Sustained improvement (in anything) typically requires starting small, building consistency, and accumulating incremental successes. We brush our teeth for two minutes twice a day to improve our dental health. Training for a marathon requires several runs a week, building volume very gradually. Learning a musical instrument or new sport is done very slowly and incrementally. In other words, we need to cultivate new habits.

But, sometimes, sustained improvement can be achieved by big, one-time actions. A single, upfront change that enables you to make better choices many days, weeks, months, and even years into the future…without really trying.

Motivation is an unreliable friend. Sometimes we have a lot of it, but it tends to disappear quite quickly. How many New Year’s resolutions have you stuck with? And for how long? As we all know, motivation ebbs and flows throughout the year, the month, the day, and even the hour. So, we can’t rely on motivation to change our behaviour consistently.

Which is a shame, because when we try to do new, positive things, or stop doing old, unwanted things, we almost always try to succeed by motivation and willpower alone. And it doesn’t work. Your new one-hour daily walk soon gets sidelined when it’s raining or you don’t have time. The ping of WhatsApp messages pulls you back into your phone even though you really want to reduce screen time. And those biscuits in the cupboard eventually overpower your healthy eating commitment.

This isn’t because you’re weak. It’s because relying entirely on motivation and willpower is ineffective.

Unless.

Unless you can use temporary spikes in motivation to take big, one-time actions that produce sustained improvements.

It’s the 1st of January. You’ve had two weeks of overindulgence. And you’re determined that this year is the year you transform your diet. You tell yourself that there will be no more crisps, biscuits, cakes, and junk food. It’s easier said than done, of course. This spike in motivation will only last so long. But you can make the most of it while it lasts – by redesigning your home food environment. Clear out all the packaged and processed food from your house (pack it into boxes and take it to the food bank). Stock the cupboard and fridge with fresh, whole foods. In the following days, when your motivation might be low again, your new environment forces you to make good food choices. Sure, you could go buy a packet of biscuits, but this takes quite a lot of effort. It’s a barrier. You could restock your cupboards with junk food, but this takes even more effort, and you probably won’t want to after feeling successful with your new healthier diet.

A few months ago, I noticed my work productivity was suffering because I was getting distracted by my phone. It was sitting there on my office desk every day. And every few minutes it would ping with a WhatsApp message (or five). I didn’t want to break off from what I was doing, I didn’t want to be a slave to my phone. But as soon as that ping was received by my brain, I automatically picked up my phone to check the messages. Then I spent time replying to those messages. Then I got sucked into other apps while I was on there (YouTube was my big addiction). Many minutes, probably hours, wasted. The solution was simple and only required a single, one-time action. I turned all my notifications off. That’s it. When I want to check messages I can, but I’m not disturbed and distracted by incoming alerts anymore. I’m more focussed, more productive, and happier for it.

A good friend of mine has a very demanding job. A job that absorbs much of his time and attention. It’s also quite unpredictable. And, as a result, quite stressful. Fortunately, he’s one of those lucky people who loves his job, but it had become so all-consuming he was spending very little time on looking after himself. He certainly recognised that he would benefit in every way from doing some regular exercise. He was motivated to do it. But he could never seem to fit it in. So…he bought a dog. A very lively springer spaniel who needs two long walks a day. So, my friend now does two long walks a day. Every day. One first thing in the morning and one in the evening. Come rain or shine. Tired or alert. Free time or no time. Buying the dog has given him a daily walking responsibility for many years. There is no decision to make. The walks just happen. He’s less stressed, more focussed, and more productive. Healthier and happier.

Next time you’re high on motivation, see if there is a big, one-off action you could take that will help you to sustain the behaviours you want, without much additional effort or motivation.