An in-depth guide to implementing this proven strategy to reach your goals

Kendra Kinnison
Aug 27 · 20 min read
Photo by StockSnap via Pixabay.

Do you ever wonder how some people seem to rise above the mess — advancing in their careers and other goals while also staying healthy and enjoying meaningful relationships with family and friends?

It’s because they’ve found momentum, and they’re using it move forward automatically. For them, life is mostly like a snowball, rolling downhill, becoming more and more unstoppable.

It can be that way for you, too.

How do I know? I’ve coached over a thousand clients. And momentum is what it all boils down to for reaching any goal.

Here’s why momentum works, and how to get it.

Connecting to Purpose With Small Steps First1. Start your snowball
Pick one area to focus on
Decide on a tiny daily action
2. Set Your Course Downhill
Clear the path
Set up reinforcements to support you
Think ahead and plan a strategy for sticky situations
3. Light the Spark With Your Schedule4. Put Up Your Guardrails
Make good decisions automatic
Use tracking systems to detect trends
5. Use the Buddy System
Mastermind groups
A personal board of directors
Coach or accountability partner
Quick Recap: Your Action Plan

Connecting to Purpose With Small Steps First

One of my favorite stories comes from a client named Rod. Already very successful before we connected, Rod owns a products business. He’s healthy, enjoys his family time, and gives back to his community. But he felt like he wasn’t living up to his potential, and he wanted to explore that through coaching.

Over time, we worked through goal-setting exercises, starting with lifetime aspirations and working backward through interim years. Eventually, we distilled it down to quarterly, monthly, and even weekly goals. Rod wasn’t convinced this approach would be particularly helpful, but he diligently worked his way through each step of the process.

Then, about 6 weeks in, he had a breakthrough. The momentum took over.

“This just clicked for me like no other. I’ve got that fire again! I know where I’m going and why, and it’s incredibly exciting! I’ve actually seen immediate results. My planning has purpose, and I can’t wait to do it everyday. I used to dread planning because I was missing the key principles behind it. Now my days have direction and purpose down to to the smallest tasks. This has been a game changer for me. The goals that had taken a backseat to the tugs and pulls of life are now top of mind and starting to realize. I can almost taste them, they are so clear. I love it.”

For Rod, his momentum started to build as he linked his lifetime goals to smaller steps that could be accomplished in shorter time frames. As each successful week added another layer, it grew stronger and stronger.

Momentum is like a snowball. As Rod experienced, once it’s in motion, it’s almost unstoppable. As you harness momentum to develop new habits, you will learn how to program yourself to reach your goals. Your successes start to accumulate naturally. Even when you decide to pursue something new or when you’re knocked off course, you don’t start from zero. You carry forward the foundational habits and routines that support you.

Using proven strategies, you can harness the power of momentum in your life. You’ll start with a change so tiny it seems insignificant and continue with a series of small adjustments. Soon, you’ll look back to realize you’ve achieved your first round of goals and have the confidence to keep going. Snowflake by snowflake, you’ll build yourself into an unstoppable force. And when disaster comes, you’ll be ready.

1. Start your snowball

When I met Jill, she was beyond overwhelmed. She had a very stressful and demanding job, a family member with cancer, and a side project that she was passionate about but couldn’t find the time to create. Certainly, we could all understand why.

Less than two years later, her award-winning documentary premiered nationwide on PBS.

How’d that happen? How’d she transform from being overwhelmed to accomplishing her wildest dreams?

She started with a tiny commitment to work on her side project for at least 10 minutes each day — sending five emails, making two phone calls, whatever step was next on the list.

Jill built her Momentum snowball, and then let it pull her forward. Jill’s story can be yours too. There are two keys to getting started on your snowball.

Pick one area to focus on

Like Jill, maybe your priority is clear. That’s awesome. You can skip to the next step.

Or, if you feel like every area of life needs attention, that’s okay too. We’ll eventually get to each of them. But in my experience coaching over a thousand clients, without a single point of focus, you’ll remain stuck.

