When I started my career as a coach, I managed to stumble onto the best possible niche. For a few years, almost all my clients were women between the ages of 45 and 83 years old. As someone who was used to working with fellow Marine Officer Candidates, you might think training women older than my mother would be an odd match–but it was the perfect way to learn what clients were struggling with, and what they thought they were struggling with. Because trust me, no one is as honest as an 83 year old lesbian who couldn’t care less about your boyish charms.
“Look,” my clients said. “I know what to do. I just make myself do it.”
That’s jarring to hear when you’re used to just telling motivated Marine hopefuls to run faster. And it was also the beginning of my education, both academic and pragmatic, in what it takes to form a habit.
8 years and north of 1000 clients later, that education is still continuing, but I can say with some clarity that I know what it takes to get to week 4. If that sounds crazy, I’ll tell you that the only weeks that really matter are weeks 3 and 4 and weeks 6 and 7. These are the “Habit Hangovers.” If you can make it to week 7, you’re likely golden. But here’s what it takes to stay motivated.
I’ve never seen a failure of will, but I’ve seen 1,000,000 failures of focus. A failure of will is something you see on TV when a triathlete is trying to cross the finish line at an Ironman and just runs out of gas. They stumble. They can’t get up. They pass out. This is not what is happening when you hit the snooze button instead of getting up for the gym. Which is great, because those triathletes are having a really bad day. You’ve just forgotten your “why.” Or to be more specific, your “what.” So before you read any more of this, ask yourself, “what is the best version of me that I want to be? And what does that person do every day?” Write it down and put it next to your alarm. Or make it what your alarm says when it goes off. You’re in this to be the best you that you can be.
1. Pick a habit that doesn’t require motivation. What? A habit that doesn’t require motivation?! Yep. These are the little things you can do to change your environment that will have big impacts down the road. Professor Wendy Wood, the academic with the best model for habit formation, recommends forgoing willpower and motivation altogether by picking actions that keep you away from your habit cues altogether. Instead of resisting cookies, get all the cookies out of your house in the first place. Instead of getting a small popcorn at the movies, don’t get popcorn at all. And she would know! A bunch of her experiments showed that we will mindlessly eat popcorn at the movies, no matter how stale it is, just because it’s habit.
2. Outsource what you can. Yes, you can outsource motivation. It’s as easy as calling a friend and telling them what you’re up to and why you are doing what you’re doing. Or emailing them. Or texting them. Just the act of involving another person will make the triggers and rewards more apparent.
3. Plan to adjust what you can’t. When it comes to behavior change, only one thing matters: momentum. It doesn’t matter if you’re moving ahead quickly or one step at a time, you’re moving forward. So when the going gets tough, make the tough easier. Instead of eating no sweets, try eating one sweet a day. Instead of going full paleo, eat a piece of toast once in a while. Make a new plan and treat is as seriously as you did the old plan. You’re moving forward. You’re getting there. Now call your friend and brag a little.