking their weight loss (which is something that’s somewhat out of their control). We’re talking have them track the small actions they’re making each day, each week, each month that will contribute to the bigger picture over time. 

Broxterman likes using a goal sheet attached to a calendar. 

In Josh’s case, each time he employs the Seatbelt Rule, and each time he prepares a veggie bucket, he can mark a little checkmark in his calendar, and at the end of the month he can visually see all of the positive baby steps he took that week, thus increasing his motivation to continue. 

Pro tip: Whatever method of tracking you choose, it’s important to make the tracking process simple and quick. You want your clients to be able to use their energy toward doing the action, not spending all their energy worrying about writing it down or putting together long journal entries.

5. Approach goal setting versus avoid goal setting

Don’t think about alcohol!

(Right now, you’re probably picturing a bottle of wine, gin, scotch….).

Similar to this concept, people are more successful with making behaviour changes when they’re not focused on avoiding something.

In light of this, helping clients set approach goals—meaning behaviours they want to do more of—versus avoid goals—meaning behaviors they want to stop doing—goes a long way in fostering success. The idea here is to create a feeling of plenty rather than a feeling of deprivation. 

Some examples:

Approach goals: Eat two servings of vegetables with lunch and dinner. Or eat protein with each meal.

Avoid goals: Don’t drink alcohol. Eat less sugar.

Setting goals this way—aka “bright spot coaching”—helps people lay down habits and celebrate their wins, as opposed to spending their day trying to avoid things, which only puts pressure on them and often makes whatever they’re trying to avoid that much more enticing and difficult to avoid. 

The bottom line: Action leads to habits, so help clients lay down positive actions (as opposed to avoiding certain actions) that will lead to positive habits. 

Final thought: If you’re interested in diving deeper into the psychology of behaviour change, Broxterman recommends these three books:

Interested in improving your nutrition coaching skills, so you can feel more comfortable and confident teaching nutrition to your own clients? Learn more about our motivational interviewing and habits-based Nutrition Coaching Course for nutrition coaches.

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