I understand how challenging this can feel. I’ve been there myself. On a cold December day, it seemed like everything was a mess — my health, my finances, my relationships. I was overwhelmed, and I wanted it all to be better right away. So I made a list. Here are the categories I used:

  • Health
  • Family/friends
  • Work
  • Side project
  • Extras (learning, travel, etc)

Within each area, I wrote down the things I wanted to be different. I wanted to lose weight, to feel better, to be closer to my friends, to find some hobbies I enjoyed. In all, it was more than 20 things.

But remember, to move forward, we must adopt the momentum mindset. This mindset focuses on clarity and simplicity, especially in the beginning. For now, pick the one area that seems the easiest to make a change in.

My recommendation is to start with your health. In my own life, and in hundreds of my clients, this is the true core of the snowball. Progress on your health improves every other area and provides a solid foundation of good habits.

Decide on a tiny daily action

Staying in your priority area, you want to narrow it down to a tiny action that seems so trivial that it’s almost embarrassing. This is important because it reduces resistance significantly. You don’t have to dig deep down to find the strength or willpower. There’s no excuse why you can’t do it.

For Jill, it was working on her side projects for ten minutes. The rest of the day could have been awful. She might not have much energy. None of that mattered. Her ten minutes were non-negotiable.

That December, I recommitted to meditation — as little as one minute a day. As another example, when I started my flossing habit, I started with flossing just one tooth. Yes, one tooth!

You could start with one of those, with walking down the driveway, replacing one sugary drink with water, getting to bed a bit earlier, or any tiny change that moves you in the right direction.

The key is to decide on the snowflake you’ll add each day — and commit to the action. This allows us to escape the myth of motivation.

Here’s how most of us think it works:

Motivation → Action

We wait to take action until we feel motivated, and we rely on those feelings to feed our willpower. It’s why we feel like working out after an inspiring movie or eat well for a few meals after visiting with a friend that’s lost weight recently.

Then what? We fail at continuing to take action. The feeling doesn’t last.

In his book, The 1% Solution, Tom Connellan proposes that “the more you get done, the more motivated you are to do things. So you do more things, and you get even more motivated. It’s a self-feeding cycle.”

In other words:

Action → Motivation → Action

Intuitively, most of us know this is the truth. After a workout, we experience the “high” of an endorphin rush. We make plans for the next one. After a healthy meal, we feel great — satisfied and refueled. We may even talk about doing the same thing tomorrow.

But knowing this usually isn’t enough. It wasn’t for me, and I’m guessing it doesn’t work for you either. Eventually, there’s an interruption in the actions, and we’re not able to continue the cycle.

Here’s the good news: actions don’t have to come first. There’s another layer. We can use habits to trigger actions automatically.

Habit → Action → Motivation → Action

At first, it may not seem like much of a distinction, but there’s a huge difference in influence and predictability. We know that motivation is fleeting, and forced actions aren’t effective for very long.

Habits are different, though. They’re like the recipe for your Nana’s delicious strawberry cake. They can be systematically developed and produce a consistent result time after time.

2. Set Your Course Downhill

Dana hated planning. He’d worked hard to give himself complete freedom. He lived on a tropical island. He could wake up whenever he wanted. On a whim, he could spend the day working out or just relaxing. Life was good. But his business was stagnant, and he was often frustrated with his team.

Through our work together, Dana realized that his aversion to planning made progress much harder to achieve. Each day reset at zero, which meant every choice needed to be considered again and again. This limited Dana’s growth, and also the development of his team.

To move forward, he’d need to make each day less of a challenge and capture the momentum of successes. It worked. He designed a system that helped everyone see exactly what needed to be accomplished each day. Knowing what they needed to do, both he and his team performed better.

As you develop your snowball habit, you need to do the most important task first: design your course so that it flows downhill.

Let’s use a running analogy.

Most of us are focused on being better runners, but our success in a given race is mostly influenced by the design of the course (the situation), not how well we were able to run that day (our actions).

