The Secret to Long Term Change

We want to let you in on a little secret. 

Contrary to popular belief, motivation is NOT the key to long term behavior change. It plays an important role, but it’s not the star of the show because it can’t be counted on. You want someone in the leading role who shows up every time, someone who is consistent and dependable. Right? Then, we’re here to tell you: don’t count on your motivation levels alone.

Motivation is Unreliable

Some days you have more motivation than others. A sudden burst of motivation can be helpful with a one-time action (like reorganizing the garage or grilling for 20 people at a cookout) but it’s not sustainable over time. Similarly, you might be able to abstain from nicotine for an entire day if the situation calls for it (e.g. extended travel or a medical procedure) but it’s unlikely that your motivation levels will stay that high day after day. 

If you’ve ever tried to quit nicotine cold turkey but only made it a day or two, the finicky nature of motivation likely played a role. This is also why most users’ first quit is unsuccessful. Their quit plan, if they have one at all, is simply to ride the motivation wave through physical and psychological nicotine withdrawal without making any other changes in their daily routine. They decide they want to beat their nicotine addiction and they’ve firmly set their sights on that, so they assume this motivation to quit will carry them to success. 

This strategy might work for several hours or days, but eventually a bad day will strike and motivation will be low. Maybe it’s an especially stressful day at work. Maybe something significant about home life changes. Whatever it is - without having made any changes to their external environment, and without the willpower to “push through,” they give in to temptation. Even worse, they justify it because it’s been a rough day and they “deserve” it. 

The bad news doesn’t stop there. When the motivation wave crashes, they feel upset with themselves for failing. These bad feelings signal to their brain that the whole process was not beneficial or enjoyable, thus making it seem illogical to attempt to quit again in the future. We’ve said before that you change best by feeling good. When you beat yourself up for not doing a desired behavior, you’re only reinforcing the idea that the behavior is not good for you, thus decreasing the likelihood that you’ll want to try again in the future.

Consistency is the Secret to Long Term Change

Motivation is an important part of behavior change, but motivation fluctuates and it’s nearly impossible to control those fluctuations. Therefore, it is not where you should focus your work when attempting to change your behavior and create new habits.

If you’ve tried to quit nicotine before and only focused on motivation (“If I could just find the right thing to motivate me!”) you’re not alone. But now that you see how unpredictable it can be, it’s time to direct your efforts elsewhere—on things you can control.

Motivation is not the secret to long term change; consistency is. That’s why, on the days when you’re low on motivation, you either make the behavior easy or make the behavior tiny and keep the streak alive. Doing the behavior day after day—even if scaled back or in simplified form—gives the behavior roots and turns it into a habit. Once it becomes a habit, then you can shift your attention to raising the bar… on the days when your motivation shows up!

Completing the Behavior Model

We’ve now covered two elements of the behavior model at length: Motivation and Ability. In future posts, we’ll bring it all together with the third (and easiest to control) element: Prompts - which is really just creating a system of reminders to complete your desired behaviors.