You feel great the first week.
The second week, it feels a little harder, but you stick to the plan.
By the third week, you’re starting to falter. You know what you’re supposed to do, but your diet and workout program has become a burden.
You decide to focus on another goal instead.
Don’t feel bad — the same thing has happened to many people. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Steven Michael Ledbetter, aka Coach Stevo, is going to show you a better way to accomplish your goals. Steven is one of the leading habit-based coaches in the world, and he’s helped hundreds of people transform their habits.
In this podcast, he’s going to teach you how to identify and prioritize your goals, and develop habits that make reaching those goals much easier.
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How to Use Biofeedback with a Training Program by Dave Dellanave
Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney
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**Armi Legge:** Why is it so hard to stick to good habits? Why is it hard to make yourself go to the gym, prepare healthy meals, and go to bed on time? You know what you need to do but sticking to the plan is the hard part. Normally, you’re told that you need to rely on willpower and motivation and sometimes that’s true, but those aren’t the only solutions, nor are they the best ones. In this podcast, you’ll learn a better method.
My name is Armi Legge, and you are listening to Evidence Radio, the podcast that helps you simplify your health and fitness using the latest scientific research so you can move on with your life.
Steven Michael Ledbetter, AKA “Coach Stevo,” is going to show you how to accomplish your goals using habits so you can maintain the changes you’ve made with less effort. Steven is one of the leading habit-based coaches in the world. In this podcast, he’s going to show you how to use the latest behavioral psychology research to identify and prioritize your goals and then develop habits to make reaching those goals much easier.
So, Steven, thank you for coming on the podcast. Your name is Steven Ledbetter. How would you describe yourself, man? You’re kind of a coach but you’re also really into the behavioral psychology side of things as well.
**Steven Ledbetter:** I usually describe myself as a coach because I go by “Coach Stevo.” The only real difference is my background. I have a masters degree in Health Psychology and about 400 hours of supervised counseling skills so I do a lot of what would look like counseling. It’s really motivational intervening. It’s to help get my clients moving forward.
I work exclusively in groups because I believe that groups are not only more efficient but a better platform for permanent change.
**Armi Legge:** Interesting. Do you work with groups for your online training as well?
**Steven Ledbetter:** Yes, exclusively. Right now I’ve got about 150 people doing some sort of group habit change with me or a couple of other coaches who are using my habit change system that I developed as a graduate school thesis and is now what I do.
**Armi Legge:** Great. OK. I actually learned about you pretty recently through Georgie Fear and Roland Fischer. I’ve heard you guys were working together. I love those people. They said you were great and after reading some of your stuff, I was like, “God, I have to have this guy on the podcast.”
One of the things I like about what you’ve written about is most coaches have a system about assessing movement, whether it’s strength or mobility or anything else, but they don’t really have a system for assessing your goals and helping you prioritize them or the habits you need to get there.
There are some gyms where they give it lip service like, “What are your goals? Oh, you want to add muscle. Hit the gym, we’ll do that.”
What is your system for assessing some of these goals and them helping them prioritize them?
**Steven Ledbetter:** Well, I think it’s important to say that, much like the other assessments that we coaches do, an assessment only works if you keep doing it. There’s the initial assessment that I do on day one when I’m meeting someone or when they contact me through my website and that is pretty structured. It goes through movement history, food history, a lot of questions about– I think any coach would probably ask “have you ever deadlifted before? Do you eat colorful vegetables?” That kind of stuff.
Then, in order to assess motivation and to see where people are at in terms of how they’re thinking about the change that they’re going to make, I have a number of tools– a couple of which I’ve written about in “Unseen Degrees”– that are designed to get people thinking about this being a process and a series of small changes and to get people to think about the context in which they’re making them.
Those are the two goals of my assessment. They’re actually get people to start thinking about that stuff and to see where they’re at in that process. One of the tools I use is something called “5-3 First.” It evolved because I noticed that so many people have so many goals when they come to a personal trainer or come to me. Most of those goals are just people saying what they think I want to hear. So much of it is, “I want to get toned.” Well, I don’t think you need to increase your muscle tone unless you have multiple sclerosis, in which case I am the wrong person to talk to. And that’s just a code word. It’s just a little shibboleth that people use to say, “I want the same thing that you want, coach,” without really thinking about what that is.