If your “race” is getting healthier, you can set up a course with few obstacles, removing all the processed food and sodas from your house. You can even make it downhill by planning your meals ahead of time and buying the needed groceries.

Or, you can make your course look like Mount Everest, with challenges galore — ice cream here, Dr. Peppers there, rushing to feed the family at the end of an exhausting day.

Same runner, different race. Do you think they have the same odds of success?

Remember the snowball habit you picked? It’s time to design a better course for it.

Here are three ways to make it feel downhill.

Clear the path

Proverbs 4:26 says to “Make level paths for your feet…” Craig Ballantyne goes even further: “Take full responsibility for your environment and behaviors. Everything you do sets you up for success or puts another obstacle in your way.”

For this step, focus on removing obstacles that often trip you up. If you’ve tried to accomplish this goal before, you have a head start. As you think back, identify where you went off track. You can make a list and address each item.

Here are a few examples.

  • Trying to eat healthier? Remove the junk food and sodas from your refrigerator.
  • Trying to spend more time with your family? Remove the email app from your phone and leave your computer at the office.
  • Trying to watch less television? Remove it from the main rooms in your house.

Set up reinforcements to support you

Remember the adage, “work smarter, not harder”? It applies here. There’s no limit to the amount of creativity you can use or the number of supports you can implement for the same goal. Some can be complex, and others can be extremely simple.

  • For eating healthy, what if you planned your meals for the week every Sunday and bought only what you needed?
  • For workaholics, what if you had a reminder at 3 p.m. that encouraged you to complete your most important work in the next two hours? It could be a co-worker, a pop-up on your computer screen, or a text on your phone.
  • For the TV addiction, what if you made a list of all the books you’ve been wanting to read — and taped it to the remote?

Take your time on this step. It’s well worth the investment of thinking and setup. There are two main categories of reinforcements: triggers and systems.

Triggers prompt us to take immediate action. Proximity and timing are very important. Ideally, you want to set up the trigger so that it reaches you as close to the decision point as possible, nudging you towards a default action that you’ve chosen.

Examples could be notes on our bathroom mirror, text messages or alerts on our phones, or pre-scheduled appointments.

Systems take complex decisions and make them simpler, increasing the likelihood that you’ll make a positive choice. Some common systems use batching (doing similar tasks at one time) or chunking (breaking down large projects into smaller components).

Meal preparation is a common use of batching. Instead of having to make a healthy choice each day, you prepare your meals for multiple days.

In Dana’s transition, he used a project management system to map out each project and assign tasks and timelines. Having that clarity allowed each team member to focus directly on their assigned actions.

Think ahead and plan a strategy for sticky situations

This trick amplifies the effectiveness of the first two. Think of it as a game of whack-a-mole. Identify when you think you’ll be at risk and plan a strategy to avoid or navigate the obstacle.

For example, if you grab a candy bar from the vending machine at 2 p.m. every day, pack some healthy fruit and nuts to satisfy your cravings. You can also recruit others to help you. Have a gym or running buddy that you don’t want to let down. Empower a co-worker to remind you to eat healthy on those lunches out.

3. Light the Spark With Your Schedule

Venu works from home and struggles to balance work, family time, and learning the skills sets needed to keep advancing. Often, he stays up late to finish projects or finds himself mindlessly browsing on his phone. He knows the certifications needed for his next promotion but struggles to focus enough to get them completed.

By making minor adjustments to his schedule, Venu is moving through previous bottlenecks and feels less stressed about his work. He’s also nearing completion of his PMP certification.

Now that you have your snowball started with daily action, it’s time to use another strategy to build more momentum. To get the next spark, you’ll focus on a very specific part of your schedules — the last hour before bedtime and the first hour you’re awake.

In coaching over a thousand people, I’ve learned that these are the most effective parts of the day to focus on first. When you get our sleep schedule and morning routine on track, the rest of the day follows naturally.

Many clients will set a goal to wake significantly earlier than usual and become frustrated when that doesn’t work well. They sleep through alarms or find that they can’t get themselves out of bed. Often, the first challenge is that we’re simply not getting enough sleep.

