Resilience & Mental Health

What to Do When Behavior Change Techniques Don’t Work

Picture this: you’ve been working hard to change certain behaviors using strategies you think should work, but you don’t seem to be noticing any improvement! You find yourself feeling frustrated because you’ve been working hard but aren’t seeing any results.  

What next? 

Accept the process 

The first thing to remember is that behavior change is hard! Take a moment to send yourself some compassion – you are working hard. Change takes time and is not always easy. Setbacks are common, and setbacks are temporary! They can be viewed as an opportunity to learn, and the important thing is how you handle them and what you do next. 

Is your goal SMART? 

First, try and refocus on your goal. What are you trying to accomplish with your behavior change technique? When you think about this, take a moment to consider if your goal is a SMART goal. SMART goals are: 


Ask yourself if your goal is well defined. For example, a goal of “sleeping better” is not specific. A goal of “sleeping at least 7 hours every weeknight” is specific. 


Is there a clear way to measure your goal, so you will know when you have successfully achieved it? For example, you can keep a sleep diary where you can track how many hours of sleep you get each night. 


Consider if your goal is truly realistic. If you currently average only a few hours of sleep each night, having a goal of getting 7 hours of sleep every weeknight may not be achievable at the moment! Consider starting smaller – maybe getting 7 hours of sleep once or twice a week or getting 5 hours of sleep each night. 


Will achieving this goal help you achieve your ultimate goals? Another way to think about this is if this goal really matters to you and your well-being! If you’re feeling negative consequences of lack of sleep (headache, lack of productivity, irritability), improving your sleep is a relevant goal! 


Is there a deadline for your goal? This will help keep you on track – by when do you want to achieve your goals? Maybe you want to focus on getting at least 7 hours of sleep for two nights this week

Is your own goal as SMART as it can be? 

Having SMART goals lets you experience more success! Take a moment to go through each step of the SMART goals, and think – is what you’re trying to achieve as SMART as it can be? 

Time for problem-solving 

Now that you have sent yourself some kindness for your journey, accepted that this journey may be challenging, and refocused your goal, it’s time to move to problem-solving. You may notice that the actual things to do are the last piece here – that’s not an accident! Laying the groundwork of compassion and SMART goal setting are essential when you find that what you’re doing now isn’t working well.  

Try the 6-step problem-solving solution 

Now it is time to problem solve! The 6-step problem-solving solution can be helpful for you specifically define what’s getting in your way and think through ways to help! 

Step 1: Define the problem 

Think about homing in on what specifically may be standing in your way of achieving your goals. What are the barriers you are experiencing? Barriers can be wide-ranging, and they can range from mental (perhaps you find yourself frequently telling yourself “I’ll never be able to do this”) to logistical (perhaps you are trying to improve sleep, but you have a job that requires you to work at night).  

Narrowing down on what is serving as a roadblock for you can help you problem-solve ways to break down that barrier! 

One way to help yourself identify the barriers is to do some self-monitoring. When do you find things are working for you? When are they not? 

Step 2: Determine what aspects are fixable 

Most challenges have components that are in your control, and thus fixable, and those that are not in your control. What barriers are in your control? What specifically can you change or modify? And which barriers are perhaps unchangeable? 

Step 3: Match the problem to the best solution 

Ask yourself this: do you need to change what you’re doing or change how you’re reacting?  

  • If you need to change what you are doing, consider problem-focused strategies!  
  • If you need to change how you are reacting to the situation (probably in thinking about those barriers that are out of your control), consider more emotion-focused strategies!  

In this case, it’s likely you will use both for different barriers you’re experiencing. 

Step 4: Brainstorm solutions 

Brainstorm all the potential solutions you can to every barrier. Remember, there are no bad ideas in brainstorming! Listing out any and everything that you think could possibly help will be useful when it’s time to move on to step 5. 

Step 5: Pick a solution! 

Of all your choices, where would you like to start? Which solution will you try first? 

Step 6: Evaluate, reflect, perfect 

This is maybe the most important element! Make sure you’re taking time to think through whether your solution worked well. Don’t be afraid to try something different! 

Consult your care team! 

Of course, if any of the above strategies aren’t working well for you, you can always consult with your care team or providers. More often than not, two heads are better than one! 

If you have been feeling stuck, try this: schedule some dedicated time in the upcoming weeks to set aside and give yourself an opportunity to think through this process. Writing down the areas you’re stuck on may help you generate next steps to try and get back on track.