I get people to list everything they want to do. This is the classic “I want to run a marathon, get sexier arms, have a six pack, gain 40 pounds of muscle, lose 30 pounds.” It’s everything. And, “I don’t care when.” Of those, I say to pick their top five goals. Of those, they pick three. Then I ask them which of those three goals they want to work on first because something that Diana really talks about in “Critically Irrational” is people are far more motivated usually by a fear of loss than a hope of gain.
So by getting people to start prioritizing their goals– we all have this reaction that we’re giving up some goals, that we’re not going to be working on something. By telling people this is the one you’re going to work on first, it informs people there is going to be a process. We’re going to do this thing, then this thing, and then this thing. And it lowers that fear that they’re not going to get to all of them and meet them all.
Now, from experience as a coach, we all know we’re probably not going to get the six pack, the sexy arms, run the marathon, deadlift 750 pounds, etc., but we start making a concerted effort into prioritizing the goals. Now that’s a lot of explanation for just a really simple thing of “list everything, pick five, pick three, and then which one do you want to do first,” but it’s a really powerful tool to get people to start thinking in terms of process and context rather than just “here is the stuff I think you want me to want.”
**Armi Legge:** Yeah. I think that’s really true. I even found that, as a more self-coached guy, that it’s very hard to help yourself prioritize and working with a coach is one of the best ways to do that. But one of the things I like about the 5-3 First system is people without a coach can still use this in a very simple way without getting overwhelmed.
Do you want to add to that?
**Steven Ledbetter:** Yeah. The next thing that I usually do in that process, and there is more to this, I’m going to gloss over it. Once people have a goal, I think it’s very important to realize that we are not most people’s first priority and if we were, they probably wouldn’t be paying us because they would be able to change their habits on their own. So as a coach, I need to find where the goals me and my client have are going to fit into their life.
Usually I make a sign with my hands, “what is the shape of this?” In order to find the shape of how much time, energy, dedication, etc. I can expect from them, or they can expect from themselves– it’s more important that they know than I know– I start asking them what they would be willing to do or not do in order to meet their goals, including simple questions like “would you be willing to wake up an hour earlier?” Usually, people say yes. Some people say no. That’s OK.
This is important. Don’t judge any of the answers! There is no right answer. It’s just the answer you’re going to get and, as a coach, you’ve got to work with it.
The questions can vary from “will you wake up earlier” to “would you be willing to sacrifice the future health of your body?” “Would you be willing to sacrifice time with your kids?” And it’s important to ask these sometimes silly, sometimes big, broad questions because most of the time, people think when they’re coming to a coach on the very first day that– their motivation is the highest it’s going to be. They’re made this decision, they’re feeling great. They might have given you money. Their motivation is very high but that’s not sustainable. It comes in waves. B.J. Fogg talks about the waves of motivation very eloquently.
It’s important to get people to understand what the sustainable amount of work they can put in and give them a path that’s always going to moving them forward, no matter how tiny that step is. I’ve got a series of about 25 questions that I ask that as the standard, “would you be willing to do this? Would you be willing to do that?” to get an idea of where things just fit and what the first habit we’re going to work on is.
**Armi Legge:** Right. I think it’s great to have it structured so you can move them through a logical progression of these questions. So what other techniques do you use to gauge someone’s motivation and dedication to their goals? As you said, a lot of people say what they think a trainer wants them to hear or wants them to do without really thinking about how it’s going to fit into their lives. How do figure out their motivation?
**Steven Ledbetter:** The key is to ask questions that don’t have “yes or no” answers. That assessment I just gave had a lot of yes or no answers, but in a way of getting into open ended questions– questions that start with “how” and “how much” and “what,” questions that you can’t answer with a “yes” or “no.” Asking questions like, let’s say you’re not willing to wake up earlier in the morning, “Tell me more about your morning schedule and why it is that is such an important time for you.” You’re trying to get an idea of what we’re working with.
In terms of longer term motivation, when I’m asking these questions, I am looking for motivations that produce things that– the buckets come from a theory called “self-determination theory,” which says that motivation is multi-variant, meaning we do things for lots of reasons and some of those reasons are higher quality than others. I am looking for things like guilt and shame in one bucket, things like identification with values, that’s a part of who they are, which is a strong and sustainable motivation, and the obvious things like “I want to do this because it’s fun,” the intrinsic motivation. I am looking for these things and keeping track of them so we can bring them up later when motivation starts to wane.