Researchers agree that less than 5% of adults function well on less than 7 hours of sleep. When you aren’t getting enough sleep, the effects show in nearly every aspect of life. It’s harder to lose weight or fight off illnesses. You don’t think as clearly and are more easily upset. There’s little point in working hard for gains and negating them with too little sleep.

The best approach is to give ourselves a bedtime that is 7 or 8 hours before you want to wake. If you’re aiming to be up at 5 a.m., you need to head to bed between 9 and 10 p.m.

If you’re thinking that sounds impossible, you’re in good company. Most of my clients initially recoil at that statement as well. That’s okay. Stay with me, and we’ll walk through it together.

First, let’s evaluate whether you really need to wake at 5 a.m. — or several hours before you already are. We often overestimate how much time we need to get a good start in the morning. My suggestion is usually to aim for an extra 15 minutes at first.

So, if you’re currently waking up at 7 a.m., our first aim will be to adjust that to 6:45 a.m. That means that bedtime can be from 10:45–11:45 p.m. I can already sense the relief as you read that.

Now that you’ve decided on a sleep schedule, your next goal will be to make it consistent. That means that you’ll want to be in bed by 10:45 p.m. every night, with rare exceptions. (Let’s focus on weeknights for now. We can talk about weekends later.)

To be in bed and ready for sleep at 10:45 p.m., most of us need a bedtime routine. The first step is usually to put away your phones and tablet — ideally in another room, or in a drawer. Then you can consider taking a hot bath/shower, doing light stretching or yoga, and reading from a paper book or magazine. For an active mind, journaling can be helpful as well.

You may be thinking that it sounds silly or juvenile for an adult to need a bedtime and morning routine. You’re right that many of us haven’t thought about it in that way since elementary school. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t helpful.

The focus of the morning routine is to orient and prepare us to make good choices and decisions.

  • What matters most today?
  • What am I thankful for today?
  • Which morning habits set me up for success?

For many of us, the investment of time for healthy habits, reminding us of our goals, and reviewing our priorities and schedule will return exponential dividends throughout the day. You’ll be calmer, more focused, and better able to balance the urgent needs of the day and your longer term commitments.

The focus of the evening section is to reflect back on our actions and decisions, making note of successes to capture and growth opportunities identified.

  • What successes did I experience today?
  • What challenges?
  • What did I learn today? How will I grow?
  • Who do I need to follow up with?

4. Put Up Your Guardrails

Zach had a demanding job, but he wasn’t willing to compromise his health any longer. To ensure that he made time for his morning workouts, he decided to keep all of his “get ready” gear at the gym. Now, it’s automatic that he stops there before heading to work each day.

He’s lost a ton of weight and is feeling great.

Inspiration for life strategy can come from anywhere, and I stumbled upon an interesting analogy — bumper bowling. When you get to the bowling alley, you can bowl normally — or you can acknowledge your weaknesses and bowl with guardrails.

It’s likely to bruise your ego a bit, but I’ll bet your scorecard will improve. While you may not hit a strike every time, you’ll certainly be racking up points with every attempt.

I’ve learned that we can choose to live your life that way too. And it’s pretty much the same trade: eat some humble pie and get significantly better results.

There’s one essential element: you have to decide ahead of time. Once the snowball falls in the gutter, the guardrails won’t do us much good.

Still, we often choose to leave the guardrails down. Maybe we just don’t know how to raise them, or maybe we don’t want to broadcast our weaknesses.

I certainly fit both of those categories for a very long time. Then I realized that most of my failures were predictable. I also saw people very close to me stumble. I believe that we can protect our Momentum snowball and reduce our chances of having a setback if we’ll just choose to have the guardrails installed ahead of time.

That’s what Zach did. By making it essential to go to the gym each morning, he put guardrails around his commitment to work out.

