The Underestimated Importance of Encouragement in Habit Change

By Leo Babauta

When we’re trying to change a habit — whether its exercise or meditation or writing or quitting smoking — there are two key factors whose power most people don’t understand.

The two factors are encouragement and discouragement.

Let me walk you through an example. Michael wants to change his diet, and so he creates a healthy meal plan for himself and commits to sticking to that plan for a month.

Here’s are some typical key points within that month of habit change:

  1. He starts the first day, and has a healthy breakfast as planned. He feels encouraged by this good start!
  2. He has a healthy lunch too, and feels encouraged. But then eats a couple donuts that were in the office, and feels really discouraged. This might cause him to eat a burger with fries in the evening, which will get him further discouraged.
  3. He asks some family and friends to keep him accountable in a private Facebook group, and they agree. He feels encouraged! He starts again.
  4. When he eats a healthy breakfast, not only does he feel encouraged, he gets even more encouragement when he gets to post his success to his Facebook group. From this point on, every time he posts his successes, he feels encouraged, and it helps him to keep going.
  5. The weekend comes, and he goes to a couple parties and does not stick to the meal plan. He feels discouraged. He stops posting for a few days on the Facebook group because he feels bad.
  6. Not posting to the group makes him feel even worse. He is discouraged. He keeps eating bad, and gets more discouraged with every meal.

As you can see, the factors of encouragement and discouragement are the two key elements of the journey above. The more encouragement he gets, the better he’s likely to do. The more he feels discouraged, the less likely he’ll be to stick to things.

Luckily for us, we can do things that increase encouragement and decrease discouragement!

Ways to Increase Encouragement and Drop Discouragement

It’s not important to get this all perfect. We can all tolerate a bit of discouragement, and overcome struggle. But the more we can move in the right direction of getting more encouragement, the better our chances of success.

So let’s look at some great ways to increase encouragement:

  1. Get support from others (including joining my Sea Change Program) for your change — report to them regularly, ask them to encourage you.
  2. When things go astray, talk to yourself with encouragement. “You can do this! Get back on track, take the smallest step.” And so on. It’s a key skill.
  3. Put up motivational quotes, inspiration, success stories.
  4. Chart your progress. Show how far you’ve come.
  5. Reward yourself (don’t use food if you’re trying to change your diet, don’t use buying things if you’re getting out of debt).
  6. Mindfully enjoy the actual habit (like finding mindful gratitude as you exercise).
  7. Do the habit with others (go for a walk with other people).
  8. Give yourself stickers.

As you can see, these can be small encouragements. But they make a huge difference.

Some ways to decrease discouragements:

  1. When you mess up or go off your plan … note when you’re feeling discouraged. Reframe this moment as less of a “failure” and more of an opportunity to practice two key habit skills: encouraging yourself and starting again. If you work on these two skills, you’ll get really good at changing habits.
  2. When you miss reporting to people, note your discouragement. Reach out to one person and ask for support and encouragement. Tell them you’re embarrassed you haven’t been reporting, and commit to doing one small step.
  3. When you’re overwhelmed and feeling discouraged, focus on the smallest next step.
  4. When you have a habit streak going (which is encouraging when it is happening), but then the streak breaks (it goes from 47 days in a row to 0!) … notice the discouragement. Instead, think of the cumulative days you’ve been doing the habit, instead of the streak. Notice how much progress you’ve made.
  5. When you feel like you’ve let yourself and others down, practice self-compassion. This is a truly great habit skill to practice.

There are other good ways to decrease discouragement, but the main method is to notice when you’re discouraged, and find ways to encourage yourself, to reframe it as an opportunity, to practice self-compassion, to ask for support, to pick one small step and start again.