Most of the questions that I use come from a standard questionnaire called the “Behavioral Regulations and Exercise Questionnaire II (revised).” Just look up BREQ-2. It’s available online. You don’t have to ask every question. I stopped using it as a structured thing because it’s pretty intense for some people, but you get some great questions to ask to figure out where people are at, what’s driving them, and the quality of the motivations that are driving them. I definitely recommend the BREQ-2.
**Armi Legge:** I am going to have to look it up and I’ll put it up on the show notes for this episode on Evidence Mag as well. One of the things you’ve also written about is the question “why.” You kind of alluded to it just now, but digging deeper into the motivation of why people want to do something. But to share a recent story from myself, I was hitting on this girl in a bar recently and we were talking about her job.
**Steven Ledbetter:** This seems relevant!
**Armi Legge:** No, no, no. Trust me, trust me. We were talking about her job and she said she hated it and wanted to do something else. I asked, “why?” And she got pretty offended and it made me think. That was fine, but it made me think that “why” is a pretty polarizing question.
When you were asking that to a client, how do you make sure that you’re not coming across as overbearing or over questioning or challenging them while still digging into their motivation?
**Steven Ledbetter:** This is actually something that we get hammered with pretty hard. You’re exactly right. “Why” puts people on the defensive. It sounds acquisitory but it’s the most important question for understanding motivation. You have to learn how to ask “why” without using the word “why.”
That 5-3 First tool is a great way to ask people the word “why” without ever using the word. What you’re doing is getting themselves to ask themselves “why is this more important than that? Why is this a higher priority for me than this?” You never use the word “why” as a coach, but you’re getting them to ask themselves why, which is a lot more palatable.
Open-ended questions are another great way to get at that. It’s almost impossible to ask an open-ended question on a form without genuinely being interested in the answer, which at the end of the day is the most important thing. You have to be genuinely interested in connecting with your client. That is just empathy. I really think that coaches get into this business because we are genuinely interested in our clients.
Most coaches I’ve taught this to don’t need help with empathy, but it’s a matter of forming questions that are open-ended, come from a place of genuine interest, and no judgment. We can get to a lot of motivation by asking those types of questions.
Please throw this in the show notes, too. It’s the book that I recommend every coach buy and sleep with under their pillow, and that’s “Motivational Interviewing for Healthcare Professionals.” Motivational interviewing is a style of– I wouldn’t say counseling because it’s coaching. There is an end goal to it unlike most counseling. It’s practicing asking open-ended questions among some other things. I think it’s really important coaches get good at asking open-ended questions. It’s a skill you can practice and a skill you can practice on other people, not just your clients if that’s too high a bar.
Learning to ask open-ended questions to get to the whys better than asking “why” will.
**Armi Legge:** Interesting. It’s kind of attacking it from a different angle but really getting what you want from it.
**Steven Ledbetter:** Yeah. I’ve been coaching for about six and a half years. One of the things that I learned very quickly is a lot of people have a lot of expectations. In fact, everyone has expectations when they enter into a new relationship and so on. Someone is now paying you money to help them with something. I’ll tell a story to explain this better.
When I was a brand new baby coach, I had just gotten my CSES and had gotten my first job at a gym, where I was hired specifically because I was a dude who wasn’t creepy. That was the only qualification that I had. A 79-year old woman came up to me at 6am. She had just come straight from mass on a Wednesday. She said that her trainer hadn’t shown up for three straight sessions and she wanted a new one. I said, “Great! If I’m good at anything, it’s showing up.”
She said her doctor said she needed to lose 15 pounds. I said that shouldn’t be a problem. With these changes in diet and exercise, I know we can make some headway. She just cut me off. She said, “yeah, yeah, yeah. I know what to do. I just can’t make myself do it. I’m paying you to make me do it.”
I actually had the thought, “the only qualification I have is I know what to do and I can tell you how to do it. That’s the only thing I know how to do. I don’t know anything about how to make you do it.” That was the big moment for me. I realized I needed to go to graduate school. I needed more tools than I had to help people, because I saw my clients’ failures of motivation as a failure of me as a coach. I was missing something.
