The massive motivation-mistake you’re making when trying to build habits

There is one MASSIVE glaring problem with habit building that no one’s talking about.

Because of this oversight, well-meaning people (just like you) launch into a new diet or exercise regime with the best of intentions, but then come crashing down in a ball of flames a few weeks later.

The problem? We set our goals, and we plan our habits WHEN WE ARE MOTIVATED.

Think about it. You’d never make a life-changing commitment to eat more veggies after you’ve had a terrible day at work. You’d never make plans to kick off a positive new exercise program when you’re sleep deprived.

You only commit to these changes when you’re motivated.

And of course, the problem with motivation is that it comes in waves. Half the time it’s high. Half the time it’s low.

And by setting our goals and intentions to build healthy habits when our motivation is high, we set ourselves up for failure, because these aren’t behaviours we’ll follow through on when our motivation is low.

If we come back to the idea that half the time motivation is high and half the time it’s low, healthy behaviours we commit to during the peaks of our motivation will only actually be upheld half the time. 50% adherence doesn’t bode well for long term positive behaviour change.

Sure, this may sound cynical. But I’d argue it’s realistic. We’re all pretty terrible at predicting what our future selves will do. All too often we ‘kick the can down the road’ so ‘future me’ can deal with that problem. Brain scans have actually shown we perceive our ‘future selves’ as completely different people. It’s no wonder we’re not great at sticking to the promises we make to ourselves.

So how can we get around this problem?

We need to plan our habits WHEN OUR MOTIVATION IS LOW. At the end of a bad day. When you’re snowed under with work. When the baby is teething at 3am. When your willpower is depleted and the last thing you want to do is make a decision.

We need to plan our habits at the EXACT OPPOSITE time to when we normally would.

Because, let’s face it, that’s life. And we have to be realistic with what our ‘future selves’ will commit to.

By planning habits at our lowest point, we can ensure we’re setting habits that we can continue to complete during future low points (of which there will be plenty).

Now sure, this often means our intentions won’t be as lofty. Maybe we commit to exercising for 30 minute a week instead of the three hours our ‘motivation peaked’ self would have. Maybe we commit to eating one vegetable a day instead of five.

This is a strategy we use often with our online Range of Motion Individualised Programming clients (when we provide realistic and sustainable individualised exercise frequencies and durations) and our Range of Motion Nutrition Coaching clients (where we’re always asking ‘is this habit something you could easily do every day for the rest of your life? Even the bad days?’).

Effectively what we’re doing is lowering the barrier to entry. Instead of trying to jump from a 2/10 to a 10/10, maybe we’re just aiming for 3/10.

For now.

Because by lowering the barrier to entry, we’re more likely to make a tiny little change to our behaviours. And tiny changes are sustainable changes. Laughably easy changes. Changes you can easily continue on the baddest of bad days.

Changes that become habits. And once they do, maybe you can make some more. Maybe you can move from that 3/10 to four. But only if that’s a change your ‘unmotivated self’ can get on board with.

So next time your motivation is at an all-time high, and you’re struck by a desire to make a healthy change. Pause for a moment. Hold off on the commitment until you can see what you ‘unmotivated self’ makes of it. Chances are, you’ll have to scale it back a little.

Because in the end, a series of tiny habits you can sustain forever, are much more life-changing than grand gestures that fall apart on your first bad day.

Dan Williams

Dan Williams


Dan Williams is the Director of Range of Motion and leads a team of Exercise Physiologists, Sports Scientists, Physiotherapists and Coaches. He has a Bachelor of Science (Exercise and Health Science) and a Postgraduate Bachelor of Exercise Rehabilitation Science from The University of Western Australia, with minors in Biomechanics and Sport Psychology.

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