Changing Behavior By Taking The Smallest Possible Step

Changing A Behavior Is Easy.  Making it Stick?  Not So Much.

Yesterday I had a conversation with a man that has lost over 140 pounds. His story was amazing and we talked for awhile about how it did it, what strategies he used, and what he’s doing now to maintain the weight loss.

Maintaining the weight loss proves to be the most difficult part.  He says that the pounds are starting to creep back on and he is struggling to keep doing the behaviors that helped him lose the weight. He finds he’s slipping back into his old habits.

We talked about what that one thing might be that he could start doing today to get back in motion.  After talking to him I was reminded of this post that I wrote almost two years ago and is what I encouraged him to do. Just take one small step.


Flickr photo by jackandlindsay

How long is it from the time you download a phone app to motivate you to track your calories, steps, carbs or whatever it is you feel you need help in controlling before you’re no longer using it?  Three months?  Six months?  Five weeks?  Two days? I’ve downloaded several apps that have helped me drink more water or deliver positive affirmations to get me through a rough spot but after a few months I stop using them.

The company I work for has made an investment to provide employees with a wellness web site where we can track nearly everything we do.  We get points for healthy behaviors and a cash payout at the end of the year if we acquire enough.  You’d think everyone would sign up, but the participation rate is about 10 percent.

People lose weight and gain it back, spend money on gym membership and not go, decide to give up fast food, admit how much better they feel without it, and then end up back at McDonalds.

This question of how to stay motivated, and to me even more important – how to keep other people motivated – is perplexing.  Is this back and forth, stop and start, inspired then uninspired cycle that most of us seem to go through the trade off for having a brain that is complex enough to be able to make choices? Certainly it does have to do with our ability as humans to participate in a decision making process above and beyond basic instinct.

Why And How People Change Health Behaviors

Several years ago the book “Why and How People Change Health Behaviors” attempted to reveal the secrets to successful behavior change.  The book is written by Joseph Leutzinger, PhD and John Harris, MEd, who decided to throw off their ‘scientific research hats’ and put on their ‘curious but not judgmental’ hats to seek out individuals who had been successful at changing one or more behaviors.  The book is a collection of stories gleaned from those interviews.

Leutzinger and Harris found there were some recurring themes in the stories they heard.  Here’s what the interviewees told them:

– Do what works for you
– Be well informed about the change you are making
– Be ready – don’t go in unprepared or lacking confidence
– Set SMART goals
– Make a total commitment
– Take it one day at a time
– Plan ahead for scenarios that you find threatening
– Control your environment
– Take small steps
– Seek support from others
– Realize that compliments from others are motivating
– Don’t let a short term relapse negatively impact your potential for long term success
– Know that one successful change leads to another
– Reward yourself for success

Pick One

That’s a good list with plenty of suggestions to help with adherence. But, if I had to pick the one most critical to successful behavior change it would be “Don’t let a short term relapse negatively impact your potential for long term success.”

This darn brain of ours allows us to make choices.  Sometimes they’re good choices, sometimes not so much.  Both can gain momentum.  Once we get started practicing a ‘good’ behavior – for example taking a thirty minute walk before work four days a week – we get in the pattern of doing that.  It feels easy to do and we enjoy the aftereffects of knowing that we’ve kept our commitment and met our goal.

Then the day comes when we decide to go for a couple of birthday drinks with friends after work.  The following day we don’t feel like getting up early to walk so we stay in bed.  The next day it’s raining.  We know there are rainy day options; at home work out DVDs or the stationary bike in the spare bedroom, but we sleep in instead.  Before you know it, two weeks have passed since our last early morning workout that made us feel good all day long.

Take The Smallest Possible Step Forward

I read an interesting blog post yesterday on Daily Blog Tips about procrastination.  The author, Daniel Scocco, was working on a software development project that was overwhelming to him.  It wasn’t that he had no interest in working on the project.  Just the opposite was true, but because of very specific guidelines he had to follow he was having trouble getting started.  Day after day he pushed the project around his desk but couldn’t bring himself to tackle it.

After a couple weeks of this he decided he would try a new strategy.  He would take one small step. He would type the title of the project on a blank page.  That was all.  After he typed the words of the project into the word processor, ideas started to flow and within a couple of hours he had written over 1,000 words.  Daniel says, “Taking that first step is the hardest part for most projects and things, so if you are procrastinating with something lately, simply take the smallest possible step forward, and the rest should start flowing more easily.”

The Law Of Motion

The difficulty we have getting started again once we’ve stopped is the basic law of motion.  The famous scientist Sir Isaac Newton said, “A body in motion tends to stay in motion, a body at rest tends to stay at rest.”  It may take a little more effort to get the resting body back in motion, but it can be done.

Are you letting a short term relapse negatively impact your potential for long term success?  What is the smallest possible step you can take to initiate the law of motion?  Take that step today!

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What You Can Learn From Sheldon Silverstein

Listen to the Mustn’ts, child,
Listen to the Don’ts
Listen to the Shouldn’ts
The Impossibles, the Won’ts.
Listen to the Never Haves
Then listen close to me —
Anything can happen, child,
Anything can be.