One of the things I learned is that asking people why they were coming to see me first, “what is it you need from me?” it was “why do you need a coach? Why are you paying me?” helped establish that rapport and relationship faster than almost anything. The key to that is coming from different angles. Asking unexpected questions. Posing unexpected ways of doing things. And meeting people in a different context than they were probably prepared for. Those help to get to those underlying motivators pretty fast. I hope that story and all that stuff made sense as a cohesive thought.
**Armi Legge:** That helped a lot and I think that’s what I’ve been struggling with as a writer, too. You want to keep writing about setting up macronutrient ratios and all of that typical stuff that most coaches focus on, yet most of my readers and many people know that stuff already. It’s figuring out how to make it easy or other methods that are easier for them to actually do it.
**Steven Ledbetter:** It’s important to point out that I have gravity toward working with my favorite type of client, those going from nothing to anything. While I think it’s very important to note things like micronutrient balances and physiology, we call that “given.” As a coach, you just need to know that stuff. The problem is that only gets you half way, if that. I would say it only gets you 20% of the way there.
As soon as you start talking about macronutrients, our clients’ eyes glaze over and they’re like, “Oh shit, another thing I’ve got to fucking figure out. Thanks, coach.” Really, it’s our job to connect that stuff to people’s lives and to help them integrate that into how they’re already living to make it as easy as possible. They’re coming to us because they usually want to make things easier on themselves and they’re willing to outsource something in their life. Finding what that is and helping them with that means making their life easier, not harder.
**Armi Legge:** I completely agree. Most of the people who listen to this podcast and read the website are a little more obsessive about this stuff– bodybuilders, competitive athletes. As you said, it’s a given. The macronutrients and that kind of thing are given. They’re focusing all of their energy on that stuff rather than focusing on simple behavior change. And then it doesn’t stick. They’re not able to maintain their goals.
**Steven Ledbetter:** I have a great story for that. I was working with a client who was more elite. They get paid to do their sport and they needed help getting bigger. They knew how to get bigger. You want to get bigger, you eat more food. You can get bigger.
His problem was that he needed help putting that in the context of his life. I’m not saying he called me up saying, “I need help putting this in the context of my life” but the reality of his situation once I got to know him and assess him was he was worried this wasn’t going to work. I think everyone has that little fear in the back of their head.
Most of our conversations were about, “OK, you know that you need to eat more food.” We talked about the macronutrients and the balance and all that stuff. I’m not going to say I left that out. It was very important part of the discussion. However, that was 15 minutes. The other 45 minutes was, “OK, you’re going to the gym and you’re going to be carrying around chicken nuggets and packets of honey to hit your macronutrients. What are you going to say when the other people in the gym say, ‘What the fuck are you doing eating chicken nuggets with honey? Aren’t you afraid of getting fat?'” And we just role played stuff like that. It was a fun game to help him have the tools necessary to keep focused on his goals, because a lot of people were going to be asking him a lot of weird questions and he needed answers.
That was his big fear. That he wasn’t going to have good answers for those questions. So 45 minutes out of an hour long session was role playing people talking to him. We took care of the macronutrient stuff because he was a smart guy and he knew that stuff already. It was the other stuff, the context, the relationships, that kind of thing that he needed the most help with.
**Armi Legge:** That’s really interesting. I think it’s funny because most people and athletes know that if you want to train for something, you have to be specific. If you want to get bigger, lift weights in a certain way. That kind of thing.
**Steven Ledbetter:** Yeah. But it’s hard.
**Armi Legge:** It’s definitely hard, but we also don’t look at that in other contexts. Like, “OK, I know I might get some social pressure to not eat this way at the gym if I want to get bigger,” but we don’t think about actually training for this incidences like you did with this guy. I think that’s really interesting.
**Steven Ledbetter:** Honestly, I don’t work with that many athletes. I work with sedentary people, but I learned those questions and I learned to think about that stuff by working with sedentary people.
One of my little slogans is “the best of the best are the basics.” For the most part, most people are trying to blow through the basics to get to the advanced or intermediate stuff. Even when I get an advanced athlete like this person, they needed some help with some basic stuff, just like we all do. I have a laser focus on looking at the foundational stuff and making sure it is shored up before we build on top of it. It just makes all the work later easier, better, and more sustainable and permanent.
