Man holding glass of juice with fruit in the background, with text overlay: When Motivation Isn't Enough: Building Healthy Habits

When Motivation Isn’t Enough…Building Healthy Habits

Have you ever decided that you were going to do something to improve your health, start out super-motivated, and then give up on it after a few months? If you have, you’re not alone. As we talked about last week in Why Do I Have Such a Hard Time Staying Motivated, sometimes motivation just isn’t enough.

If you need proof of that, just check out the fitness clubs in January, then go back in March or April…. Every single year, the clubs are packed in January. People have made their New Year’s Resolutions and they’re highly motivated and ready to hit the ground running.

The problem is that after a while, the workouts can stop being fun, going to the gym after working all day gets harder, and if they started out with unrealistic expectations, they may not see results as quickly as they like. All of these things can really chip away at their motivation. The next thing we know, it’s March and the workout floor is empty, the classes are smaller, and there are times the club looks like a ghost town.

Now I’m not saying that motivation can never carry you through, because there are some people who are able to stay highly motivated no matter what. There are also some motivators (such as serious health issues) that are strong enough to keep us going.

In general, though, motivation is not reliable for long-term changes. Our motivation can wax and wane over time, and if that’s what we’re relying on to keep us going, we can get into trouble. As BJ Fogg, PhD says in his book Tiny Habits, (1) “motivation…fluctuates day to day, even minute to minute.”

So if we can’t depend on motivation to make changes, what can we depend on? Our habits.

The Power of Habit

Habits are those behaviors that we perform regularly, often without even thinking about it. Our habits can help us get where we want to be or hold us back from attaining our goals. As James Clear says in his book Atomic Habits (2), “the quality of our lives often depends on the quality of our habits.”

That’s why as Health Coaches we spend a lot of time helping people develop habits that support a healthy lifestyle. When healthy behaviors become habits, we no longer have to depend on motivation to keep us moving forward.

Stream with stepping stones with text overlay: "You'll never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of your success is found in your daily routine." John C. Maxwell

What Habit Do I Start With?

The first question is often, “Where do I start?” This can be a tough decision for people sometimes. We seem to be wired to want immediate results. Realistically, we very seldom see real transformation happen overnight.

If you know that if you don’t see results quickly you might give up, you might want to choose a habit that Precision Nutrition (3) calls The Big Kahuna. This is the action that will give you “the most bang for your buck.” These are usually harder to do and require higher motivation over time, but can work for those who are extremely results-motivated.

For the rest of us, BJ Fogg strongly recommends much smaller actions, those Precision Nutrition refers to as Low-Hanging Fruit. These are small changes that are easy to add to incorporate into our daily lives. We don’t see results as quickly, but we do see results over time. The biggest benefit of these, in addition to the long-term change, is that they give us small wins early on and help us know we can be successful.

Designing Habits the Tiny Habits Way

I first learned about BJ Fogg and his work on Behavior Change when I was taking a continuing education course on that very same subject. He founded the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University and created the Tiny Habits Academy.

His Fogg behavior model and Tiny Habits template help simplify the process of changing behaviors and building new habits. Here I’ll give a quick overview of what he calls The Anatomy of Tiny Habits, but I highly recommend the Tiny Habits book. You can also check out his website at He teaches us not only how to develop new, positive habits, but how to break bad ones.

The Anatomy of Tiny Habits

A – Anchor Moment – This is a routine you already have or some sort of event that acts as your cue for the new behavior. For instance, if you have decided to increase the number of steps you walk each day, your anchor moment could be 10 minutes before each hour.

B – New Tiny Behavior – This is the very easy-to-do, simplified version of the new habit you wish to incorporate. For the example above, at 10 minutes before the hour, you get up and walk 10 steps. Of course, you may end up taking more than 10 steps, but making the behavior something so easy to do helps you get started.

C – Instant Celebration – Use some sort of celebration immediately after engaging in the new behavior to create positive emotions around the action. It can be something as simple as a “well done” to yourself, or as elaborate as a special ‘happy dance’ afterward.

As I said, this is just an overview of his basic Tiny Habit template, but you can see how easy it can be to get started with very small steps and build on them as they become actual habits.

Some Things to Consider When Trying to Build Healthy Habits

Incorporating healthy behaviors and forming good habits can be simple, but it’s not always easy. In order for a behavior to become a habit, we have to do it over and over again.

Sometimes we get bored. Sometimes it gets hard. Sometimes it just doesn’t seem like this new habit is getting us anywhere. We’re tempted to quit. At those times, we need to revisit our why for wanting to make the change in the first place. Knowing why we want to do this can increase the motivation piece of the puzzle for us and reinvigorate us when we’re starting to consider giving up.

There are lots of books that talk about how to build good habits, and they’re all different in how they approach it, but there are a few things that most seem to agree on:

  • Motivation is overrated. As we talked about last week, there are many things that can affect our motivation levels, which makes it undependable when it comes to behavior change.
  • We need a system if we want to reliably build new habits. As James Clear says, “If you’re having trouble changing your habits, the problem isn’t you. The problem is your system….You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” We can’t just approach habit formation willy-nilly. We need a solid design (or system) to design our habits for the most success.
  • In general, we need to choose behaviors that are easy to incorporate into our lives. Whether it’s using the Tiny Habits template, or the ‘two minute rule’ where the new habit only takes two minutes to do, when we’re first getting started, we need to make it as easy as possible.
  • We must design our environment to make the new behaviors easier. Whether it’s putting our workout clothes next to the door the night before, stocking our pantry with healthy foods, or getting rid of our stash of chocolate chip cookies, we can shape our behaviors by changing our environment.
  • Concentrate on the behaviors, not the expected outcomes. When we concentrate on completing the new, positive behaviors instead of outcomes, we can see immediate success. This helps to build our self-efficacy – the belief that we can be successful in making changes to benefit our wellbeing. Conversely, when we concentrate mostly on the outcomes, it’s easy to become discouraged if we’re not progressing as quickly as we’d like.

