Sometimes, incremental change is invaluable.  Other times, complete revision is vital.  The cold turkey method actually produces the results needed.

But cold turkey is unusual, and typically needed primarily in complex medical situations.  The alternative–incremental change– helps people learn new routines so their new habit are there for the more than just next week.  They are there for a lifetime, so it’s an approach worth thinking about.

What is incremental change?

When I say incremental change, I mean a series of small changes.  Think about going up a ladder or stairs from the basement to the first floor instead of taking an elevator.  One step towards a goal.

A small change might be walking to the end of the street.  A small change might be eating eggs for breakfast instead of a donut on weekends.

Incremental change fits well when the condition is chronic (but does not present with sudden, severe symptoms).  A simple way to think about that is whether your goals are primarily performance, appearance, or longevity.  That means incremental change would NOT work on something that flares quickly, like advanced congestive heart failure or a food allergy, would not work.  However, with conditions like slowly increasing blood pressure (longevity) or goals like running your fastest race (performance), incremental change is perfect.   

Incremental change and failure

Part of the goal with incremental change is to build a history of success.  There are two main reasons I like to build a history of success: 1) increase confidence; and 2) begin establishing habits with a high chance of maintenance.

An example is someone who eat no produce.  So, if someone eats no vegetables, changing to eating five servings of vegetables a day (that’s 35 servings a week) would be a pretty big change.  Big changes mean risk:

  • risk of repeated failure
  • risk of negative self-talk
  • risk of developing harmful routines.

Instead, working on adding one serving per day– or even just a few servings per week– is feasible.  Making one choice per day to shift toward eating a vegetable might even be too much.  Perhaps starting with weekends or weekdays is better for this person’s chance of success.  Success leads to confidence.  A person who meets their goal says “Yay! I did it!” instead of saying “I can’t do this.  I’m just going to eat XYZ.”

Someone who has the experience and confidence is knowledgeable eater.  A knowledgeable eater has the capacity to decide, based on their circumstances, what they can realistically manage to prepare and/or acquire to eat.

Incremental change and habits

Developing easy-to-reach habits (the “low hanging fruit”) is essential because these habits have a higher chance of being resilient.  When life is harder than usual, for whatever reason, something has to flex.  Often, tasks like food preparation are minimized.  However, concentrating on those easier habits first, and for a longer period, before introducing more difficult tasks, means they are more likely to continue through times of stress.

How long it takes to form a habit is actually quite variable.  Some people form habits in a few weeks; other people take months to form habits.  You are the best judge of how long it takes you to develop a habit.


Incremental change is a key approach to building habits that are resilient to times of stress.  Incremental change: 

  • uses small steps
  • acknowledges where you are currently in relation to your goals 
  • supports development of confidence through a history of success.

Read some of the research on this approach of “small changes” here and get in touch with support by sending me a note here.

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