Behavior change doesn’t have to feel like such an uphill battle, but this is how many of us see it when trying to change our lives for the better.
You want to change. You need to change. Yet when the moment arrives where you need to take action, every fiber of your being seems to conspire against you.
Luckily, there’s a simple strategy that you can leverage to make almost any new habit stick regardless of difficulty.
The hardest part of behavior change is mastering the first 2-3 weeks of daily action. If you can make it through this barrier, you’re well on your way to changing your life for the better.
So if you find yourself struggling to make new habits stick, then you’re in the right place. In this article, we’re going to be diving into the idea of starter steps.
What are starter steps? And do they combat the inevitable internal resistance that comes with sticking to new habits?
Let’s dive in and get both of those questions answered!
How & Why Your Brain Forms Habits?
Your brain is the greatest asset that you have in life, but it’s not perfect. One of its biggest flaws is that it absolutely hates change, and will do everything in its power to keep your actions consistent with your identity.
This poses a severe problem when it comes to sticking to new habits because your brain’s goals are often in direct conflict with your own.
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 your brain accomplishes this goal is by forming habits. To illustrate this, let’s discuss a hypothetical scenario that many of you have likely encountered before.
Let’s suppose that you’ve just moved to a new city and need to go buy groceries. At first, walking into the local supermarket 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 your favorite snacks.
As a result, that first trip to the grocery store requires significant mental energy. Scanning isles for items and making purchasing decisions puts quite the strain on your brain.
By the tenth trip to that same store, shopping for groceries is a piece of cake. You’re able to calmly stroll through the store and grab everything you need without even thinking about it.
How did this happen? Well, once you made that first successful trip to the grocery store, your brain took a mental note of everything that happened during the trip.
That way your brain could conserve energy by suggesting the same set of actions the next time you were in the store. This process happened over and over again until the trip to the store itself became a habit.
Your brain’s desire to conserve your energy has made your life better. The annoying shopping trip has been reduced down to a simple task that you can perform on auto-pilot. In other words, the trip itself is now 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.
You’ll understand why this takeaway is important in the following section, where we’ll talk about starter steps and how you can use them to master sticking to new habits.
Starter Steps: How To Build New Habits With Ease
Stanford professor BJ Fogg, the behavioral psychologist who popularized the concept of starter steps, defines them as “one small move toward your desired behavior.”
Starter steps are essentially small actions that trigger the ritual associated with a specific habit, thus making it easier to perform the habit to completion. Here’s a more specific example of how you might apply starter steps in daily life.
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 aligns with your goal of becoming healthier.
That’s why you’ll typically find yourself wrestling with internal rationalizations like these:
- “I’m pretty tired right now…I’ll just go later.”
- “I’ll just start tomorrow.”
- “I should at least have my morning coffee before heading out there.”
- “It’s been so long…what if I injure myself?”
Because your brain hates change, you’re not going to have much success at building a consistent running habit if you try to overcome these rationalizations through sheer willpower.
That’s where starter steps can reduce the initial resistance towards positive behaviors that you want to perform.
Instead of trying to force yourself to go a run, what if you just forced yourself to change into your running clothes? What if that’s the only habit that you were focused on?
Well once you’re dressed, you’d likely start thinking to yourself, “Why not go for a run? I already have my workout clothes and running shoes on, might as well just walk out the door and get going.”
This scenario gets to the crux of why starter steps work so well — they make your desired behavior more appealing in the very moment when you’re experiencing resistance. It seems like your brain would be too smart to fall for this, but it’s not.
It’s easy to put off going on a run while you sit on the couch in sweatpants. It becomes a little harder to put off running when you’ve already spent a couple minutes getting prepared to run.
And here’s the best part: if you do go on a run after putting your running shoes on, even if it’s for a short period of time, your brain is going to recognize this sequence of actions as a “success.”
It will start to associate the starter step of putting on your running shoes with the act of running itself. With each repetition of the entire routine, running will become an automatic response to putting on your running shoes in the morning.
Your brain doesn’t know that running 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:
- Most habits are a sequence of actions performed in the same order every time, so write down all of the steps required to carry out your desired habit.
- When you do this, you’ll find actions that can be used as starter steps.
- Focus on the first 1-3 steps in this sequence and work on mastering that ritual.
- Scale up that ritual weekly as your willpower and motivation increase.
When you’re just starting out, it’s important that you keep your starter step as the criteria for success. For the first week or so, put zero pressure on yourself to actually perform the ideal habit you want to build.
It doesn’t mean you can’t go past the starter step. In fact, you’ll probably find that doing more than what’s required feels pretty natural even at the beginning. Just make sure that you don’t get ahead of yourself and change the criteria for success too early.
Here’s an example of how you might implement this process for a collection of popular habits. Feel free to use these examples as inspiration and tailor the steps to your individual goals.
Sample Starter Step Habit Plans
Here’s what a sample habit plan might look like for a daily walking/running habit:
- Week 1: Put on your running shoes + put on gym clothes
- Week 2: Put on your running shoes put on gym clothes + walk out of your front door
- Week 3: Put on your running shoes + put on gym clothes + walk out of your front door + walk/run for 50 steps
- Week 4: Put on your running shoes + put on gym clothes + walk out of your front door + walk/run for five minutes
- Week 5: Put on your running shoes + put on gym clothes + walk out of your front door + walk/run for ten minutes
Here’s what a sample habit plan might look like for a daily writing habit:
- Week 1: Sit down at your desk + open open up a Google/word doc
- Week 2: Sit down at your desk + open open up a Google/word doc + start writing for 10 seconds
- Week 3: Sit down at your desk + open open up a Google/word doc + write 50 words
- Week 4: Sit down at your desk + open open up a Google/word doc + write 100 words
- Week 5: Sit down at your desk + open open up a Google/word doc + write 200 words
Here’s what a sample habit plan might look like for a daily habit of talking to strangers in order to become more social.
- Week 1: Put on your shoes + walk outside
- Week 2: Put on your shoes + walk outside + say “hello” to one stranger that walks by you
- Week 3: Put on your shoes + walk outside + say “hello” to three strangers that walk by you
- Week 4: Put on your shoes + walk outside + say hello & pay a compliment to one stranger that walks by you
- Week 5: Put on your shoes + walk outside + say hello & pay a compliment to one stranger that walks by you + start a conversation with them
The principle here is the same regardless of the habit — each week, focus on adding another layer to the initial starter step.
That means each week, your minimum criteria for success will increase slightly as whatever habit you’re trying to build becomes more automatic. Repeating these small actions daily will gradually lower the resistance you feel towards the more ambitious targets you want to reach.
Many of us are told to think big and set ambitious goals, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that philosophy. The problem is that our brain is not wired to achieve big goals, it’s wired to keep us alive while conserving energy.
The goal with starter steps is simple — commit to a small action daily that builds momentum toward the ideal habits you want to build.
If your ultimate goal is to become someone who runs for 30 minutes every day, it’s okay to start by only putting on your running shoes. If your goal is to become someone who writes 1,000+ words per day, it’s okay to start by only taking out your computer and opening up a Google doc.
Though these actions are small in stature, they create a foundation of consistency that will allow you to build towards your most ambitious goals.
About the author: My name is Justin Gasparovic and I’m a personal development blogger with a passion for providing actionable advice that helps people become the best version of themselves. The Enemy Of Average is where I share my best tips and tricks for improving productivity, achieving goals, and building better habits.