“NOT GOOD ENOUGH”
When I hear this phrase, I think of two things. The first is Jason Segal playing Marshall Eriksen in How I Met Your Mother. His friends are hooking up but don’t want to define their relationship, and he gets a little happy with his Indiana Jones-style whip.
The second is something I saw at the gym a few Januaries ago.
I had managed to find a patch of artificial turf that wasn’t taken—no easy task so soon after New Years.
The gym was packed, with yoga mats practically stacked on top of each other. Every trip to retrieve a new dumbbell was a little adventure, zigzagging between people stretching on the floor and the ones carrying weights back to their own little corners.
I had settled in at my patch with my equipment and plugged in my headphones. As I wrapped up my foam rolling, I heard it: “NOT GOOD ENOUGH.”
Ordinarily, it’s hard to get my attention at the gym. Unless you walk right up to me, I’m probably not going to notice you. But this yell was so loud, so full of anger, that I couldn’t help but pop out an earbud.
Nearby, I saw two women doing some kind of circuit workout. One was on the floor doing push-ups (ouch. That floor is rough, and hurts your palms). The other sat next to her, counting every rep and yelling when they weren’t low enough.
Eventually they switched places.
I saw this pair at the gym a few more times. It probably won’t surprise you to hear that they were hard to miss. But sometime in mid-February I realized that it had been a while since I’d seen, or heard, them—and in fact I never did see them again.
What can the story of “Not Good Enough” teach?
If we’re talking about Marshall and the whip, there are two lessons:
- If you’re going to use a bullwhip, make sure you aim
- It’s usually a good idea to define your relationships with people
But if we’re talking about the gym, there are a few different lessons that this story can teach—and in fact I’ve told it before to make a different point.
I could talk about how humiliation is a terrible motivator, and how associating exercise with pain and screaming is a great way to make someone quit.
I could also talk about how going too intense too quickly is one of the most common mistakes people make when they get started with fitness. It leads to burnout, and resolutions that don’t last past Valentine’s Day.
This time the point I want to make is more fundamental.
Habits vs. Motivation
Screaming is a terrible motivational tool. It might succeed at getting you to do something in the moment, but it will probably make you avoid doing it in the next moment.
If you got screamed at every time you went to the gym, how long would you stick with it?
But deeper than that, motivation itself is a misguided approach to fitness!
More than just about any other question, I get asked: how can I get more motivation?
My inbox is filled with emails asking this question, and I get a new email about it on most days. It’s a reasonable question—most people believe that willpower and motivation are the most important steps to building healthy routines.
This believe is widespread. In a poll conducted by the University of Chicago, 77 percent of white people (note: this percentage differed with race, but was always high) said lack of willpower was their most significant barrier to losing weight .
But there’s a problem: the research says willpower isn’t actually that important.
Research on temptation shows that people who say they have more self-control don’t actually have more self-control—they are better at avoiding temptation .
This finding, combined with other similar research and head-scratching results. People who have healthy habits wind up with more self-control . The way we used to think about willpower, as a resource that we could spend or get back, may not be accurate .
If people who achieve their goals are able to do so despite not having more willpower than people who do not, what does that mean for those of us trying to change our habits and lifestyles?
Habit Stacking, Chaining, and Dominoes: A Better Approach to Motivation
It’s no secret that I’m a giant fan of habits.
In this article I want to zero in on one approach to building habits—the single most effect habit-building tactic in my arsenal.
I call it chaining.
Think about the moment you wake up. Say you get out of bed, wander into the bathroom, and do a few different things in there (shower, shave, brush etc.). You don’t think about the order of these tasks. You just do them.
Now say you want to add a new action into your day: every day, you’re going to stretch your hamstrings.
How could you approach this action?
The Standard Approach
You could just try to remember to do it every day. Maybe you do it in the morning before you get out of the door to work, or it’s something you take care of before bed. You might do it on the days you go to the gym, or try to get to it right after you get home.
The problem with this approach is that it’s inconsistent. You’ll be stretching at a different time each day, so you don’t really ever build the habit.
You don’t have to take my word for it either, because you’ve probably experienced this. Ever tried to start up a new habit, then realized that you forgot to do it that day—once you’re already drifting off to sleep?
