Changing Behavior Inch by Inch

Our daily lives are a series of behaviors. These behaviors can either aid our experiences or take away from them. At the beginning of the new year, many of us may have chosen intentions to focus on, understanding that changing a behavior is a gradual process. Living intentionally is rooted in making decisions that align with our values. Now that we have chosen our intentions for the new year, how exactly do we change those habits when they start creeping back in?

Looking at our behavior from an analytic perspective could be the secret.

To change our behavior, we must all find our inner scientist and channel the renowned American psychologist and behaviorist, B.F. Skinner. According to Skinner, we learn our behaviors based on individual experiences and the interactions with our environment. What has previously been rewarding in the past will increase the likelihood of that behavior continuing. If eating an Oreo, or the whole pack of Oreos brought a sense of comfort when those unwanted feelings of anxiety and depression emerged, this is something that will most likely be repeated in the future. The problem however lies in the duration of the reward. Those feelings eventually come back and there’s not enough Oreos in the pack to make this method sustainable.

When attempting to focus on which behaviors to change, choosing behaviors that are “applied” or socially significant to our life is necessary. Changing the behavior of eating a pack of Oreos every time those lurking feelings return would be more beneficial than depriving ourselves of sweets every day.

The key component of changing a behavior is understanding why we do it. Through analyzing or collecting data on ourselves, we start to become scientists of behavior. Once we understand our behaviors, we can make a plan to improve them.

Create a Plan

Keeping the plan simple will help increase the likelihood of its completion. When attempting to understand the behavior, start becoming aware of the events that precede the behavior. If smoking is the chosen habit to change, identifying when or what exactly triggers the desire to smoke can be beneficial in avoiding this behavior. Most behaviors have multiple triggers and writing them down can be helpful in keeping track of them. Once those patterns are identified, the next step is to create a plan to avoid the trigger, or have a replacement behavior available.

Find Your Motivation

Having strong motivating factors will increase the likelihood of creating new healthy habits. If this year, health and fitness stands as one of the values you are intentionally working towards, this is your motivating factor in staying away from the entire pack of Oreos. Choosing to engage in behaviors that align with your values will increase the power the reward provides.

Have Rewards

After identifying our triggers, creating a list of replacement behaviors, and pinpointing where our motivation lies, there’s an important step to not forget. Having a list of set rewards that will follow the completion of the target behavior is key. According to Skinner, the more “positive reinforcement,” or rewards we give ourselves after completing a target behavior, the more likely this behavior will continue and be accessible across many situations.


Changing a behavior takes time and consistency. Many say one day at a time however with behaviors, we must take it one instance at a time. Behaviors are triggered constantly and repeatedly throughout the day. Each instance of overcoming a trigger is something to be proud of. Letting go of the failures and viewing them as a learning experience can aid in providing more insight as to how to adjust for the future creating a solid stepping stone in your behavior change plan.

Take your time and remember self-compassion throughout this entire process.

“Inch by inch it’s a cinch, by the yard it’s hard– no matter how slow or long the process seems at first.” -Mardi Ballou

About The Author

Rudairo Segbeaya is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and Pacific CBT’s Office Manager. Rudairo received a Bachelor's degree in Psychology from the University of San Francisco in 2018. In 2021, she later received a Master’s degree in Special Education with an emphasis in Applied Behavior Analysis from Arizona State University.