Isn’t it odd how information on how to get in shape keeps getting easier to access, while the world keeps getting fatter.
When I started coaching, my reasoning for this was…
“People are lazy. They’re just not motivated enough to be fit.”
This is how we all think, because we’ve been told we need a wellspring of gritty motivation to get in shape.
So we waste our time looking for something to create lifelong motivation and inspiration.
Maybe it’ll be this next motivational YouTube video… or a near-death experience showing you how valuable life truly is.
You’ll get in shape. You’ll meditate daily. You’ll get vulnerable about your insecurities on Instagram.
I think most people spend their lives waiting for a source of motivation strong enough to act on what they want…
…But then they just die.
Yeah we’re getting dark here. But the point is, you’re probably never going to find a source of constant motivation.
Wasting your time looking for motivation IS what’s keeping you from building the body, and the confidence you want.
This realization has made a massive difference in my own life, and how I coach my online clients.
If we’re depending on ourselves or our clients to constantly be motivated in order to succeed – we’re all going to fail.
Let’s talk about how to help yourself and your clients build leaner, stronger bodies and more confident minds without relying on motivation.
Think back on what you did today:
Woke up, made coffee, got in the shower, peed in the shower (it sterilizes the floor!), got dressed…
And so on and so forth. How much of that activity required conscious effort, and how much was habit?
Mostly habit, right?
Maybe your shower pee took a bit of conscious effort, or you put some extra thought into this morning’s Facebook post about your political views… but for the most part, our lives are highly repetitive.
Now, imagine if every monotonous thing you did required as much thought and effort as the first time you learned how to do it.
Teenage angst and distress over Blink-182 breaking up aside, driving was straight up very stressful. It required a lot of focus and attention.
Now, it’s automatic. You don’t think twice about it.
What if driving never turned into a habit?
Every time you drove, it took as much effort as the first time. It would be extremely draining mentally.
This is why we create habits – they’re mental shortcuts. We use information from past experiences to solve problems and make decisions more efficiently.
Habits save us brain energy.
If you had to decide every day…
Creamer… or sugar… or black… or do I like coffee?
Should I take the interstate or the long way? Should I walk or drive?
…you’d be exhausted from all the decision-making. We save energy by turning the familiar decisions we make daily into mindless, automated responses.
Thing is, habits make up a lot more of our daily lives than we realize.
According to a Duke University research article: Approximately 45% of our waking behavior is habitual. Which is insane…
Nearly half the choices you make daily are outside your conscious control.
As a homeschooled kid from Nebraska, I somehow managed to develop a deep love for rap music – so let’s relate this back to something near to my heart.
In his song Black & White, rapper Juice WRLD spits the following bars:
I’m in my black Benz
Doin’ cocaine with my black friends
Uh, we’ll be high as hell before the night ends, yeah
Oh, we’ll be high before the night ends
Before the night ends
Switch up to the white Benz
Doin’ Codeine with my white friends
Uh, we’ll be high as hell before the night ends (yeah)
Before the night ends (woah)
Before the night begins
I promise I’m going somewhere with this.
Juice WRLD has two habits:
1. Doin’ cocaine
2. Doin’ codeine
But Black & White has a much deeper meaning than doing drugs and sippin’ lean. Is Juice WRLD is trying to show us the powerful influence environment has on habit formation? Probably.
Back to the Duke Study. Researchers found that behaviors often occurred in the same location, almost daily. Actions like: exercising (duh), reading the newspaper, and eating fast food.
“Although a consensual perspective on habit mechanisms has yet to develop, common to all views is the idea that many behavioral sequences (e.g., one’s morning coffee-making routine) are performed repeatedly in similar contexts. When responses and features of context occur in contiguity, the potential exists for associations to form between them, such that contexts come to cue responses.” (1)
Basically, your performance context is your physical, social, and virtual environment. (From this point, environment and performance context are used interchangeably.)
Performing a certain behavior in the same environment repeatedly creates a habit. Once the habit is instilled, just being in a specific environment can trigger a behavior.
