When Motivation Isn’t Enough: Building Healthy Habits

Have you ever decided that you were going to do something to improve your health, start out super-motivated, and then give up on it after a few months? If you have, you’re not alone. As we talked about last week in Why Is It So Hard to Stay Motivated, sometimes motivation just isn’t enough.

If you need proof of that, just check out the fitness clubs in January, then go back in March or April…. Every single year, the clubs are packed in January. People have made their New Year’s Resolutions and they’re highly motivated and ready to hit the ground running.

The problem is that after a while, the workouts can stop being fun, going to the gym after working all day gets harder, and if they started out with unrealistic expectations, they may not see results as quickly as they like.

All of these things can really chip away at motivation. The next thing we know, it’s March and the workout floor is empty, the classes are smaller, and there are times the club looks like a ghost town.

Now I’m not saying that motivation can never carry you through, because there are some people who are able to stay highly motivated no matter what. There are also some motivators (such as serious health issues) that are strong enough to keep us going.

In general, though, motivation is not reliable for long-term changes. Our motivation can wax and wane over time, and if that’s what we’re relying on to keep us going, we can get into trouble. As BJ Fogg, PhD says in his book Tiny Habits, (1) “motivation…fluctuates day to day, even minute to minute.”

So if we can’t depend on motivation to make changes, what can we depend on? The short answer…our habits.

The Power of Habit

Habits are those behaviors that we perform regularly, often without even thinking about it. Our habits can help us get where we want to be or hold us back from attaining our goals. As James Clear says in his book Atomic Habits (2), “the quality of our lives often depends on the quality of our habits.”

That’s why as Health Coaches we spend a lot of time helping people develop habits that support a healthy lifestyle. When healthy behaviors become habits, we no longer have to depend on motivation to keep us moving forward.

Developing habits so we don’t even have to think about our healthy behaviors – we just automatically do them – can be the game-changer when it comes to adopting a healthier lifestyle.

What Habit Do I Start With?

The first question is often, “Where do I start?” This can be a tough decision for people sometimes. We seem to be wired to want immediate results. Realistically, we very seldom see real transformation happen overnight.

If you know that you’re really results-driven and if you don’t see results quickly you might give up, you might want to choose a habit Precision Nutrition (3) calls The Big Kahuna. This is the action that will give you “the most bang for your buck.” These behaviors are usually harder to do and require higher motivation over time, but can work for those who are extremely results-motivated.

For the rest of us, BJ Fogg strongly recommends much smaller actions, those Precision Nutrition refers to as Low-Hanging Fruit. These are small changes that are easy to incorporate into our daily lives. We don’t see results as quickly, but we do see results over time. The biggest benefit of these, in addition to the long-term change, is that they give us small wins early on and help us know we can be successful.

Designing Habits the Tiny Habits Way

I first learned about BJ Fogg and his work on Behavior Change when I was taking a continuing education course on that very same subject. He founded the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University and created the Tiny Habits Academy.

His Fogg behavior model and Tiny Habits template help simplify the process of changing behaviors and building new habits. Here I’ll give a quick overview of what he calls The Anatomy of Tiny Habits, but I highly recommend the Tiny Habits book. You can also check out his website at www.tinyhabits.com. He teaches us not only how to develop new, positive habits, but how to break bad ones.

The Anatomy of Tiny Habits

Here’s the basic ABC framework for developing tiny habits that can make a huge difference over time:

A – Anchor Moment. This is a routine you already have or some sort of event that acts as your cue for the new behavior. For instance, if you’ve decided to increase the number of steps you walk each day, your anchor moment could be the beginning of the hour. You could set an alarm for 10 minutes before the hour to remind you to get up and walk a few steps. If you use an activity tracker, you can set them to remind you.

B – New Tiny Behavior. This is the very easy-to-do, simplified version of the new habit you wish to incorporate. For the example above, at 10 minutes before the hour, you get up and walk 10 steps. Of course, you may end up taking more than 10 steps, but making the behavior something so easy to do helps you get started.

C – Instant Celebration. Use some sort of celebration immediately after engaging in the new behavior to create positive emotions around the action. It can be something as simple as a “well done” to yourself, or as elaborate as a special ‘happy dance’ afterward.

