Motivate healthy habits: What steps do you need to take?

Do any of these beliefs really ring true for you?

  • “Motivation is all you need!
  • “It’s just a question of willpower.”
  • “Take control and charge of your life!”
  • “Set goals and put a plan into action.”

If only life were so simple and rational.

Simple, but also not so simple

What’s missing from this logical formula? Why you resist healthy behavior change, despite your best intentions? Emotional resistance is the crucial component that drives your unhealthy habits. If you do not understand the strength of this negative force, you will underestimate the complexity of behavior change. Learn how to lower your emotional resistance before you can develop effective motivation to change.

Explore the challenge of changing your unhealthy habits. What are you emotionally up against? If you underestimate your challenge, you may become over-confident (I can quit drinking any time). If you overestimate your challenge, you may lack the confidence to change (I feel hopeless about losing weight).

Step 1: Understand your challenge

Use a decision balance to clarify your issues about change
Identify the issues that hinder and help your prospects of changing. Then, assess your resistance and motivation, based on what you think and how you feel. “I think that I should change but I don’t feel like it” is universal human experience. If you only listen to your head (I can quit drinking any time), you may fall into the “good intention” trap. If you only feel resistance in their heart (I feel hopeless about quitting smoking), you may think that you will never change: a discouraging, self-fulfilling prophecy.

Assess your competing priorities
What are the competing priorities in your life that make it difficult for you to change? Is your life out of balance, with too many tasks and too little time? How could you go about changing your priorities, especially if you are running on empty? Where do you begin? 

>> Secrets to setting health priorities

Will you invest the emotional energy to work through your ambivalence, rather than retreat from it? Are you willing to probe and explore your competing priorities, with the goal of creating a healthier future?

Evaluate your energy level to change
How much energy can you devote to making changes in your unhealthy habits? What is draining your energy: worry, anxiety or depression? What would help to restore your energy level so you can really work on change?

Examine your motives
Why are you changing? Are you feeling like you are apathetic about changing? Do you think that you must, should or ought to change? Are you changing because other people want you to change? Or, are you changing because it is really important for you — or is it a mixture of these motives? Do these motives change over time? Where are you now?

Step 2: Mastering the process of change

Is your head (I think that I should change) and heart (…but I don’t feel like it) working against one another. Learn how to U-turn your emotional resistance into effective motivation so that your head and heart on working together on change.

Explore your perceptions about risks, benefits and harms

  • Do you maximize the upside of your unhealthy habit?
  • Do you minimize the downside of your unhealthy habit?
  • Do you maximize the downside of change?
  • Do you minimize the upside of change?
  • Understanding how your perceptions perpetuate your unhealthy habit is essential before you can effectively change these perceptions. Do you avoid thinking about how you are wasting your health for short-term emotional gain? What would it take to invest in your health?

Lower your emotional resistance
Learn how to:

  • Minimize the upside of your unhealthy habit
  • Minimize the downside of changing your behavior

Are you willing to move out of your comfort zone to experience ambivalence about change? This process creates emotional dis-ease. Will you invest the emotional energy to work through your ambivalence, rather than retreat from it? Are you willing to probe and explore your competing priorities, with the goal of creating a healthier future?

Increase your motivation

  • Maximize the downside of your unhealthy habit
  • Maximize the upside of change

Are you willing to substitute the benefits of your unhealthy habits with healthy alternatives? Do you want to wait until your experience the consequences of your unhealthy habits? Or are you willing to change before they occur? If you answered no and then yes to these two questions, what is preventing you from doing what you say?

Change your values
What do you value more than your health? Is there a difference between what you say you value and what you do? What can help you do what you say?

Step 3: Rise to the challenge of making a change

Boost your confidence
Set small achievable goals to build and boost your confidence over time. Whatever you do, stop yourself (and others) from undermining your confidence. Don’t allow yourself to be your own worst enemy. Your belief that positive change is possible can be your best friend.

Enhance your ability to change
How do you know whether you are under estimating or over estimating your ability to change? What are your past successes that you can draw that demonstrate your ability to change? Work on what you need to do that will increase your ability to change

Stay on track with your action plan
Use your strengths, past successes, and lessons learned to keep yourself on track with your action plan. Ask for support from others to help you get back on track when you stray off your course of action.

Prevent backsliding to old ways
View relapses as learning opportunities, not as failures. You’re not helping yourself if you beat yourself up with your failures. Use your so-called “failures” to prevent future relapses.

Discover more ways to get motivated here!


About the author:

British-trained Dr. Rick Botelho is a professor of Family Medicine and Nursing at the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York. He wrote the guidebook Motivate Healthy Habits: Stepping Stones To Lasting Change for the general public, based on his practitioner book Motivational Practice: Promoting Healthy Habits and Self-care of Chronic Diseases. Find out more at