I’m in my black Benz (context)
Doin’ cocaine (habit triggered) with my black friends (context)
Switch up to the white Benz (different context)
Doin’ Codeine (different habit triggered) with my white friends (different context)
Juice WRLD’s habits depends entirely on the people and places around him.
“Your environment controls your habits.”
-Juice WRLD (paraphrased)
To further prove Juice WRLD’s Black & White theory, let’s look at another Duke University study from 2005 titled: “Changing Circumstances, Disrupting Habits”.
The study was testing – “Is it easier for college students to break habitual behaviors and follow through with intentions after transferring to a new university?”
Study conductors hypothesized:
“With changes in context, behavior can no longer run automatically in response to stimulus cues, and habits come under the control of alternative mechanisms. One possibility is that people will rely on their current intentions and goals to determine how to act.” (3)
One month before transferring, students were surveyed on their habits and aspects of their environment associated with exercising, reading the newspaper, and watching TV.
Participants rated how strongly they intended to perform each behavior after transferring. They indicated if they performed the behavior alone or with others, and how often they performed each behavior.
Habit strength was determined by the following equation:
Frequency of habit + stability of performance context = habit strength (Example: Frequent habit performance + stable performance context = strong habit.)
One month after transferring, student were surveyed again in a similar fashion.
Students reported on how similar they felt performance context was post-transfer. (Some students didn’t feel they underwent a performance context change. E.g. transfer from the local junior college to the nearby university.)
They also indicated if the behaviors were performed in the same location, and alone or with others. Finally, they reported how often they performed each behavior at their new university.
The studies showed when students felt that their environment had changed, they were able to break strong habits, and instead act on their intentions.
Juice WRLD isn’t surprised.
“Our findings suggest further that when habits are undermined by changes in context, behavior largely reverts to intentional control. Specifically, when the transfer involved a change in the circumstances in which students typically exercised, watched TV, or read the newspaper, habit performance was disrupted, and behavior tended to come under intentional control.” (3)
Now, there are endless studies, models, and theories proving that environment and habit are much stronger than willpower and intentions.
When you’re in a familiar environment, you’re constantly exposed to the same cues, and in turn, repeating the same habits.
After a habit is formed, we start to associate habits not with a single cue, but with an entire environment/performance context. Soon, habits become triggered simply by being in a certain environment.
I love this quote from the homies at Duke:
“People often fail in their attempts at changing everyday lifestyle habits such as their diet and level of exercise…. Failures to change do not necessarily indicate poor willpower or insufficient understanding of health issues but instead the power of situations to trigger past responses.” (1)
Quit trying to change things internally. Focus on what you can change externally instead.
To change a habit, you need to understand how they come about.
(ALL the credit for the following concepts goes to James Clear’s book Atomic Habits. I’ll cite it heavily, but can’t possibly give it enough credit. I highly recommend you check it out.)
Enter: The habit loop
The “habit loop” is the process through which a habit is formed. Something like this:
Cue → Craving → Response → Reward
1. Cue – The behavior trigger. Habits start with a cue.
Cues signal us that a “reward” (a physically or psychologically pleasurable experience) is available. Our brains are constantly on the lookout for rewards.
Cue: You walk by the fridge
Reward: All the yummy food inside
If you don’t experience the cue, the habit is never triggered.
2. Craving – The cue is immediately followed by a “craving” for the reward.
You crave the state change the habit provides, not the habit itself. You don’t crave the physical act of opening your phone, you crave how good all the “likes” on the latest gym-meme you posted make you feel.
Cravings are the motivation behind every habit. If a cue doesn’t produce a craving, you have no reason to act.
3. Response – The response is the physical or mental action that occurs after the craving. The actual habit being performed.
Example: the physical act of opening the fridge.
If the performing the response is too hard, the behavior won’t happen.
4. Reward – The reward delivers the state change you were craving.
When a reward is satisfying, we begin to associate rewards with particular cues, creating a habit loop.
The cue (phone buzzing) leads to a satisfying reward (Your 160th like. Congrats meme lord.) You now associate this cue with a positive reward. You’re more likely to act on it in the future.
Conversely, if the reward is unsatisfying, you won’t form a habit.