As I said, this is just an overview of his basic Tiny Habit template, but you can see how easy it can be to get started with very small steps and build on them as they become actual habits.

Some Things to Consider When Building Healthy Habits

Incorporating healthy behaviors and forming good habits can be simple, but it’s not always easy. In order for a behavior to become a habit, we have to do it over and over again. Sometimes we get bored. Sometimes it gets hard. Sometimes it just doesn’t seem like this new habit is getting us anywhere. We’re tempted to quit.

At those times, we need to revisit our ‘why’ for wanting to make the change in the first place. Knowing why we want to do this can increase the motivation piece of the puzzle for us and reinvigorate us when we’re starting to consider giving up.

There are lots of books that talk about how to build good habits, and they’re all different in how they approach it, but there are a few things that most seem to agree on:

  • Motivation is overrated. As we talked about last week, there are many things that can affect our motivation levels, which makes it undependable when it comes to behavior change.
  • We need a system if we want to reliably build new habits. As James Clear says, “If you’re having trouble changing your habits, the problem isn’t you. The problem is your system….You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” We can’t just approach habit formation willy-nilly. We need a solid design (or system) to design our habits for the most success. As we talked about in 8 Ways to Make Healthy Behaviors Convenient, one of the best things we can do for ourselves when we’re trying to make healthy changes is to get our ‘systems’ set up. 
  • In general, we need to choose behaviors that are easy to incorporate into our lives. Whether it’s using the Tiny Habits template, or the ‘two minute rule’ where the new habit only takes two minutes to do, when we’re first getting started, we need to make it as easy as possible.
  • We must design our environment to make the new behaviors easier. Whether it’s putting our workout clothes next to the door the night before, stocking our pantry with healthy foods, or getting rid of our stash of chocolate chip cookies, we can shape our behaviors by changing our environment.
  • Concentrate on the behaviors, not the expected outcomes. When we concentrate on completing the new, positive behaviors instead of outcomes, we can see immediate success. This helps to build our self-efficacy – the belief that we can be successful in making changes to benefit our wellbeing. Conversely, when we concentrate mostly on the outcomes, it’s easy to become discouraged if we’re not progressing as quickly as we’d like.

I would personally add one more thing — Build in options. This is especially crucial for those of us who live with chronic illness. What we’re perfectly capable of doing one day, we may not be able to do the next. For example, if our ‘behavior’ we’ve planned is walking each day, there may be days we can’t do that. Having another option (riding the stationary bike, doing some restorative yoga, etc.), can keep us on track with our exercise goals even if we can’t do the behavior we planned to do.

Sunrise over the mountains, with text overlay: "You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems." James Clear

Small Actions, Big Dividends

Building and fostering small daily habits may not seem as inspiring or as ‘sexy’ as having some huge goal that you’re working to accomplish, but they’re what gets the real work done. They’re the action steps that you’re taking toward that big goal every day. James Clear says it best:

Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them. They seem to make little difference on any given day and the the impact they deliver over the months and years can be enormous.

James Clear, Atomic Habits

Building new, healthier habits isn’t a Wellness ‘get-rich-quick scheme, but it is a reliable Wellness wealth builder. When we take the time to design and incorporate healthy habits, we’re investing in our future as well as improving our day-to-day wellness.

Do you mostly rely on motivation or habits when you’re working to improve your wellness? What have you found most helpful when trying to build new habits? Please share!



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(1) Tiny Habits, 2020; BJ Fogg, PhD; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing; New York

(2) Atomic Habits, 2018; James Clear; Penguin Random House UK; London

(3) The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition, 3rd ed, 2019, John Berardi, PhD,CSCS, et. al, Precision Nutrition, Inc.

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  1. Great post Terri. Our habits is what really drive us in our daily lives even if we’re not conscious of it. If we’re trying to change, do it in increments I say; I think you get the most results that way. I always look at the big picture while dealing with the little details; it helps me to accomplish my goals. But I liked your suggestion about concentrating on our behavior instead of the outcomes and especially agreed with celebrating in the little things that help advance us towards our goals.

    1. Thanks so much Mark! Our habits really do make or break us, don’t they? Like you, I tend to go for those incremental changes instead of the big ones. I know myself well enough to know if it’s going to require TOO much effort, I’m not going stick with it long-term.😁 I hope you’re doing well my friend. Blessings to you!

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