Just A Little Bit: Why Big Goals Demotivate And Incremental Changes Mobilize

10 Apr

I’ve been a loyal user of the Nike Fuelband for a few years. Like many other users, I found it motivational and useful because it helped me make better decisions and look at fitness as a lifestyle, not as a one-shot deal. If I needed to earn just a few more points to make a goal, I’d go and take a walk instead of getting a ride or taking public transportation.

It helped me develop healthy habits, and in doing so became a habit itself. I was hooked! I’d upload and track my metrics very carefully daily, and always knew how many points I had at any given time. With its notion of a “streak,” they had successfully gamified momentum. It was this momentum, and my unwillingness to break it, that kept me maniacally checking my points and taking action to reach my points goal. I was engaged enough to tweet about the frustration I felt when I’d lose massive points due to time zone changes on my computer — and when I did so, the awesome social media team at Nike replenished my lost points.

Loss Of Motivation

Then one day a few months ago, Nike must’ve changed its algorithm, because all of a sudden I was getting about half the points for the same activity. My streak was broken, and the momentum evaporated faster than air from a hot air balloon. I reduced my goal pretty significantly, and still couldn’t reach it on most days. I believe that maintaining momentum is oftentimes more important than the achievement itself, so I was willing to reduce my daily goal, so that I could maintain my streak. I would meet Nike halfway, I decided. But even after reducing my goal significantly, I  could never again reach a streak. The activity that used to get 4000 points now got me somewhere between 1000 and 2000. For example, last night, I walked 3 miles (which took about an hour at a leisurely pace), but that only netted me a few hundred points. I was willing to reduce my goal, but reducing it again would’ve made me feel like a failure, which made it no longer worth it as a motivator. The Nike Fuelband lost its purpose in my life as a motivator and a momentum builder.

Now, I can no longer can tell you how many points I have or how many points I need on any given day. I go for days without looking at it, and sometimes it takes days to discover that it ran out of battery. I’ve started to take it off when it clashes with my outfit / other jewelry. I’ve stopped advocating for it publicly and privately, and it’s not very likely that I’ll buy another Fuelband when this one breaks.

Incremental Action Creates Habits

“How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!”

The thing I’ve always loved about my Fuelband is that it helped me believe that I could reach my goal every day. It never gave me a goal of losing 30 lbs, but it gave me tiny, little incremental goals that I could reach every day. And it was the sheer repetition of these small, tiny successes made me think that the bigger goal of weight loss was reachable. Because ultimately, it’s not about the Fuelband’s measurements (what the heck is 3000 points anyway?) — but rather, about cultivating the behaviors that would get me to where I need to go. And little by little, habits would form that would help me meet the bigger goal. Because that’s the thing about big goals — they are too big and scary and demotivating on their own. The only way to reach big goals is by breaking them up into small, incremental goals, that can be met with success, a little bit at a time.

This is where most New Year resolutions go awry. The goals are too big, and the multiple opportunities for disenchantment and failure almost always result in throwing in the towel. One misstep, and you are ready to throw in the entire resolution until the next year. When your goal is to lose 2 lbs a week, your motivation goes away as soon as you don’t reach that goal — and all it takes is one time. To truly have massive impact on big goals, you can’t focus on just the outcome — you need to also focus on the behaviors that will get you there.

In his book “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg explores exactly this. In his book, Duhigg illustrates the impact that frequent reward and, even more importantly, anticipation of that reward has on habit formation. Experiencing success in small, incremental steps vs. jumping head-first into a huge goal, allows your brain to experience the trigger and associated reward, eventually craving the reward and forming a habit. This is where the sweet satisfaction of a daily Fuelband goal is so powerful. Another critical piece of habit formation, per Duhigg, is going after keystone habits first. A keystone habit is the habit that is so foundational that it has a disproportionate effect on all other habits and lays the foundation to meeting your Big Goal. Much like rails on a railroad, a keystone habit accelerates all other habits.

The Role of Community

The power of community is in creating these” keystone habits” for the entire organization and the community members it serves. Observing others taking the same small steps and reaching big results is extremely motivating. Plus, as humans we are always competitive, so community members never want to be “shown up” by other members, and as a result try harder. Think about how much harder you work in a fitness class where everyone is watching you!

However, the community’s ability to achieve a single goal together, is an art and  largely hinges on the community manager’s ability to motivate momentum, through small, incremental steps on behalf of community members. Articulation, and collective reaching of, a clear vision is incredibly motivating. When each member can see that the community is moving forward by virtue of members’ contributions, and when individual’s impact directly contributes to this motion, a community can start a movement. This deserves its own post though (or a few), so more on that in a future post…

  • Alexandrina

    Can’t help but agree – I’ve experienced the same struggle with My Fitness Pal. We used to get along pretty well, until I found out I couldn’t really add any other dishes than what’s in store in the US/UK. Travelling around Europe, I started skipping days because I either couldn’t find semla in the list of foods (semla is a very traditional swedish dessert), or it would have taken me ages to submit all ingredients of a dish that I simply can’t put a name on myself. Lacking full info about my intake made me very demotivated.

    I didn’t submit a single entry for over two months, until today. Wanna know the reason? – it wouldn’t surprise you.

    I joined a couple of the people I don’t usually have lunch with today, and I noticed that everyone went silent after they finished their meal. Couple of moments after, I realised all of them were adding their tuna salad/chicken burrito to My Fitness Pal. I felt left out.

    I pulled out my phone and remembered how many times My Fitness Pal prompted me to add data. I added my salmon and pistachio, and smiled.

    (I also found out that semla was added to My Fitness Pal.)

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