If any of the pieces of the loop are missing, a habit won’t be formed.
For more on the habit loop, check out Ch. 3 of Atomic Habits (Clear, 2018, p. 51)
To make or break a habit, dissect it into the four pieces of the habit loop…
→ Cues – Cues are what initially trigger the habit loop. Get rid of the cue, and the habit doesn’t happen.
To make a habit – Make the cue as obvious as possible.
To break a habit – Make the cue as hard to see, feel, or experience as possible. (Clear, 2018, p. 54-55)
1. Time – Example: You habitually eat dinner at 6:30 P.M. every night, hungry or not.
2. Location – Example: Every time you walk through the kitchen, you mindlessly open the fridge.
3. Preceding Event – Example: Your phone buzzes. You pick it up without thinking.
4. Emotional state – Example: Every time you get stressed, you “tense up” through your neck area.
5. Other People – Example: Every time your kids get home from school, you have the urge to pour a drink. (8)
When possible, relocating to an entirely new environment is helpful – it’s much easier to create new habits when you’re not constantly running into the old cues that trigger your bad habits.
Unfortunately, you don’t always have the option of relocating to a new environment.
In this case, look to make your cues either obvious or invisible.
Case study: My Dad’s post-meal peanut butter binges.
My Dad used to have a terrible habit of eating nearly half a jar of peanut butter nightly.
The interesting thing is, this would happen immediately after dinner every night. He’d walk straight from the dinner table to the pantry, and chow down on peanut butter.
It wasn’t that he was hungry, just seconds after dinner… it was just a habit.
Dad’s habit loop:
Cue: Time (Immediately after dinner) → Craving: Peanut butter → Response: Walk to pantry, start eating → Reward: Pleasure of eating some delicious peanut butter.
Now that we’ve dissected the habit loop, let’s look at how we could’ve broken Dad of his PB habit:
1. Make it invisible – The simplest option – don’t buy peanut butter. If a food isn’t readily available, you’re going to have to put in much more conscious effort and work to get it.
Now, for my saint of a mother, not buying peanut butter isn’t a viable option. She has other mouths to feed.
But, the peanut butter is the first thing you see when you open the pantry. Right at eye level. What if Mom put it way up at the top, behind some cans where it wasn’t visible?
Dad would be a lot less likely to snack on it. At the very least, it would take a lot more effort. He’d have to consciously decide to perform the behavior, instead of just following habit.
If eliminating the cue entirely isn’t an option, make it harder to see or access.
2. Make it obvious – Let’s hypothetically say Dad just didn’t like my Mom’s cooking, and actually was still hungry after dinner. So instead, Mom wants him to eat a lower-calorie snack.
The best bet? Make low-calorie snacks as visible as possible. Leave a bowl of fruit out on the counter. Put quality snacks at eye-level when he opens the pantry.
If “make it invisible” isn’t an option, try to make foods congruent with your goals visible and readily available. (Apply this strategy for any other “good habit cues”)
There’s a lot of stuff you know you should be doing, that you’re not.
Problem is – most behaviors with huge long-term payoffs, offer very little instant reward.
You know a behavior is good for you… in the long-run. But the lack of instant gratification makes it much less attractive.
Example: Exercise. Painful now, rewarding long-term.
On the other hand, you’re currently doing a lot of stuff you know you shouldn’t be, because it’s immediately gratifying.
Example: Your weekend diet of strictly Jimmy John’s and whiskey. Numbs the pain right now. Less than ideal long-term.
To make a habit – Make it attractive.
To break a habit – Make it unattractive. (Clear, 2018, p. 54-55)
1. Make it attractive – To make a behavior you need to do more attractive, simply pair it with a behavior you want to do.
Example: It’s Sunday. The only thing you want to do is lie on the couch and watch Friends. You need to meal prep.
Try this: “If I do (insert behavior you need to do), then I get to do (Insert behavior you want to do)” . It makes performing the behavior you need to do much more attractive.
In your case – try only watching Friends as you meal prep. I would also pour yourself a glass of wine. Meal prep is much less terrible with a quality buzz, and Joey (A.K.A Ken Adams) saying something hilarious in the background.
