Sticking to new habits doesn’t have to be an uphill battle, but this is the precarious situation that most people find themselves in when it comes to behavior change. You want to change. You need to change. But when the time comes to act it seems as if every fiber in your body is conspiring against you and sabotaging your long-term goals.
Now there’s two ways you can change this. First, you can try to alter your basic biology, along with thousands of years of evolution, which is impossible.
That leaves us with option two, which is to master the ritual of starting using a simple mental shortcut called a “starter step.” Starter steps are like stepping stones to the big changes you want to make in your life — once you’re in motion, it’s much easier to stay in motion.
What are starter steps? And how will they help you combat the inevitable internal resistance that comes with sticking to new habits? Let’s talk about it.
How Your Brain Sabotages Change
Your brain is your greatest asset. However, when it comes to forming new habits and creating lasting behavior change, it becomes your biggest liability.
Fundamentally, the reason sticking to new habits feels so difficult is because the main goal of your brain is to keep you alive while expending as little energy as possible.
One of the ways that our brain accomplishes this goal is by forming habits. Suppose you had just moved to a new city, and needed to go buy groceries. At first, walking into the store represents a new frontier for your brain.
All you have to rely on is your general knowledge about stores. You don’t know the kind of produce this particular store has, what brands they carry, the prices of your preferred items, or the location of some of your favorite snacks.
As a result, that first trip to the grocery store turns out to be quite draining. It’s hard mental work to scan isles for items, compare prices and brands, and make purchase decisions. All of these decisions deplete your mental energy, which depletes your willpower.
However, by the time you’ve settled into your new home and have made that same grocery trip ten times, you can get everything you need without thinking about it. You’ll be able to calmly stroll through the store, maybe even while you’re talking on the phone, and grab everything you need in half the time it took you on your first trip. You’re not thinking anymore, you just know what to do.
Here’s what really happened. Once you made that first successful trip to the grocery store, your brain took a mental note of everything that happened during the trip. Every decision you made in the store was recorded and encoded. That way, the next time you find yourself in that environment, your brain could suggest the same actions.
Your brain’s desire to conserve your energy has made your life better. The annoying shopping trip has been reduced down to a minor inconvenience that you can complete on auto-pilot. It’s turned into a habit — an unconscious behavior that takes no mental energy to carry out.
The important takeaway here is that once your brain has learned a sequence of actions that lead to success, it will repeatedly suggest those actions over and over again — even if they sabotage long-term goals.
It doesn’t know the difference between a good and a bad habit. Your brain simply takes everything you do, say, or think and turns it into a habit so that it doesn’t have to work so hard — whether it’s lighting up a cigarette to reduce stress or turning on a light so that you can see in a dark room.
Most people are all too familiar with the effects of this mental process when it comes to bad habits, but what about good habits? How can we leverage the chemistry of our brain to increase our odds of sticking to new habits. Well, that’s where starter steps come in.
The Magic of Starter Steps
Stanford professor BJ Fogg, the behavioral psychologist who popularized the concept of starter steps, defines a starter step as, “One small move toward your desired behavior.”
Suppose you have a goal of going on a run tomorrow, but you haven’t been on a run in years. When the time comes to act, your brain is going to deliberately prevent you from going on a run — despite the fact that it runs parallel with your new long-term goal of getting healthier.
Why? Well first, because it represents a shift in your normal behavioral patterns. And second, going on a run requires expending a tremendous amount of energy. Your brain will manufacture resistance to any action that is either difficult, or a shift in your current identity.
Your brain isn’t really a fan of the whole “grit your teeth and persevere” philosophy. However, let me pose a question to you. What if you simply put on your running shoes and workout clothes?
Well, here’s what would happen. You’d start to think to yourself, “Why not go for a run? I already have my workout clothes on and my running shoes on, might as walk out the door”
By making a small move toward your desired behavior, you’ve made the desired behavior more appealing. Throwing on your workout clothes and putting on your running shoes shifts your perception — going on a run suddenly doesn’t seem so difficult anymore, it just seems like the logical next step.
Starter steps increase your motivation and decrease the difficulty of a new behavior. They put you in a position to build good habits that help you manifest your long-term goals.
And guess what? If you actually do go on a run after putting your running shoes on, even if it’s for only five minutes, your brain is going to recognize this sequence of actions as a success. It will start to associate the act of putting on your running shoes with the act of going on a run. Your brain doesn’t know that going on a run is a good habit, it’s just doing what it’s been programmed to do. Form habits and conserve energy.
So here’s my advice to you if you’re struggling to stick to good habits. Think about the steps involved in the new behavior you want to implement into your life. Think about the sequence of actions that would precede your new habit.
When you do this, you’ll find actions that can be used as starter steps. Now this is the key part.
Stop focusing on the new habit you need to perform every day. Turn your starter step into the new habit.
Your starter step now becomes the criteria for success. It’s not about whether or not you went on a run, it’s about whether or not you put your running shoes on.
The cool part about starter steps is how versatile they are. You can literally apply them to any habit you can think of. Let’s run through a few examples and then I’ll leave you to brainstorm for yourself.
Desired Habit — Make breakfast every morning
Starter Step — Put a pan on the stove and start heating it up
Desired Habit — Read 10 pages every day
Starter Step — Sit down at your desk and open the book
Desired Habit — Write 500 words every morning
Starter Step — Take out your computer and open Google Drive/Microsoft Word
Desired Habit — Clean the kitchen after every meal
Starter Step — Open the dishwasher after every meal
The goal with starter steps is simple. Commit to a small action every day that builds momentum toward your desired behavior.
Your only goal is completing the starter step. If your ultimate goal is to go on a run, it’s okay to wake up one morning and only put on your running shoes. That’s still a success.
If your goal is to cook breakfast every morning, it’s okay to start heating up a pan on the stove and then take it off. That’s still a success.
After you’ve broken past your starter step enough times, your brain will kick into full gear and you’ll start making meaningful changes in your life because you had the courage to think small, not big.