I think that everyone has got that stuff. If you think of this like a physical assessment, where you do a test of– I’ve been a mentee of Dan Johnson for three years– if you look at his five human movements, push, pull, pinch squat, load, and carry, and you see a client with a gap there, your job is pretty easy. A gap in loaded carry is easy to fix. You give them loaded carries. The same is true with a more inclusive assessment of motivation. If you’ve got someone who doesn’t find any joy in what they do, maybe you should help them find something they like doing.
It’s the same simple “find what’s missing, fix it” mentality that goes along with most of what we’re used to in coaching. It’s just a little bit of a broader look at it.
**Armi Legge:** Right. Speaking of finding what’s wrong and fixing it, one of the other things you’ve written about is looking at people’s perceptions of their goals. In this regard, that means whether they should do something or whether they want to do something. You had a really good technique you wrote about for helping them see how much pressure they put on themselves for accomplishing something vs. more internal motivation. Would you say what that is?
**Steven Ledbetter:** I think you’re talking about my hashes. This is something I got from my counseling supervisor. If you’re talking to clients, a key word you will hear a lot is the word “should.” “Should” is a very specific word in self-determination theory. “Should” means guilt. Should means this is expected of me. It doesn’t mean I want to do it. When I’m working with a client, especially on the first day or a day they might be a little bit off and I notice a lot of the word “should,” then I just start counting it. I just start making little hash marks on a piece of paper or on a white board if it’s in a group because a large group setting, people will start to say “should” and it becomes to a new normal. Other people say “should” and I just start counting it.
I don’t judge it. I just start counting it. I don’t even say what I’m doing and people will ask me what I’m counting. I will say, “this is the number of times you said the word ‘should.'” Are there any other reasons you want to do this other than you feel like you should?
It makes them aware of things, first of all, which is most of our job. And it gets people to think about other reasons they want to do this activity, change their diet, whatever. And it’s a really powerful tool for thinking not just from moving people from “should” to “want” or from “want” to “need,” which is an even higher form of motivation, but it’s also good for counting things like people talking negatively about themselves. If people start saying, “I suck at this,” all those damaging mental phrases that keep people stuck, you can just start counting those.
This doesn’t take an advanced degree in psychology to do. It’s just counting what people are saying. It’s just helping them become more aware of it. It’s a neat little tool for expanding someone’s awareness of the way they’re thinking and the way those thoughts have an impact on their action.
**Armi Legge:** Yeah, I like that trick especially because it’s something people can do on their own. Obviously, I think it’s best to have a coach for that kind of thing, but . . .
**Steven Ledbetter:** It’s just outside perspective. In fact, I teach people do this to each other. When I’m doing it in groups, I will have people partner up and do it that way. I’m a strong believer that the best thing you can do as a coach is teach people to coach each other. One, because it is usually far more effective to come from a peer than from the person they’re paying. It also means you can work with more clients at one time.
I think this is really great stuff. You just need an outside perspective. That’s all it is. By doing it in a group, you can make that positive way of making a new normal. That is usually what people need. They just need to see that it’s OK.
**Armi Legge:** I love that. I think it also gives people a feeling of being more empowered, too. “I actually know what I’m doing. I’m working on this myself. I’m not just working on this goal when I’m with my coach.” One of the other things you’ve written about, too, is giving people more flexibility and control in their programming, whether it’s exercise or diet or whatever. Would you talk about why that is so effective?
**Steven Ledbetter:** Speaking of unexpected, when people come to my classes or my backyard– I teach anyone who shows up at my front door at 9:00am for free in my backyard. One of the most unexpected things is I start with asking people questions about what they want to do that day. I turn the control over to people almost immediately.
The most important factor in motivating people, the most important quality you can maximize as a coach is autonomy. You’re letting people know the choice is there at every available opportunity and letting people make those decisions, and honoring those choices, and not judging them.