2. Make it un-attractive – Creating community with people with similar goals to yours, or that behave how you want to behave, is a powerful behavior change tool.
We all want to feel accepted and liked. If a behavior goes against the norm of the group (e.g. your new friends are shocked by your rampant cocaine use), the behavior is much less likely to be repeated – you won’t feel like you “fit in”. (9)(10)(11)
Make friends with people you want to look like at the gym.
Join a Facebook group of people with similar goals.
Hire a coach you connect with and respect.
Responses are habits in action. The mindless things we do without thought.
If performing a response is too hard, the behavior won’t take place.
To make a habit – Make it easy.
To break a habit – Make it difficult. (Clear, 2018, p. 54-55)
Friction is anything that is directly or indirectly keeping you from performing your desired habits.
To make it easy, you need to remove as much friction as possible.
Examples of friction:
The more friction a habit has, the less likely you are to perform it.
Let’s say you want to be able to hashtag #entrepreneur on all your Insta posts. So you prematurely quit your job, with aspirations of becoming a fitness writer.
You quickly find the self-employed life poses some challenges…
1. You don’t have to get up – When you had a boss, you “had to” get up. Now, it’s easy to hit snooze for an extra hour or two.
2. You’re highly addicted to your phone – Instagram man.
You need to be writing to make this career switch work… but it’s still easiest to spend most of your day on your phone in bed.
Any easy routine to solve your #entrepenuer woes:
Wooooow. So you’re saying it’s easier to get up if your alarm is across the room? Mind-blowing.
Yeah, pretty underwhelming. But that’s exactly the point.
You won’t suddenly have a life-changing epiphany that leads to endless willpower. You change by putting yourself in situations that require minimal willpower. Make good habits the path of least resistance.
Other ways to eliminate friction and make it easy:
To turn a behavior into a habit, the cue needs to result in a pleasurable reward.
Behaviors that lead to a positive reward are much more likely to turn into habits.
To make a habit – Make it satisfying.
To break a habit – Make it unsatisfying or painful. (Clear, 2018, p. 54-55)
Similar to cravings, the behaviors you want to be doing have long-term rewards. When you exercise, your butt looks good… 6 months down the road. Problem is, there’s no instant gratification.
1. Make it satisfying – In fitness, the easiest way to make it gratifying? Seeing progress.
You won’t see visual progress right away. You WILL see other forms much quicker. Which is why it’s important to track a variety of different metrics.
Track your consistency.
If you haven’t been able to get in great shape, there’s a 99.9% chance consistency has been the missing piece.
Improved consistency with behaviors you know will get you closer to your goals is progress.
One of my favorite ways to apply this concept is with my online clients metric trackers.
Track your gains in the gym.
Keep a training log. Every time you set a new PR, be it a new weight, or the same weight for more reps, you know you’ve made progress.
Track body stats.
Track your body stats + bodyweight + take progress photos.
These will show progress much quicker than the mirror.
2. Make it painful – To break a habit, make it painful.
One of the easiest ways – get an accountability partner or coach.
Letting someone down, and showing them that we are unreliable and/or untrustworthy is extremely painful. Investing money increases the pain even more.
Letting yourself down repeatedly is somewhat painful, but not uncommon.
Repeatedly paying someone, admitting you let them and yourself down, and wasting said money is extremely painful. Putting yourself in this situation makes failure much less likely.
“Bad habits repeat themselves not because you don’t want to change, but because you have the wrong systems to create change.”
-James Clear, Atomic Habits
When motivation is present, take advantage of it.
When motivation is missing, don’t waste time looking for it.
Believing you need to “be motivated” before attempting anything is a huge mistake. Motivation, willpower, and all your best intentions don’t really get you far.
The external is much more powerful than the internal for determining what actually happens in your life.
Instead of looking and hoping for more willpower, focus on creating changes in your environment – “disciplined” people, are just people that are good at putting themselves in situations that require as little willpower as possible.
Jeremiah Bair is a certified nutrition coach, strength coach, and owner of the Online Coaching Business Bairfit. His Instagram is noticeably missing any calf pictures.