Habits don’t come from Motivation and Repetition

I’ve been thinking a lot about why I do what I do on a day-to-day basis; the actions and behaviors that are all a fabric of my current habits. Some might say that I am highly motivated. I disagree. 

There are many days that I don’t want to put on my weighted vest and go for my morning walk. And yet I do. I have yet to miss a day in more than two years. So if it’s not motivation that drives me out there, despite rain, snow, sleet, what is it?

It’s my why. My purpose to enhance my health span is larger that my day-to-day motivation. 

What I have here for you are my top 5 tips on cultivating and growing new habits. Trust that it does not involve motivation, tracking, nor the process of committing to doing the thing for 21, 40, 100, … days. 

  1. Explore your why
  2. Identify a strategy that is purpose-drive, realistic and fruitful
  3. Celebration is a key to change, not rewards
  4. Banish all-or-nothing thinking – go for Growth
  5. Dismiss the “Judge”

1. Motivation: Find and stay focused on your “why”

What’s behind your motivation? Motivation comes and goes like passing clouds. In order to keep focused on what you want to achieve, ask yourself “What difference will this change make to my life, happiness, health?”

The answer to these questions will get you closer to your purpose for this change. For instance, I don’t always want to do my weight training. In fact, it is my least favorite type of movement to do. However, my health purpose is to remain strong and able until my last day, which keeps me motivated to do what I don’t “like” to do. 

Here are some other questions to help out:

  • How would you benefit from this change?
  • What are the good things that would come from it?
  • What are the risks or negatives of not changing?
  • What consequences might you face from not making a change?

You may have many different purposes – and that is perfectly OK!  Once you have something, you might want to post a note on the fridge, mirror, or cupboard, so you see it daily. Your “why” may change over time, so re-visit, alter, or update it as you see fit.

2. Choose a plan/strategy that’s right for you – change as needed

Once you know the “why,” the next mental task is to think about what strategy will be best for you. This boils down to what steps/actions/behaviors are needed to get you where you want to go. What you want for starters is something that you can easily get yourself to do on a daily basis and that generates a big positive towards your end goal.  

And just like your purpose, you may need to continue to revise and change what you are doing. Periodically reflecting on what is and is not working is highly recommended.  

3. Celebration not Rewards

We change by feeling good about what we are doing, not by beating ourselves up for what we are not doing. This is one of the key learnings on behavior change from BJ Fogg’s “Tiny Habits”  methodology. (Full disclosure – I am a Certified Tiny Habits coach) Behavior change does not occur by sheer willpower, nor does it occur through repetition. Behavior change happens as a result of positive emotions that are tied to the new behavior. 

By the term celebration, I mean the intrinsic way that you feel upon doing something – in the moment. Celebration is not going out for ice cream to commemorate a successful event. This type of behavior is a reward too distant and unrelated to the event that you want to celebrate. 

Here’s an example: I’ve been instituting a time period during the day right after I sit down at my computer, when I reach out to one person via email, text or social media. After I complete this behavior, I say to myself “go me! I am becoming a networker so that my business will grow.”  Seems pretty silly, but just thinking about this makes me smile.

This kind of celebration releases dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a feel good neurotransmitter that helps to wire new actions and behaviors. This dopamine hit is all that is needed to continue this behavior and that is what develops consistency – not sheer will-power. 

5. Embrace a “growth” mindset; think of progress not product

What’s a growth mindset?

It’s the willingness to seek out new information, try a different approach, and to adapt or adjust as things change. The term was created by Stanford Psychologist Carol Dweck and popularized through her research, best-selling books, and TED Talk. It is being flexible and responsive to the inevitable changes that happen in life.

At some point, it is likely that some aspects of your plan may stop working for you. If that happens, when you cultivate a growth mindset, you are willing to explore and experiment, even reinvent yourself for the next cycle of success.

A growth mindset can foster a resilient personality that is curious and adaptable to unexpected situations, seeing them as a chance to learn, grow, and evolve. Keep cultivating that mental curiosity as you embark on your journey. This will allow you to enjoy the process of growing and stop fixating on accomplishments and failures. 

5. Note the “Judge”

We all have an inner critic, but some of us have voices that are louder or more persistently negative than others. That nagging voice of self-doubt can undermine our efforts because we actually believe those thoughts to be true.

Thought stopping or other cognitive skills can help, but research shows that trying too hard to suppress negative or self-critical thoughts can actually make them more persistent. Instead, you can be taught techniques to examine negative thoughts and diffuse them.

Approaches to disarm thoughts include the following basic steps:

  • Notice the thoughts that you are having. When and why did they arise? Is there a pattern to their arrival or a common situation in which they occur? How do your thoughts make you feel?
  • Accept or allow the thoughts to exist. Don’t try to change, suppress, or deny them. This allowance puts space around them. 
  • Begin to shift to mindful techniques When you notice that you are having a negative or difficult thought, say I am noticing that I am having the thought that … and then you could introduce something like noting your feet on the floor or listening to the sound of your breath. These small steps will kick in the “calming” part of your nervous system as opposed to the “fight or flight” system. 
  • Commit to a positive action instead of dwelling on or fighting the thought. Let’s say you are trying to quit smoking and suddenly craving a cigarette and your thoughts say, You are weak … you can’t do this. Answer with, I am noticing I am having the thought that I am weak. And then, you might decide to go for a walk instead, or call a supportive friend, or do something else that you have planned to do.

If you practice using this technique, you may find that, eventually, you will be able to recognize and defuse difficult thoughts and feelings. Not only could this help with self-doubt but also with cravings, temptations, and other self-defeating thoughts. The technique may be useful for other issues, such as addictions, anxiety, depression, pain, and other chronic health conditions.


I work with mid-life men and women who want to feel younger through improving their relationship to food, movement and mindfulness.

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