In self-determination theory, autonomy is the most important factor in determining whether or not someone has high quality motivation. There are a lot of ways I do that as a coach. The way I do it is letting people check in immediately when I get there and say “this is what I want to work on today.” A lot of times, people will come in and say, “ah!” They are feeling like they want to do a certain thing. They want to press heavy or they want to squat that day. They want to go hard. Or the opposite– they want to go easy. They’ve had a tough day. Giving them the space to say that stuff lets them feel like they are involved in the process and that is a very motivating thing.
Letting people pick sets and reps. Letting people pick movement. Letting them do that. I think Dave Dellanave at Movement Minneapolis did an incredibly good job of this with his biofeedback training. I’ve written about this before, but I think it’s a very structured way of giving people as much autonomy as possible in a safe manner. I’ve used very similar techniques to let people pick their own movement, load, and all that stuff for exercise, but I also do it for food and other lifestyle choices by a couple of things.
One is we work on one habit at a time. I let them negotiate what that habit is. If we’re working in a group, we might all be working on the same habit, but everyone gets to negotiate how hard we’re going to go. If the habit is eating less sugar, I let people pick their own target for how much less sugar they’re going to eat. Is it 50%? Is it 70% less sugar? The key metric for that for me is if they’re 90% – 100% confident that they can do that habit for two weeks, then we’re dialed in. We’ve got the right number.
I let people pick how many meals they’re going to eat colorful vegetables. I let people pick what changes they’re going to make to their sleep environment in order to maximize their sleep quality. It’s always a negotiation. I make suggestions. I justify those suggestions, but I let people make the final choice and I do not judge that choice.
**Armi Legge:** Excellent. Now one of the things you just talked about is habits and forming habits. Something you wrote about recently too is a lot of people don’t understand the actual definition of a habit. You mentioned a new review that came out by Gardner and a few others on this topic. Would you discuss that and tell us what the difference is between, say, a habit and a routine and why that matters?
**Steven Ledbetter:** Yeah. I’m going to apologize in advance for getting into some deeply academic semantics but it’s part of what I do and something I have fun with.
In the strict definition of a habit from an academic standpoint is an autonomic response to an external or internal trigger and it happens, by definition, under your level of consciousness. It just happens. It’s called reflexive thought. It’s a reflex.
Most of the stuff that we consider habits are not really habits. A real habit is not brushing your teeth every day. A strict definition of a habit would be like all of the stuff you do when you’re driving that you don’t have to think about. Moving your hand at the wheel in a certain place to keep within the lines. How much pressure on the gas pedal to keep a gap with the person you’re behind. All that stuff happens without you thinking.
Beyond that strict definition, what I think is a more useful definition is something like “routine,” which is a blend of intentional, reflective thought and habit stuff. The problem is that the strict definitions aren’t as useful as the fact this is a spectrum of behavior and a routine would be something like making a coffee every morning. A lot of stuff with making coffee you can do without focusing and thinking about it hard. But some stuff, like pouring water into the French press, you have to think about. But for the most part, you don’t have to think about it very hard.
Another example would be a sport. If you’re really good at soccer, you don’t have to think too much about how to maneuver the ball. You’re thinking about strategy and tactics and getting around the person in front of you.
Even further down the spectrum to something that’s really intentional thought would goal-setting, making a plan, that sort of stuff. That’s a spectrum of thinking. Habit, which is just pure, habituated, unthinking, and then really intentional goal-setting stuff. Then you have everything in between which is sort of a blend.
When I talk about habit based coaching and when I’m working with a client to make a new habit, I’m not using the word accurately. I’m not using it academically. Everything is sort of a routine. It’s a blend of that stuff because if you’re only using pure, academic habits, and I would say this is something like the “Tiny Habit” program from B.J. Fogg is really that end of the spectrum, you’re working in a murky area because one of funniest things about habit formation studies is we are really fucking terrible at finding out what our triggers are on our own, without some sort of objective, third party help. People are really bad at knowing what triggers that behavior.
And that’s OK. You slide up that spectrum to thinking that has more intention to it. You can kind of override how hard that is, which is where I like to work. Right into the meat of the stuff where people are making intentional choices that have some habituation to it to make things easier down the line.
I warned you that was going to be a complicated, semantic argument, but you asked me anyway and now here we are.
**Armi Legge:** Our listeners are a bunch of nerds, they’ll love this. That is interesting. This will affect some of my writing it sounds like. People tend to be crappy at figuring out what triggers a behavior, is that correct?
