By Nate Sleger
I recently had the honor of being a guest on the Motivation for Regular People podcast, hosted by Brady Ross. The focus of our conversation was on motivation - where it comes from, how to cultivate it, and how we can use small steps to accomplish big goals.
Brady started off by asking about my background as a personal trainer, and how that has shaped my views on motivation and fitness:
“In that time, 10 years plus, what have you learned about the connection between fitness and motivation?”
I shared that when I first started personal training, I was naive. I thought I could just tell people what exercises to do and how to do them properly, and they would be motivated to follow through. But I quickly realized it doesn’t work that way!
“I found that motivation was like the number one thing that was impacting the results that my clients were having and that I was able to help them to have.”
This led me on a journey of researching psychology, motivation and habits. I discovered that the key is starting small and building tiny habits. As BJ Fogg shares in his book Tiny Habits, “smaller is better.” Trying to make huge changes all at once is too hard. But focusing on small steps makes success easier.
Brady wondered how this concept of tiny habits applies for someone just starting their fitness journey:
“So how do we take the concept of tiny habits and smaller is better and apply it to that person who's thinking about signing up for a gym membership?”
I explained that signing up for a gym membership can be a “one and done” action that makes someone feel accomplished. But actually using that membership requires repeating the difficult behavior of going to the gym consistently. That’s too big a leap!
Instead, I have clients focus on tiny steps like just getting in their car to drive to the gym. Just accomplish that small step, without worrying about the full workout. Tiny habits build momentum and motivation.
Brady shared an example from his own life about how one tiny action - deciding to go to the gym when he didn’t feel like it - started a habit loop in his brain. Exercise went from something uncomfortable to something rewarding. I agreed:
“Whatever you can do to feel better, you know, sometimes with working out, I think I'm gonna reward myself at the end of the week, if I do all my workouts, right? Or after I lose X amount of weight this month, I'm gonna have a reward set up for myself. It doesn't work, right? It, we need the reward now.”
We have to feel good right after taking action. That’s what creates habits. Put rewards close in time to the action.
Brady then asked how focusing on small habits has changed my own life and motivation:
“How has this manifested itself in your own life?”
I shared that it’s taken a lot of pressure off me. I used to think I always had to be “on” - up early, high energy, super motivated. But trying to sustain that level of motivation constantly became exhausting. Realizing I just need to focus on the next small step has been freeing.
I gave the example of when I used to wake up at 4:30am to train clients. Just getting out of bed felt hard. So I’d focus my thoughts simply on: “Put your feet on the floor.” Accomplish that small step, then: “Walk to the bathroom.” Focusing on tiny habits replaced the need for tons of motivation.
Later in the interview, Brady asked an interesting question - why do so many people buy gym memberships and not use them? I explained:
“Signing up for the gym membership is an interesting thing because it, you know, usually people are feeling there's some negative emotions that are motivating them, right? I don't feel good about something. Signing up for the gym membership is just an easy one-and-done thing and now I feel better in that moment.”
Buying the membership scratches the itch of wanting to get in shape. It’s a relatively quick, one-time action. But actually using that membership requires tremendous effort for someone who’s been sedentary. It’s too giant a leap.
This reinforced the importance of tiny habits. Make going to the gym as easy as possible - even just focusing on small steps like getting in the car to drive there. Gradually build up motivation through small wins.
Here are a few key lessons to take away from this discussion:
- **Motivation matters.** Telling people exactly what exercises to do isn’t enough. They need internal motivation to follow through.
- **Start tiny.** Big goals are achieved through small, consistent actions. Focus on whatever step you can take right now.
- **Reward now.** To build habits, we need to feel good immediately after taking action. Put rewards close in time.
- **Focus inward.** I don’t have to sustain constant high motivation. Just focus on the next tiny step I can take.
- **Build momentum.** Tiny habits build success, momentum and motivation. They reverse unhelpful habit loops in our brains.
- **Make it easy.** Reduce friction for desired habits. For the gym, choose one close to home and focus just on getting in the car.
Changing behaviors and accomplishing big goals isn’t easy. But by starting small, we can find motivation from within and progressively build up to greater success.
What tiny step can you take today? Focus on that, and go from there. Small steps accumulate into big change. You’ve got this!