Or else you remember, but you have 10 other things to do, and you’re tired, and you still need to eat, and how important is it really to do it every day—surely one miss won’t hurt, right?
That’s what willing yourself to do something feels like.
The Better Approach
What if, instead, you built the new habit into your existing habits?
Every morning, you get out of bed and walk to the bathroom. What if you had a yoga mat sitting there ready for you on the floor? On your way to the bathroom, you stop for a couple minutes of stretching, then hop right into the rest of your routine.
Or say you really want to do your stretching at the gym. But when you come home to get your gym clothes—Netflix beckons! You sit down to unwind for a second, and the next thing you know it’s too late to go work out.
What if you brought your clothes to work instead, so that you could go straight from your office to the gym?
I call this concept “chaining,” and it works because it helps you do things without thinking about them.
When you’re trying to start up a new action out of nowhere, you’re like a rock. It takes a lot of strength—a heavy push—to get you moving.
When you’re already up and doing things—whether they’re workout related or not—you have momentum. Each action flows effortlessly into the next action.
You’re like a rock that’s already rolling down hill. All you need to do is give it a little tap and it moves even faster.
Chaining works because your various actions are naturally connected to each other already. Each action is a link in the chain—all you need to do is add another link.
What are some examples of chaining?
- Stretch right after getting out of bed, but before going to the bathroom
- Go directly from work to the gym, without stopping at home
- Read on the way to work by pulling out a book as soon as you get on the bus/train
- Start cooking immediately when you walk in the door from work
For most people, morning and evening habits will be the easiest to chain. Waking up is a consistent start to a habit chain, as is walking in the door. The rest of day to day life can be messier and less consistent, but those things usually hold true.
Note, habit chains can also lead to undesirable habits: if you eat fast food a lot, I’m willing to bet you pick it up on the way home from work (the middle of an action chain).
Similarly, a lot of the reason habits “inexplicably” fail is that they don’t get cued by anything. Having trouble working out on the weekends? It’s probably because you’re trying to go from lying in bed—with no compelling reason to get up—to the gym.
What do other people say about chaining?
Chaining has been one of the more popular topics on Routine Excellence. Which isn’t too surprising—it’s really effective.
At the same time, I’m not the first person to talk about the benefits of using momentum and habit chains to build healthy lifestyles.
The authors of one academic paper write:
“It seems likely however that in the flow of everyday routines, there may be certain points at which it is easier to insert a new behaviour .”
They eventually concluded that it’s easier to start a new habit if you put it at the end of a chain than at the beginning. That makes sense, since at the end of a chain you’ve already built up some momentum (they didn’t study the middle of chains).
Habits writer Steve “SJ” Scott calls this concept “habit stacking.” Using similar logic, he argues that if you’re trying to start multiple habits at once, it’s easier to batch them all together—in a “stack”—than it is to try them all individually.
As he writes:
“If you treated each component of a stack as an individual action, then you’d have to create a reminder and track each behavior, which can quickly become overwhelming. However, if you treat the entire routine as just one habit, then it will be easier to remember and complete on a consistent basis.”
If you need ideas for habits to stack or chain, his book Habit Stacking has a list of 127.
The other interesting analogy I’ve seen uses dominoes to explain routines. Instead of kicking down dominoes individually (trying to do multiple actions on their own), chaining is like putting a new domino in a line of existing dominoes—then knocking them all down in one go.
You can watch a great video explanation of that here.
The analogy comes from a channel focused on living with ADHD—but the advice on habits and routines applies to everyone.
Conclusion: Habit Stacking, Chaining, and Dominoes
I like the analogy of chaining because it makes intuitive sense to most people. I personally picture snapping on new habits like a carabiner.
But other people have used different analogies for similar concepts.
The ultimate takeaway? Relying on screaming and willpower is a bad way to build a long-term habit.
Instead, focus on finding ways to fit new habits into your existing lifestyle. You’ll be able to adopt new, healthier habits without needing to drastically change your life.
Need help using habits? I put together a 5-step guide to build strong habits using psychology. Just let me know where to send it.
(You’ll also get the free eBook 51 Motivation Tips, for when you need an extra boost)