**Steven Ledbetter:** Yeah. The trigger itself. Looking at one example, people will say, “I’m an emotional eater.” I’m not saying they’re wrong. The question is what emotions in what context with what food? All of that stuff you need to think about. It’s not like you can go, “I had a sad today and then I ate a pint of ice cream.” It’s usually not that clear. It’s usually a lot more complicated. Finding that trigger that makes people reach for that little bit more food than they need is really hard to find, and I would argue so hard to find that it’s almost not worth looking for.
We can get to it in different ways. We can work around the problem. We can work around it to find the root of the problem. There are a lot of other ways to do it. But that’s my background in cognitive behavioral therapy. There’s a little bit of thinking to make it while you’re working to the awareness building. Just going straight to “what’s your trigger?” is not usually as fruitful as “let’s make a new intention and try to change this behavior from multiple angles.”
**Armi Legge:** Right. That’s definitely going to affect a lot of the information I put out. I was working on an article today where I was recommending to people to just look for the trigger to a behavior. I’m going to have to revise that, so thank you.
**Steven Ledbetter:** Some things are easy like Pavlov’s bell, but most things are hard.
**Armi Legge:** Yeah. Well let’s talk a little bit more about why it is hard to maintain a routine. So after reading the book “Willpower” after it first claim out, I got really nerdy about willpower depletion and all that stuff.
**Steven Ledbetter:** Great book!
**Armi Legge:** Yeah, I love the book. As you wrote recently, it sounds like some of those ideas have come under a little more scrutiny lately. Would you talk to us about–
**Steven Ledbetter:** I’ll be a bit more clear about that.
**Armi Legge:** Closer examination. I’ll just say it’s been getting more press recently and it’s becoming more well known about the effects of willpower in our daily lives. Would you talk a little bit about how willpower works and how we can make the most of it?
**Steven Ledbetter:** I think we can say– and when I say “we,” I mean the body of knowledge would indicate that resisting or cushion to make an action happen, or resisting temptation costs something. The question is we don’t exactly know what it costs. The more we do it, the worse we get at it in the short term. In the long term, the more we do it, the better we get at it. That’s called the strength model of willpower. The more you try to resist, the more to do something in small, tiny increments, much like strength training, the better you’ll get at it.
Now if you try to do everything at once, like if you go, “I want to get stronger, so I’m going to do 100 bodyweight back squats,” you’re probably going to hurt yourself at worst, and at best it’s not going to work. The best way to use willpower in our practice is to be aware that it’s there and be aware that it costs something and optimize for it.
One of the things we know about willpower is that we have more of it in the morning than at night. We have it better on a fresh night of sleep and on a full stomach than we do on an empty stomach and no sleep. So make your hardest decisions in the morning.
The trick I use is set yourself up to make good decisions in the morning and then at night, make the context of not making that decision so abhorrent that you have to make it. That would mean instead of saying, “oh, I’ll go to the gym later,” set yourself up so that going to the gym is the easiest of all your possible options in the evening.
Be aware that willpower exists. Decision fatigue is a similar concept that is a little more simple, but the idea is the same. The more decisions you make, the harder it is to make better ones later. Setting yourself up for success means making the harder decisions in the morning, using the most willpower there, and that can mean a lot of things for a lot of different people and it’s important to talk to your client what those hard things are and not just assume, for example, that going to the gym is the hardest part. I have worked with clients for whom the hardest part of going to the gym was picking out the clothes to wear. We can talk about that being silly or whatever, but for that client, it took more willpower to pick out her outfit than it did to get to the gym. So making that decision when you’re in the best possible state to make it and to just get it over with would be– what I would suggest for just being aware that willpower is a thing that costs something and setting yourself up for success means navigating your willpower reserves.
**Armi Legge:** In that case, using the example of trying to pick out clothes, would that be something, say, she could do the morning of to help make that an easier decision?
**Steven Ledbetter:** In her particular situation, it was easier to do it the night before because she felt less rushed. Feeling a sense of overwhelm and anxiety definitely depletes willpower temporarily because we’re using so much of it to keep from freaking out. In that case, doing it the night before was a better way to do it.
However, if you worked out in the afternoon, it probably would have been better to do that in the morning. That was just a particular example. Let me think of a different example here.
