Establishing systems and a detailed action plan ensure success


Motivation is an emotion. Emotions come and go — they come in waves.

Motivation differs in degree, intensity, and consistency depending on the person and the situation.

Exerting willpower requires awareness and the ability to consciously stop and think, “Should I have the cookie or the apple?” Willpower is akin to a “self-surveillance muscle”; like any muscle, it gets exhausted.

Motivation and willpower are fickle friends; they show-up when we are already motivated or well-rested, properly nourished, and not emotionally triggered. How unhelpful. These are not the times when any of us need help staying on our health horse. We need friends who show up when we are about to fall off the horse— friends that catch us. Sure, you might make the healthier choice when you are newly motivated (say, Monday), or in the morning before life gets crazy, but as you get tired, angry, overwhelmed, depressed, etc., you are more likely to make less- than-ideal choices.

The Solution

Harness the moments when clients are motivated to establish systems that will save them from their future less-motivated, exhausted, sad, or overwhelmed self.

Create environments — in advance — that both decrease the amount of willpower required (e.g., don’t have crap in the house so you can’t binge at 11 p.m.) and work to strengthen the willpower muscle (e.g., nail down the “why” and connect decisions to values — maybe one client’s version of exercise is planting trees to save the environment).

Think of it this way … clients will not rise to the height of their goals; they will fall to the level of their systems. Our job is to embolden clients with powerful systems so that their future less-disciplined, exhausted, and unmotivated self has no choice but to follow through.

Examples of systems:

  • Suggest your clients purge their house of all foods they don’t want their future self to consume.
  • Piggyback workouts onto something they already do (e.g., turn dog walks into intense cardio workouts, walk-on conference calls).
  • Eat from smaller plates. Drink from smaller glasses. We eat and drink less from smaller dishes.
  • Suggest bringing a healthy food item when going to someone’s house — a salad, for example — so they know they will have something nutritious to eat.
  • Recommend they portion out snacks — especially when watching TV.
  • Suggest a workout buddy or joining a sports team for accountability.
  • Encourage them to keep a workout bag in the car so they can always hop to the gym last minute.
  • If it fits their personality, find simple, creative, enjoyable, and effective ways they can “gamify” their health. Create a health challenge at home or work, explain how playing a few minutes of a pattern recognition game such as Tetris or Candy Crush can squash cravings, encourage them to find fitness allies and pinpoint villains (e.g., make a joke out of the “Evil Chair” who always wants to keep them from their workout). An excellent book to share on this topic is SuperBetter.

How to “Curate” Appropriate Systems

Follow this three-step plan to ensure that the systems you create are tailored to fit each client’s unique goals, lifestyle, age, injury history, etc.

  1. Work with clients to clarify goals. Make sure their goals reflect how much time and energy they actually have (not how much they wish they had), their finances, and their equipment.
  2. Figure out their WHAT, WHEN, HOW, and WHERE. Where and when will your client work out? Before work? After? Lunchtime? The gym? Home? What exercise will they do outside of your training sessions? If they love being outside, have them research the local ravine system or find a nature walking group. If they love group sports, have them find a convenient team to join. When do they want to accomplish their goal by? Be specific. How will they weave the new habits into their life? What accommodations do they need to make? Do they need to rearrange who will drive the kids to school? Block off time during the workday? Download fitness podcasts to train in the living room? Arrange daycare?
  3. “Pre-mortem” the plan. Figure out what might go wrong. Get them to create an “If X then Y” plan — if my child gets sick, I will work out at home; if I get called into a work lunch, I will have a salad and the inner parts of the sandwich not the bun; if I get called into a work meeting, I will take the stairs all day to get my steps in.

Main Take-Away

Motivation can provide inspiration. Goals provide the destination. Systems and a detailed action plan ensure success! Your clients will not always feel as motivated as they do in your session or on Monday morning. Help your clients create systems that set their future less-motivated self up for success.

Full magazine and article can be viewed here