Motivation and willpower are always temporary. I know this because I’ve made changes in my life through sheer willpower. However, willpower is not what propels me to practice habits long-term.
No matter how hardwired your temperament is for willpower, it eventually fades.
The one inevitability in life is its ups and downs — making willpower and motivation likely to dwindle.
And why, when you start a diet, it goes well the first week or two until your enthusiasm starts to wane — you get tired of eating healthy, and feel you deserve to indulge in a sweet to reward yourself for all your hard work.
Or, life happens, your child gets sick, and you can’t make it to the gym, making it easier to cave and have an Oreo or the whole sleeve.
So, we need to find ways to make a habit permanent, whether we are motivated or not. Applying motivation to change your behavior long term is a losing strategy, as is relying on willpower.
Two ways to create a habit that sticks
When it comes to long-term ways to change your behavior, there are only two ways to get it done.
One — Change your environment
Changing your environment is a reliable way to modify behavior. I use this to form the habits (values) that are important to me.
I change my environment to fit my values.
Here are some examples:
Value — daily exercise
I lay out my workout clothes each night, so they’re the first thing I notice upon waking.
I keep my sneakers in my car, ready to go to the gym. In the pocket of my workout pants is my gym membership card.
I do this ritual every night, which increases the chances of following through on my value every day.
Value — my health
My diet is low in sugar for my health (value).
I have a problem with chocolate; it is the only thing I’ve ever been addicted to, and not the dark-good-for-you-kind rich in antioxidants and minerals. No, I like the creamy, melt-in-your-mouth kind of chocolate — milk chocolate.
If I had a big bag of M&Ms (I’m talking about the 19.2 movie-size bag) while writing this, I would eat the whole bag, and nothing could stop me.
So, I don’t buy chocolate to keep in my house because I would eat it all in one sitting, and then have to buy more.
I don’t do this, so my environment fits my value (health and fitting into my jeans) and not gorging on milk chocolate all day long.
Two — Practice small changes to change your behavior
Have minimal goals when starting
For any kind of change you want to make like living a more healthy lifestyle or starting a daily writing habit, doing less than you think you are capable of doing is an excellent strategy in terms of starting.
Until the habit is well established, keep the bar low.
You may think you need to start big to make a life change, but that will only hinder your chances of making long-term changes.
When you start out doing less than you think you are capable of, you are rigging the game in your favor, so the pass/fail mark in your mind is a low hurdle. In terms of strategy, this is a good way to look at establishing behavior changes.
You set the bar low, so the habit has time to take hold.
Once it is routine, you increase the goal.
Goal — Meditation
Let’s say you want to meditate.
You know friends and mentors who benefit significantly from daily meditation, but you just can’t sit still for 30 minutes and breathe, you have sh^t to do. Meditation for 30 minutes is too large a goal for you to turn this desired behavioral change into a long-term habit.
Try 60 seconds twice a day instead.
Everyone has 60 seconds twice a day; you don’t even have to leave your desk to do it. You can sit at your computer, close your eyes, or stare out the window and deep breath.
If your thoughts start racing with a list of things you have to accomplish, think about the love you have for your partner or child.
Close your eyes.
Thinking loving thoughts about your family will silence your inner critic’s constant chatter and allow your mind to practice self-compassion.
Short practice sessions, for one or two minutes, twice a day, can improve your habits and transform your life.
Goal — Write
If you’re a writer, well, then you have to write.
Let’s say you have an excellent idea for an ebook, but you just don’t have time to write five hours a day. Then writing an ebook is starting too big.
Start with only ten minutes of writing a day.
You have ten minutes a day to write.
I can write 250 words in ten minutes. If you get up each morning and write for ten minutes, at the end of the week, you’ll have written about 2,000 words, that’s two blog posts or a healthy start to an ebook.
Behavior changes — Formula
How do you change behaviors? The way to modify your behavior to it acquire habits.
How does one learn habits? Through repetition.
To increase the chances of repetition — start small.
Here is how Fogg describes a tiny habit:
- A behavior you do at least once a day
- A behavior that takes you less than 30 seconds
- A behavior that requires little effort.
The good news is behavior change is not as complicated as people think; it is systematic, straightforward, and simple.
Dr. Fogg wanted to add push-ups into his daily routine. He didn’t start out doing 100 push-ups, that would have been self-defeating. Fogg started by doing two push-ups each time he went to the bathroom. Then, as the push-ups got easier, he added on, changing the habit from two to five, to ten, and then eventually 12, and so on.
Form new habits by making behavior changes tiny
When the changes you make in your behavior are small, they’re easier to repeat. Repetition is what creates a habit, not will power.
You need to train yourself with tiny, doable actions, making them automatic.
You’ll have a better chance of making a behavior a long term habit if you make the pattern an automatic one.
To make the habit automatic, attach it to an existing practice already firmly established in your daily life. Like Dr. Fogg did by connecting push-ups to going to the bathroom — something he already does.
Start with habits, not the outcome. Don’t design for the outcome
Instead of designing for the outcome, design for the small behavior change.
If you design from the outcome (losing 50 pounds) you are designing at the wrong place; you need to aim for the behaviors that lead to the outcome you want — planning on doing two push ups after you flush the toilet will help you get into shape.
Take an issue like health; many behaviors can contribute to that outcome:
- Stress reduction
- Eating better
- Exercising more
Most of the behaviors we need to stay healthy or lose weight are habits. Habits matter most when it comes to long term health. As we create tiny habits, little by little, we improve the outcome (losing weight/healthy living) with small changes, we reliably do this, in a way that doesn’t regress, in a way that doesn’t make you give up.
Tiny habits are hard to undo.
“ When you know how to create tiny habits, you can change your life forever. — BJ Fogg, PhD
Example of how to format for a tiny habit
Start with a trigger habit. A trigger habit is a habit you have that is firmly established, like using the bathroom in BJ Fogg’s example.
After I use the restroom
I will do two push-ups
Here are some examples Fogg gives,
After I step on the scale,
I will thank the Universe for the new day. (gratitude)
After I start my morning coffee,
I will tidy one item in the living room. (organization)
After I wash my face in the morning,
I will put on sunscreen. (health)
After I start the dishwasher,
I will take my vitamins. (health)
After I walk out the door for the day,
I will say, “Today will be a great day.” (gratitude)
After I enter the house at the end of the day,
I will kiss my partner for 10 seconds. (relationship)
After I get home,
I will set out my workout clothes. (health)
As you think about changing your life, think about reframing habits in this format,
After I…, I will…
Take an existing habit you already have established at the same frequency you want the new behavior to occur, and add the desired habit. Add on to the habit once the small change is established.
Look at your life and what you want to change.
For any life change you want to make: meditation, dietary changes, creating a writing habit — the game is to do whatever is the easiest to establish the habit, do whatever opens the gateway, do it a little at a time.
That is how you form a habit that sticks. Break them down to tiny behaviors and put them into the right spot, the right place is after a habit you’re already doing, then watch it grow and become automatic.
With tiny habits, you don’t have to continually amp up motivation or rely on willpower, all you have to do it let this natural process of establishing habits emerge.
Choose Your Prophets Wisely, Just like You Choose Your Friends
Who you emulate will influence your success and failure.
Jessica is a writer, an online entrepreneur, and a recovering type-A personality. She lives in Los Angeles with her extrovert daughter, two dogs, and two cats.