Make good decisions automatic

Like Zach’s example, you can set ourselves up for success by making decisions in advance and implementing systems that are self-sustaining. Fortunately, tools and resources have been developed to make this process even easier, particularly in the areas of fitness, nutrition, and finances.

Ramit Sethi, an online business guru, often says that his biggest splurge is his personal chef. His athletic trainer, nutritionist, and chef all work together to ensure his meals are supporting his goals. For Ramit, eating well happens automatically.

Even without a personal chef, you can imitate many aspects of that setup using meal delivery services or meal plans. The goal is to pre-decide what you’d like to eat and to make that choice convenient while making other choices more difficult to select.

My friend Julie loves the envelope system popularized by Dave Ramsey. Each pay period, she divides up her available funds into categories and puts that amount of cash in each envelope — groceries, gas, fun money, etc. When she’s out shopping, she only takes those envelopes. Her credit card is frozen in a block of ice. Using this system, it’s impossible to overspend. She has complete confidence in her financial goals.

Use tracking systems to detect trends

Another type of guardrail helps us monitor ourselves and detect a failure before it occurs: tracking systems. Like the “recalculating” voice in our navigation systems, this warning alerts us in time to prevent disastrous consequences.

Each January, Jerry Seinfeld gets a new calendar and hangs it on the wall. On days that he writes new material, he writes a big red X on that box. With just a quick glance, he can immediately assess how often he’s doing his most important work. Eventually, the X’s themselves provide reinforcement and motivation to continue the streak.

You can a wall calendar or use habit-tracking apps that provide this support for multiple goals. With its simple interface and flexibility across all devices, my favorite is (I’ve been using it since 2012.)

Starting with your first commitment to daily activities, add your essential daily habits to your tracking system (whatever you decide to use), and check-in as you complete them.

Coach and author Marshall Goldsmith monitors his trends by asking himself a series of questions each day that require a response as a rating from 1–10. Through careful testing and experimentation, he starts each with the phrase “Did I do my best?” Here are the six he suggests:

  • Did I do my best to set clear goals?
  • Did I do my best to make progress towards goal achievement?
  • Did I do my best to find meaning?
  • Did I do my best to be happy?
  • Did I do my best to build positive relationships?
  • Did I do my best to be fully engaged?

By tracking his responses in a spreadsheet, he can easily calculate a weekly average or detect areas that are being neglected.

5. Use the Buddy System

Experienced snowboarder Mac Jacobsen was making a routine ride down Squaw Valley with his friend Stephen when he missed a drop and plunged headfirst into deep snow, burying himself. As Mac recalls, “I knew that if I began to panic, then my chest cavity would expand and breathing would become more and more difficult. In the pin-drop silence under the snow, the only thing I could think of was to calm myself down and hope for a miracle.”

Fortunately, Stephen could see Mac’s boots and recruited a couple of skiers to assist. It took nearly 10 minutes, but they eventually uncovered Mac, and he escaped the ordeal without a single injury.

Whether you’re buried in the snow or buried with work, there are some challenges that you’re not likely to defeat on your own. To keep your momentum moving forward, use the buddy system.

As Dr. Henry Cloud asserts in The Power of the Other, “the undeniable reality is that how well you do in life and in business depends not only on what you do and how you do it, your skills and competencies, but also on who is doing it with you or to you.”

Your triggers can nudge you in the right direction, and your guardrails can alert you that you’re headed for the gutter, but they can’t help you out. For that, you need a mastermind group, a personal Board of Directors, a coach, or some other organized accountability partner.

Mastermind groups

In August of 2012, I spent three weeks holed up at a resort on a remote Philippine island with a dozen other entrepreneurs and business leaders. I almost got certified in scuba diving, and I learned all I could absorb about doing business online. Even more importantly, I found my Mastermind Group. Since then, we’ve held our scheduled call nearly every week, sharing our accomplishments and challenges, and committing to the priorities we’d focus on.

Having encouragement and accountability from like-minded peers is one of the most powerful support systems I’ve ever encountered. I was surprised to learn that the idea isn’t new.

