Joshua Keel

Your Best Habit Strategy Depends on Your Motivation Level

December 8, 2019

I used to be morbidly obese. For years, I wanted to lose weight. I tried raw food diets, The South Beach Diet, and calorie counting. None of those brought me long-term weight loss success.

It wasn’t until I truly understood, or at least believed that I’m going to die if I don’t turn my life around, that I did. I got therapy. I got a nutritionist. I worked my ass off for 10 straight months, eating a restrictive diet, preparing my own meals, rarely eating out. I lived like a fucking Spartan.

I can’t imagine doing that today. I don’t have even one-fifth the motivation I had then. Stanford habits expert BJ Fogg says there are three ways to change your behavior in the long term:

Option A: Have an epiphany
Option B: Change your environment
Option C: Take baby steps

My dramatic transformation from binge-eating, TV-watching, depressed Josh into militarized, ultra-disciplined, just-try-and-stop-me Josh can only be explained by the fact that I had my own epiphany. I believed my demise was imminent.

Whether it was or wasn’t is beside the point. I found the motivation I needed to become completely polarized, laser-focused on one all-consuming goal.

This is not how shit normally goes down. Most of us don’t have the advantage of mortal terror when we think about dragging our tired bodies to the gym, or committing to a daily reading habit.

Instead, we’re kinda-motivated. We really do want to make the change, but we don’t plan to get too uncomfortable. That’s A-OK. I’m not here to tell you that you just need to work harder, be more disciplined, or hustle.

I don’t think the hustle approach works well for most people. We’re simply not motivated enough.

When motivation is sky-high, as it was for me with my obesity, it’s easy to do extreme things in the service of a goal. In fact, there is a motivational tipping point beyond which change will happen. It’s inevitable. The pain of inaction outweighs the difficulty of action, and the body responds accordingly. Your life gets shaken up.

The problem is that high-motivation situations are rare. They’re the unicorns—rarely sighted, once-or-twice-in-a-lifetime, magical occurrences. In your daily life, you’re facing low or medium levels of motivation. So what to do?

Years ago I read a book called One Small Step Can Change Your Life, by psychologist Robert Maurer. It’s about the power of taking tiny, seemingly insignificant steps to change your habits. It argued for the effectiveness of stupid-sounding approaches like this:

Just stand for one minute on the treadmill. That’s it. Stand there. Be on the treadmill. Don’t turn it on. Don’t exercise. Stand there. One minute. You’re done.

It sounded kind of crazy, but it turns out Maurer was right. Tiny habits work.

In fact, BJ Fogg has created an online program, as well as a book, to teach this approach. The book is Tiny Habits: The Small Changes that Change Everything.

Fogg combines his Option B and C from above to produce a potent cocktail of supportive environment and baby steps in the right direction. The idea is to design your surroundings so that change is easy, and make the habits so tiny that your mind can’t come up with an excuse not to do them.

For years, I ignored this advice. I heard time and again that small changes were the right approach, but instead I tried to use the tired old high-motivation strategy that inevitably fizzled out when it met the reality of my actual motivation, and the inertia of Netflix and my cozy pink couch.

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been attempting to reform myself. I’ve opened my mind up to the possibility that maybe these experts were right, all along.

Self-development expert James Clear has been talking about the importance of environment design and incremental behavior change for years. In fact, he has now released a book-length work expounding this approach.

Atomic Habits was released a little over a year ago. It has since sold over 1.1 million copies. For anyone who isn’t familiar with publishing, that’s a shitload of books!

In his articles and now his book, Clear argues for the very same things Fogg and Maurer want us to get into our dense skulls:

Tiny habits work.

Don’t underestimate them. I’ve seen it myself as I’ve attempted to develop some right-sized habits. For example, I used to have a great exercise routine. I’d walk an hour a day, and train for strength at the gym three days a week.

Then, because of a move, my desire to build a home gym (which took time), and other circumstances, I slacked off. I became inactive, slowly losing my fitness and my hard-won routine. I was forced to start over again, at the beginning.

Instead of trying to launch back into my old fitness regimen (which I knew right away wouldn’t work, but you can bet I would have tried it in the past), I went small. I decided to go out to my garage gym and do something—anything—for just five minutes a day.

It has been working like a charm. The best thing about it is that it reconnects me to an activity I used to love (strength training), while taking so little of my time and attention that I have to wrack my brain for reasons not to do it.

Another thing I’ve done is simply walk for 30 minutes a day. No running, high-intensity interval training, or anything else that would give me an excuse not to get outside and be active. Those other things sound like hard work (which I am allergic to, as it turns out), but walking I can handle.

Think about what happens to someone who walks 30 minutes a day, and spends 5 minutes lifting weights, for the next 10 years. What kind of person do they become?

What if instead they resolve to adopt an extreme lifestyle change, then flame out in two weeks, as I did with the South Beach Diet? In 10 years, that person is likely to have started and stopped various well-intentioned changes for the entirety of the decade, never making any real progress.

If you really want to change your behavior, stop trying to do it all. Don’t sap your motivation with extreme (or heck, even moderate) changes that you’ll never be able to stick with. Treat yourself with some kindness and self-respect. Wise the fuck up.

Make tiny changes. Align your environment with your goals. Read James Clear, take BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits course, or pick up Robert Maurer’s book. Get it in your head that small is the new big.

One small step can—and will—change your life.