If you’re a runner and the only way you’re going to run is in the evening, I’d suggest things like before leaving for work in the morning, put your shoes in the way so that you have to step over them. The easiest thing to do would be to just put on your running shoes than maneuver around them. Things like that make it easier to make the right decision and harder to make the decision you don’t want to make.
**Armi Legge:** I am glad you mentioned that, too. Normally when you look at the research, you say, “OK. Your willpower is highest in the morning, it depletes during the day, therefore I should make all my hard decisions in the morning.” I’m glad you mentioned that with the example of clothing, because for her, it was not the case. You do have to customize that.
**Steven Ledbetter:** Yeah. I have my bachelors in philosophy. I went to the University of Chicago, where famously the answer is always “it depends.” That stuck with me. This stuff is always a little more complicated. Everything is always a little more complicated and our job is to help make it less complicated for our clients while recognizing there is always going to be nuance.
Willpower research would be easier to say “it would be easier in the morning than at night,” but if you actually investigate your client’s behavior, ask them when they feel the most rested and ready to make the best decisions, for some people it might not be the morning. However, if you can do something that might make that context better for them, like getting them to set their alarm an hour earlier and get them to enjoy their morning time more, it might be the morning becomes a good place to put stuff.
And I’ve had clients where, before we were ever going to make a change in diet an exercise, we needed to get them some mental space to make better decisions. That meant setting the alarm 30 minutes earlier. It’s getting them in the habit of waking up 30 minutes earlier. Even if they hit the snooze button three times, it still bought them 10 minutes. That 10 minutes was a place where they could put some good behavior.
To summarize that, the best thought would be from Richard Bryant, who’s one of the co-founders of the self-determination theory, you can’t motivate anyone. It’s impossible to motivate someone. The only thing you can do is create an environment where people feel emotionally safe to motivate themselves.
A lot of the stuff we do is create a context in which people create better decisions. That example of giving people a little more time in the morning, a little more breathing room, a little more space, that little trick I do when people arrive in my background and I say, “what do you guys want to do?”– it gives people that emotional space to make better decisions. It’s really simple and a lot of times, it’s unexpected. People don’t realize they’re going to get that and it can be wonderful. Going out of your way to make someone’s life a little easier, to give someone a little more mental space sets them up for making all kinds of better decisions that all cascade on each other as they feel more and more confident that this is possible.
**Armi Legge:** Steven, I think that is a great way to wrap this up. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today. Would you tell our listeners a little bit more about what they can do to help enhance their knowledge about this topic in the future?
**Steven Ledbetter:** Sure! Luckily, I publish a blog called “Unseen Degrees” that is at unseendegrees.com. If you want to know what that means, you’ll have to look at the blog.
Unseen Degrees is a place for coaches to talk about and to learn more about how to habit-based coaching, motivation, willpower, and more importantly, specific tools that other coaches are using or that come from the academic literature to help their clients more.
To that end, as part of Unseen Degrees, I’m hosting an unconference. A conference for people who have been in this field for awhile, who are super nerdy, super interested in changing people’s behavior on September 27th in Salt Lake City. And it’s a place for people to come together and have fruitful conversations to learn more tools about how to actually help their clients. It’s not a place for people to get talked at by experts. It’s a place for people to join in the conversation and change the way that we think about training people. We think about changing lives. September 27th in Salt Lake City. You can check out Unseen Degrees for all that information. I’m hoping for it to become a series and to really change the way we think about working with people.
**Armi Legge:** Steven, I certainly hope I can make it to that. I don’t think I have anything going on so you may see me there.
**Steven Ledbetter:** Fantastic!
**Armi Legge:** Yeah, I’d love to. I hope everybody else listening to this at least checks it out. Hopefully you can make it. I hope you got something out of this, too. I think it’s a very different approach to coaching than what a lot of people are used to. In many ways, I think it’s a better approach. So Steven, thank you for coming on the show and hopefully we’ll have you on here again.
**Steven Ledbetter:** Thanks very much!
**Armi Legge:** Awesome.
**Steven Ledbetter:** Have a good day.
**Armi Legge:** See you, man. Thanks.
Everything we talked about on today’s podcast will be listed on evidencemag.com/habit-success.
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