The two most potent strategies for behavior change are environmental design and starting with mini habits. No environment is neutral. Unlike willpower and motivation, once we design our environment, it remains constant. This consistency is a necessity for habit formation. The mini habit strategy focuses on shrinking down the habit so small that even on your worst day, you’ll have enough willpower and motivation to keep the habit alive. When it comes to habits, repetition is more important than duration. First, we need to establish the habit; then, we can build on it. Making the habit so small, we cannot fail, means we will rack-up win after win. Small wins are an excellent strategy for sustained motivation. If we do more than the mini habit requires, that’s wonderful, but it isn’t necessary. Mini habits are focused on starting small and building momentum. If you have a big goal, start small, keep your head down, build momentum, and focus on creating an unbroken chain of successes.
A useful analogy for habit formation is the principle of momentum. It requires a lot more energy to put an object in motion than to keep that object in motion. The scientific term for this energy requirement is activation energy. The reason we struggle to get that initial momentum is that we are too ambitious in the beginning. We not only want to get the ball moving, but we also want to knock it out of the ballpark. Instead of focusing on taking one step, we want to climb a ten-story building. Instead of starting with a 5-minute daily walk, we want to start going to the gym two hours a day. We become overwhelmed, and instead of taking a single step, which is always easy to do and will produce momentum, we fail to take any action. If you happen to be extra motivated, perhaps you just listened to Tony Robbins or your favorite song, you’ll climb a few steps, but what about the next day, when you aren’t so motivated? Of course, if you had taken action the day before, and you wanted to keep your streak alive, do you think you could take another step in that situation? Of course.
When you start small and stay consistent, you’ll not only make more progress than people that start out too ambitious and quit; you will also develop into a more disciplined and motivated person. Every time you exercise, you are reinforcing the habit and casting another vote for the type of person who exercises regularly. Every workout is another small win that contributes to your self-esteem. Sustained motivation is born of sustained action. It is a huge mistake to believe motivation must proceed action. The reverse is true. First, we must produce a small win, activate our reward system, flood our body with dopamine – then we will feel motivated to do more. This is the reason crossing-off an item on our to-do list makes us feel fantastic. Progress equals happiness. Nothing motivates us better than progress. When you start creating an unbroken chain of X’s in your habit tracker, your motivation is going to soar. You are not going to want to see your perfect streak end. If you make your scorecard public, you will be even more motivated to keep your streak alive. The more you do, the more you will want to do.
Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions…, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.
Teresa Amabile co-authored The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work.