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Facilitating Successful Behavior Change: Beyond Goal Setting to Goal Flourishing Part 2

July 23, 2021 by Coach Training EDU

By John Andrew Williams & Britt Fulmer 

Nowak (2017) proposed six key questions about the importance and complexities of the goals we set. In part two of our summary, we examine the last five questions Nowak proposed and how they relate to the coaching community.

“If goal intentions are not generally effective to facilitate behavior change, what works better?”

Beyond simply setting goal intentions, there are several ways to drive toward effective behavior change with a client. Realistic optimism about the future goals the client set as it pertains to their present circumstance and potential challenges is a useful tool. It’s not enough for them to say that they want something. Not only do clients need to develop a plan, but that plan needs to include strategies for overcoming the obstacles that will inevitably arise as they pursue these goals. 

One way to accomplish this is through ‘if, then’ thinking. ‘If I don’t run today, then I will run twice as long tomorrow.” This mentality enables clients to establish plans for the challenging days and encourages proactive motivation. This alleviates any worry or anxiety that might crop up when there’s a sudden shift or hiccup in the plan. Another way to accomplish this is through habit linking. If the behavior change can be linked to an existing routine (i.e., when I brush my teeth, I will also floss), follow-through is more likely. 

“When are clients most motivated?”

Research indicates that clients are most motivated at both the outset and completion of the goal achievement process. As challenges arise and goal attainment feels more difficult, motivation can wane. There are two ways coaches can support their clients during these times of lower motivation. As mentioned previously, breaking the larger goal into smaller pieces can help shorten the length of time clients spend in the middle ground between goal setting and goal completion. Accomplishing small goals in pursuit of the larger goal will bolster their motivation. The second way to support clients when their motivation feels low is through celebration. Small wins are still wins, and celebrating them with the client is a great way to reinforce their progress. 

“How long does it take for new habits to form?”

On average, it takes approximately 66 days to establish any behavior change. That said, it’s the sustainability of that behavior change that will determine changes in performance or true goal achievement. Essentially, there is a ‘use it or lose it’ notion for prolonged changes in one’s behavior. Those first 66 days will establish the neural change necessary for the behavior change to continue. Still, without ongoing practice, that neural change can be lost. 

Depending on the desired behavior change of the client, this doesn’t necessarily mean doing the same thing every day. If the behavior change involves a daily writing habit, clients don’t need to write the same thing, or even the same kinds of things, every day. Playing with different genres and different writing styles can have an even more significant impact on writing performance than simply writing in the same genre and writing style every day. Mixing up the way clients practice a new skill or behavior change will provide more substantial success over time. 

“When should clients ‘hold,’ and when should they ‘fold’ in goal striving?”

This is another widely debated topic in the research. While some researchers posit that ‘grit’ and ‘perseverance’ are the only ways to approach a goal, others claim that goal abandonment can be adaptive. What this debate really boils down to is the attainability of the goal. If the goal is both attainable and the client possesses the skills (or the ability to obtain the skills) necessary to achieve the goal, clients should be encouraged to push through the difficult challenges toward their ultimate goal. However, if the goal isn’t achievable or the client doesn’t obtain the skills (or the ability to obtain the skills) necessary to achieve the goal, the adaptive response would be to reevaluate. Instead of completely folding on the goal, coaches can help clients assess which aspects of the goal they still want to work toward and reengage around a new, well-designed goal.  

“Does Practice Make Perfect?” 

The short answer here is no. Additionally, practicing only the basics, even if done every day, will not move a client toward skill mastery or enhanced performance. Instead, clients should also focus on the more challenging tasks associated with a particular goal. Elite runners don’t only run every day. They lift weights, eat a balanced diet, and get enough sleep. Award-winning authors didn’t simply write every day, but they engaged in research, editing, and revising. Whatever the goal or behavior change might be, it’s likely the tasks involved exist on a spectrum of difficulty. Focusing only on the easier tasks will prevent clients from achieving higher levels of performance. 


While there is a lot to take away from this article, there are a few key points: 

  1. Failure is sometimes an acceptable outcome. 
  2. Practice absolutely makes one better, but it doesn’t always make perfect. 
  3. Wanting to change and being ready to change are two different things. 
  4. Avoid backup plans. Instead, plan for success and ways to optimize goal achievement. 
  5. Small, bite-sized goals, even when in the service to large goals, are more likely to be achieved. 

13 Rhodes, R. E., Plotnikoff, R. C., & Courneya, K. S. (2008). Predicting the physical activity intention-behavior profiles of adopters and maintainers using three social cognition models. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 36, 244 –252. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s12160-008-9071-6

14 Gollwitzer, P. M., & Sheeran, P. (2009). Self-regulation of consumer decision making and behavior: The role of implementation intentions. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 19, 593–607. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jcps.2009.08.004

15 Fogg, B. J. (2012, July 12). Fogg Behavior Grid [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.behaviorgrid.org/

16 Bonezzi, A., Brendl, C. M., & De Angelis, M. (2011). Stuck in the middle: The psychophysics of goal pursuit. Psychological Science, 22, 607–612. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0956797611404899

17 Lally, P., Van Jaarsveld, C., Potts, H., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modeling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 1009, 998 –1009.

18  Lin, C., Chiang, M., Knowlton, B., Iacoboni, M., Udompholkul, P., & Wu, A. (2013). Interleaved practice enhances skill learning and the functional connectivity of fronto-parietal networks. Human Brain Mapping, 34, 1542–1558.

19 Wrosch, C., Scheier, M. F., Carver, C. S., & Schulz, R. (2003). The importance of goal disengagement in adaptive self-regulation: When giving up is beneficial. Self and Identity, 2, 1–20. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15298860309021

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