Anything Can Be

I remember as a child I would lie for hours outside in the grass under big white cumulus clouds and dream that they were alive. One cloud was a pig that effortlessly morphed into an angel. Another was a gentle giant that dissipated into a small mouse. As the clouds floated across the sky they would take on shapes and lose them just as quickly creating a world that I could escape in.

It was very make-believe, yet at the same time, very real.

Dreams and make-believe are a big part of childhood. But as we grow up, our dreams begin to change shape. We become so busy and are under pressure from unending obligations that we’re no longer able to find the time to dream.

Or worse, our dreams have been squelched because we’ve allowed ourselves to be affected by the mustn’ts, shouldn’t’s and won’ts.

Learning to dream again is a big part of goal setting and achievement. If you’re stuck and are finding it impossible to push through a weight-loss plateau, can’t seem to find the motivation to exercise, and are finding it hard to be excited about life in general, the only way to get unstuck is to start dreaming again.

Take a step back and start creating a vision for your future self that looks just like you wish it did. Ask yourself the question, “If I rubbed a magic bottle and a genie came out and granted me three wishes, what would they be?”

Now, rub the bottle again and pick three more.

Write your dreams down and start putting a plan in place to make them happen. You might even want to start a Dream Jar where you can stow away your written down dreams. Keep the jar in plain sight and it will be a reminder to stay focused on achieving your goals.

Go ahead and dream big dreams.  There’s no need to set boundaries for your ideas.

Anything can happen, friend.  Anything can be.

The poem the Mustnt’s is included in a collection of children’s poetry, “Where The Sidewalk Ends” by Sheldon Silverstein. Silverstein’s poetry resides somewhere between written for children and loved by adults.

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Why You Should Forget About Motivation and Focus On Discipline

“The undisciplined are slaves to moods, appetites and passion.”  Stephen Covey

If you can’t get out of bed to work out, say no to the pizza that’s been brought in for a lunch meeting, or summons the inspiration to add an extra mile to your routine run, blaming it on a lack of motivation may be part of your problem.  What you may lack is discipline.

I realize that may sound harsh, but unfortunately, it’s true.


“In the confrontation between the rock and the stream, the stream always wins. Not through strength, but through perserverence.” — Buddah

Motivation and Discipline: What’s The Difference?

Motivation:  1. The act or process of motivating.  B: The condition of being motivated.  C: A motivating force, stimulus, or influence

Discipline:  1. Control gained by enforcing obedience or order.  2. Orderly or prescribed conduct or pattern of behavior.  3. Self-control.

When you look at the definitions the difference is pretty clear.  Motivation is something that you wait for to happen as though it’s beyond your control.  It’s elusive.  Sometimes you have it.  Sometimes you don’t.  If you don’t have it you wait for it to arrive.

Self-discipline is the trait of being well behaved.  It means you have willpower, determination, drive.  It doesn’t depend on either an internal or external force to come along to spring you into action.

Motivation is what I wait for when I have a project to do at home that I’m dreading.  Cleaning the large walk-in closet that is a catch-all for holiday decorations, clothes that need to be donated to the Salvation Army, old tennis shoes that someday I could wear to paint in, and old purses that my daughter gave me that I can’t bear to part with, falls into that category.

I never tell myself that next Saturday I’m going to clean out the closet.  I wait for the day to come when I get up on a Saturday morning and know that this is the day.  This is the day that I will clean out that closet.

And that day does come.  But, by the time it does  the closet is a complete disaster, my task is doubly difficult, it takes me twice as long to clean it out, and I end up wishing I hadn’t put it off.

Recognizing the difference between motivation and discipline is the first step in making all of the things we want to accomplish happen.  If you’re waiting for the mood to hit you or someone else to give you a push, precious time is being lost.  The longer you put off tackling your goals the harder it will be.  The junk is piling up in the closet and if you wait too long the task will be so overwhelming you’ll postpone it indefinitely.

For that matter, what if the motivation you’re relying so heavily on never comes?

Get Out Your Clubs

“You can’t wait for inspiration.  You have to go after it with a club.”  — Jack London

Many people either wait for their internal motivational mechanism to kick in or they depend on someone else to inspire them.  In reality, you’re better off getting your club out and going after your inspiration.  That may be easier said than done, but there are ways you can acquire the self-discipline you need.

The good news is, if you’ve read this far, you’ve completed the first step which is recognizing the difference between the two.  The second step is making sure your action plan is based on no longer relying solely on motivation, rather acquiring self-discipline around a specific goal or goals. It’s a paradigm shift that may take time and energy, but will be worth it once you’ve mastered it.

To get started, each week write down the goal that you want to work on and recognize that it may be a challenge.  Let’s say you’ve decided you’re going to go to the gym and work out before you start your day. I’m using this as an example because I know from experience it is one of the hardest things for people to do.

Figure out how many days you are going to go, what time you are going, and how long you plan to be there. Write down the details.  At the end of each week honestly evaluate how you did. Continue to do this every week until you are no longer thinking of reasons not to get up when the alarm goes off.

Remember, there may be mornings when you feel no motivation to go.  It doesn’t matter.  Go anyway. Stay accountable to yourself.  Using the excuse “I’m just not motivated” no longer counts when you’re pursing self-discipline.

When you push yourself to complete a goal – even when you don’t want to you – you move closer to establishing a long-term habit.  You’re on your way to achieving the pattern of behavior you so desire.

Be the stream.

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