Back in 1727, a 21-year-old Benjamin Franklin formed a club of mutual improvement that he called a “Junto.” The members of the Junto were drawn from diverse occupations and backgrounds, but they all shared a spirit of inquiry and a desire to improve themselves, their community, and to help others. Every Friday night, they gathered to discuss the topics of the day and challenge each other to broaden their knowledge.

Modern-day Juntos now take place all over the world, or virtually. And it’s simple to form your own, whether you want to meet in-person or online. As you get started, a group size of 3–5 members works best, and it’s preferable if you’re not in competing businesses. The key is to commit to a group interaction at least once a month, weekly if you can. During the check-in, each member should share an update on their commitments from the previous meeting and the details of their next round of priorities. Having a scribe take notes is helpful as well.

A personal board of directors

If the largest companies in the world recognize the importance of a board of directors, so can we. It’s impossible to be experts in every area of life. In addition to providing accountability, our board can help us reduce risks and identify opportunities.

Most of us are not experts in nutrition, exercise, finance, real estate, career development, or countless other technical disciplines. But you can seek out professionals in each of these areas and check-in with them regularly. For some goals like tax planning, an annual or quarterly review could be plenty. For others like exercise or personal development, more frequent check-ins are likely helpful.

The key is to be intentional with identifying your mentors and scheduling reviews at regular intervals. Often, you’ll find that preparing for the meetings is rewarding and insightful. Knowing that you’ll have to report back to someone you respect is helpful fuel for making good choices. These professionals can also be excellent at helping you adjust your course so that it takes advantage of more downhill opportunities.

Coach or accountability partner

Many of us work from home or in self-directed roles with very little instruction or oversight. Often, no one else would know whether we’re working hard or binge-watching Netflix, and that’s generally not a good thing. Accountability is a helpful tool for keeping ourselves moving in the direction of our goals.

Quick Recap: Your Action Plan

1. Start your snowball.

  • To generate momentum, pick one area of life to focus on first. The momentum mindset focuses on clarity and simplicity, especially in the beginning.
  • Commit to adding a snowflake each day in the form of a tiny daily habit. Ignore motivation and willpower and focus instead on your habits.

2. Set your course downhill.

  • Recognize that your decisions are heavily influenced by your situation and environment. By planning ahead, you can design a course that flows downhill.
  • The first step is to clear the path by removing obstacles that often trip you up.
  • Then add reinforcements that support you — triggers that serve as reminders, and systems that make complex decisions simpler.
  • If you can’t avoid a challenging situation, you can plan ahead to make your preferred choice more supported.

3. Light the spark with your schedule.

  • To get the next layer of momentum, focus on a very specific part of your schedule — the last hour before bedtime, and the first hour you’re awake.
  • For an initial focus on your sleep schedule, adjust your wake time by only 15–20 minutes, giving you enough time for a basic morning routine.
  • Commit to your morning and end-of-day routines to keep from overextending when you’re excited or skipping your essentials when it’s been a tough day.
  • Your morning routine orients you and helps you prepare for the decisions you’ll face.
  • Your bedtime routine helps you reflect, learn, and prepare for a good night’s rest.

4. Put up your guardrails.

  • If you decide in advance, you can use guardrails to protect your momentum snowball and reduce your chances of having a setback.
  • One type of guardrail uses systems and early decisions to make success automatic. This is particularly helpful in the areas of fitness, nutrition, and finance.
  • Another type of guardrail helps you monitor yourself and detects a failure before it occurs. This is helpful for areas that can be more complicated to assess.

5. Use the buddy system.

  • Life is a team sport. Use the buddy system to overcome obstacles and pitfalls. The key is to establish relationships and check-in rhythms in advance.
  • There are several options for getting the accountability and support you need. Mastermind Groups, personal board of directors, and coaches are options you can use.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Kendra Kinnison

Written by

Author, Royal Resilience: Our Story of Surviving and Thriving After Hurricane Harvey. General Manager, @portroyalresort. Leadership and Resilience Coach.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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