By Leo Babauta

What are your motivations for doing your new habit? This is an important question, because many people don’t think through the motivation issue and then blame their lack of discipline when they don’t stick to a habit.

But it’s not discipline that keeps you doing a habit–it’s motivation.

If you think you’re not disciplined, you just need to figure out a better motivation solution.

Positive/Negative Feedback Loops

One of the most important concepts I’ve learned about habits is that they’re shaped by positive and negative feedback. If the feedback loops are set up to steer you toward doing the habit you are much more likely to stick to it, and if the feedback loops steer you toward not doing the habit, then you’ll most likely not stick to it.

Two examples:

  1. You eat candy (or chips or soda or take drugs), and get pleasure from doing this activity (positive feedback). Not doing the activity gives you some withdrawal pains and cravings (negative feedback). So the feedback loops are set up so that you will do the activity or habit repeatedly, and the repetition forms a habit.
  2. You hate running and it’s painful when you run (negative feedback). Not running allows you to relax (positive feedback). So the feedback loops are set up so that you won’t do the habit enough times for it to really become a habit.

You can see why unhealthy habits like junk food and being sedentary form so easily, and why healthier habits that people don’t like so much, like exercise and eating healthy food, are much harder to form. Our human nature is against them!

But not to fear: We can re-engineer the feedback cycles so that the habit is much more likely to form.

Adding Positive Motivation

If you normally don’t like to exercise or eat healthy, here are some ways to add positive feedback (or positive motivation):

  1. Find things about the habit activity that you can enjoy–the pleasure of moving or exerting yourself, the sweetness of squash, the tanginess of hummus.
  2. Exercise with someone you like, such as your spouse or a good friend or co-worker, and have a conversation as you walk, jog, or workout.
  3. Do your exercise in a lovely setting, which is a reward in itself.
  4. Find healthy recipes you enjoy, and enjoy the hell out of them.
  5. Find pleasure in learning how to cook healthy food, in the tactile joys of putting your hands on raw veggies.
  6. Play sports, where the workout is a game.
  7. Allow yourself to tweet or post to Facebook after a run or healthy meal–bragging is a reward!
  8. Mark a red checkmark on your calendar each day you eat healthy or exercise.
  9. Give yourself a nice healthy reward right after the workout.
  10. Drink tea in a slow, calming manner after a workout or healthy meal.

There are lots of other ways, but you get the idea. Making the workout or healthy meal a reward in itself is a great way to build positive motivation.

Adding Negative Motivation

While the term “negative motivation” might seem like a bad thing, actually it’s just taking advantage of the positive/negative feedback loop that’s built into us as humans. We can set this system up so that it works for our healthy habits.

Here are some ways to make it painful not to do a healthy habit:

  1. Tell everyone you’re going to do the habit for a week–the fear of shaming yourself if you don’t do it will steer you toward doing it.
  2. Make a promise on Facebook or your blog that you’ll donate to a cause you hate if you don’t do the habit every day for a week.
  3. Give your spouse or friend your wireless router, and tell them you can’t use it unless you do the workout.
  4. Get rid of all unhealthy food in your house, so that you’ll have to go out of the house to get anything (inconvenience).

You get the picture. Some creativity in coming up with ways to make not doing it more painful can go a long way.