I would personally add one more thing — Build in options. This is especially crucial for those of us who live with chronic illness. What we’re perfectly capable of doing one day, we may not be able to do the next. For example, if our ‘behavior’ we’ve planned is walking each day, there may be days we can’t do that. Having another option (riding the stationary bike, doing some restorative yoga, etc.), can keep us on track with our exercise goals even if we can’t do the behavior we planned to do.

Small Actions, Big Dividends

Building and fostering small daily habits may not seem as inspiring or as ‘sexy’ as having some huge goal that you’re working to accomplish, but they’re what gets the real work done. They’re the action steps that you’re taking toward that big goal every day. James Clear says it best:

Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them. They seem to make little difference on any given day and the the impact they deliver over the months and years can be enormous.

James Clear, Atomic Habits

Building new, healthier habits isn’t a Wellness ‘get-rich-quick scheme, but it is a reliable Wellness wealth builder. When we take the time to design and incorporate healthy habits, we are investing in our future as well as improving our day-to-day wellness.

Do you mostly rely on motivation or habits when you’re working to improve your wellness? What have you found most helpful when trying to build new habits? Please share!



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(1) Tiny Habits, 2020; BJ Fogg, PhD; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing; New York

(2) Atomic Habits, 2018; James Clear; Penguin Random House UK; London

(3) The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition, 3rd ed, 2019, John Berardi, PhD,CSCS, et. al, Precision Nutrition, Inc.


    1. Thanks so much for sharing Melinda! It does take repetition to get those habits to ‘take’, doesn’t it? Part of that is because the longer we do them, the easier and more automatic they become. I’m like you – it takes me at least 30 days or so before the behaviors really become habits. Blessings to you sweet friend!

  1. I love the tiny habit pointers! I need to incorporate these strategies. I am thinking that when I make my list of things to do, when I cross something off my list, I can celebrate in some way. Thank you!

    1. Thanks so much for sharing Sandy! I’ve been thinking about what I’m going to work on next also. BJ Fogg talks about how important celebration is to ‘cementing’ a behavior. I hope you enjoy celebrating your wins sweet friend. Blessings to you!

    1. Thanks for reading Brigid! The Tiny Habits concept is quite interesting, and it’s easy to see how it can work for long-term change. I think the only issue might be for folks who really want to see results quickly. I think the potential exists for them to become impatient and discouraged when change doesn’t happen overnight. Of course, that almost never happens anyway, no matter what system we use. Hope you’re doing well sweet friend. Sending hugs your way!

  2. Just reading this gives me a little zing of inspiration and motivation, I’m sure I can’t be the only one. The way you talk about making them small and capable of being built into our lives, getting a system and incorporating them so they’re practical to put into motion… it really makes what can be a daunting and frustrating goal with setting new habits feel much more do-able and enjoyable. I think small goals are the new sexy goals! Fabulous tips, Terri xx

    1. Thank you so much Caz! I’m so glad you found this helpful! I think too often we just think we have to do something big to make a difference, but it’s really the small things that we do every day that have the most impact. Hope you’re staying safe and as well as possible. Hugs!

  3. Terri, this post just flows, so practical and encouraging! and your love of this area is so evident in it! I think the idea of ‘a two minute rule’ is something I could commit to. Also the ABC of tiny habits could be something that could ‘stick’ for me! I’m trying to reduce my love of potatoe crisps and sometimes I just repeat the mantra to myself, ‘I don’t eat crisps” and weirdly it helps my sticking power. Another thing that helps is, I remind myself to ‘Just show up.” This came from Dr.Andrea Dinardo’s blog and really helped when I felt overwhelmed by workload, I’d tell myself to ‘just show up” to do 10 minutes and find myself still there an hour later! Thanks for sharing! Xx

    1. Thanks so much for sharing, and for your kind words Marie! I like your mantra for the crisps, and I’m not surprised that it helps. The more I read about the brain, and how we can tell it what to think, the more I believe in the power of our words/thoughts when we speak to ourselves. The ‘just show up’ idea is so helpful, isn’t it? Sometimes, just getting started is the hardest part. That mindset (and its accompanying action) can get us over the hump, can’t it? I hope you’re staying safe and well sweet friend. Hugs!

  4. Great post. Today is 7/1. We tend to start a new goal on 1st of the month or the 1st of the week. I really liked the James Clear quote from his book Atomic Habits (2), “the quality of our lives often depends on the quality of our habits.” That includes all facets of our life (work, relationships, wellness, etc). I needed that reminder.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing Sarah! You’re so right that our habits affect all facets of our lives. That gives us even more reasons to build good habits, doesn’t it? Sending lots of love and hugs your way!

    1. Thank you so much Mark! Change isn’t always easy, but if we take it a small step at a time, I think, as you said, we “can adapt to almost anything.” Thanks for following – I look forward to getting to know you!

  5. Thank you for this post and sharing the anatomy of tiny habits – not heard these before; but I agree that relying on motivation alone to achieve goals just doesn’t cut it. The quote on ‘falling to the level of your system’ hit the button for me and I am starting my fitness plan with this in mind. Cheers Sylvia

    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment Sylvia! It really just hurts my heart that so many people feel they’ve failed when they don’t make the progress they want with their wellness. The truth is, that it’s not the person who has failed; it’s their system. I absolutely love the Tiny Habits idea for making changes. The book Tiny Habits has a little banner on it that says, “This book will change your life” and I believe it can. All the best with your fitness plan! Also, thanks for following. I look forward to getting to know you!

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