In this episode, I am speaking with Derek Doepker—an expert on personal development and healthy habit creation, and bestselling author of The Healthy Habit Revolution. We will talk about the most effective keys to building new habits, momentum, and motivation to take even small steps towards a better and healthier life.
- The Most EFFECTIVE Keys to Building New Habits, Momentum, and Motivation with Derek Doepker - Transcript
- How to change your habits
- How to appropriately self-reward
- How to deal with negative emotions and self-motivate
- How to avoid (tech) distraction
- The “Can I just...?” technique to help motivate oneself
- How small actions can generate self-sustaining habits
- How to interrupt bad habits
- Willpower, the placebo effect, and nuances
- How the concept of accountability helps motivate
- The Most EFFECTIVE Keys to Building New Habits, Momentum, and Motivation with Derek Doepker – Show Notes
In this podcast, Derek will cover:
- How to interrupt bad habits and change them into good ones
- How to build motivation (The simplicity will amaze you!)
- Why celebrating the small wins are crucial for building new habits
- The balance of willpower (Why we need it, and why too much is harmful)
- The power of accountability (And why it is essential in building healthy habits)
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The Most EFFECTIVE Keys to Building New Habits, Momentum, and Motivation with Derek Doepker - Transcript
Ari Whitten: Hey there! This is Ari Whitten, and welcome back to The Energy Blueprint Podcast. Today I have with me my buddy Derek Docker, who is a former—are you a former rock guitarist or a current rock guitarist?
Derek Doepker: I’m guess once a rock guitarist, always a rock guitarist. I’m not playing in a band right now, but I guess I’ll always be a rock guitar player.
Ari Whitten: So you are a rock guitarist-turned-7x-bestselling author and personal development expert. You are also an expert on—I’m talking to you—I’m talking to my audience—he’s also an expert on habit creation and how to permanently create healthy habits in just a few minutes a day. He combines practical time-tested methods with the latest psychological discoveries on behavior change to help even the laziest procrastinators achieve their goals.
So welcome, my friend! Such a pleasure to connect with you. I know we’ve been meaning to do this for a while. We should have done it a long time ago, but we’re finally making it happen.
Derek Doepker: Yeah, it’s such an honor to be on here, Ari, because I’m a huge fan of the podcasts. I’m sure anyone who’s listening to this probably knows how amazing it is. And your Energy Blueprint Program’s useful not only for the people I recommend it to with health-coaching, but for myself. There’s so much just kind of cliché advice out there, like eat your vegetables and get enough sleep, and you were someone who really went deep on so many of these topics around health that has opened my mind. So I’m glad to be able to contribute to this.
Ari Whitten: Yeah. Awesome man. Well, thank you for the kind words. So let’s talk about how you made this shift. You were obviously in fitness, you were a health coach for a long time, you were a rock guitarist, and now you’re a personal development guru, like, being featured on… I know you’ve got some big articles placed. I think it was what, in Business Magazine and Forbes, or something like that? Where did you get published recently?
Derek Doepker: Nowadays, most of what I do is business-coaching, but that entails life-coaching, health, all of that as part of it. So entrepreneur magazine, Success.com, Forbes… a number of places like that.
Ari Whitten: Awesome. Congratulations!
Derek Doepker: Thank you.
Ari Whitten: Yeah. So you started in health-coaching and fitness, and you’ve made this transition to personal development and habit formation and that sort of thing. Talk to me about this shift for you and your story and why it is that you do what you do.
Derek Doepker: Yeah, and I would actually go back further from the health standpoint, because now I’m a health enthusiast—I have been since I was 17 years old. But when I was in high school, I was eating fast food every single night. And I remember my mom made salmon, and I’m like, I’m not going to eat that! Like, I want a McDonald’s cheeseburger and supersized Dr. Pepper. And so I actually hated anything to do with health. And what happened is, I started—one of the first shifts for me was, I read a book and it showed me basically, in the scientific details, this is what you’re doing to your body. Like, here’s how these trans fats are messing up your cells and what it’s doing to your insulin. And I started going, Oh, wait a second. Maybe that’s why I’m tired, fatigued, have acne… like the last guy finishing in gym class, these runs… And I was skinny. I wasn’t overweight, but I was—I realized that back then, these habits of mine—which I didn’t quite think of it as habits—I now realize that like, all these habits when it came to my health were affecting my life right now.
Before, I was thinking, Oh, maybe when I’m in my 50s or 60s, I’ll be health-conscious, right? When it’s gonna start to like, catch up with me. When I saw at 17 years old, the impact that these habits have, that’s what led me to ask this question—the question for anyone listening to ask, and that is: who do I want to be? And I started to think about like, 10 years into the future, 20 years into the future as an adult like, what is my identity? Do I really want to be someone who eating fast food all the time? Who’s tired, is lethargic, who is out of shape? And I just go, Ugh, no, that’s, that’s not the kind of person that I want to be.
So it really started on this identity level of going, I want to be someone—I care about myself; I want to take care of myself. And it led me to then do a total 180 to: okay, now I’m eating chicken breasts and broccoli that I’m bringing into lunch. In high school I’m working out, I put on about 30 pounds of muscle in that first year or two, or at least lean weight, and had a six pack and all this. So that got me started on my health journey, and I shared with a friend—when I was learning—I helped him lose almost 60 pounds senior year of high school.
Ari Whitten: Wow.
Derek Doepker: But then what happened, where it transitioned into coaching and the habits and the personal development was, I found a lot of people would come to me for advice. They’d be like, “Derek, I wanna lose weight,” let’s say. That’s a common thing. So, “Okay, great! Here’s what you gotta do: don’t get hammered drunk every single weekend. That’s not helping you,” and, “Cut out these foods, start to do this sort of stuff.” And I’d tell them what to do and they’d be like, “Yeah, yeah, okay. Yeah, that totally makes sense.” Wouldn’t do it. Wouldn’t do a thing. And I see even seriously-committed people who want to change their life for the better, they want to improve their health habits, like, they knew what to do, but they just couldn’t get themselves to do it. If I’m being honest, there’s plenty of areas in my life, even to this day where I’ve challenges like, I kind know what would be best for me and for my health and my energy and my body, but I don’t always do it.
So I became obsessed with human behavior, human psychology, and why it is that a person could know better but not necessarily do better. And it’s not enough to just understand it theoretically; I wanted practical information like, okay, how can I actually get myself to change? How can I help others—clients—whether that’s with health-coaching or business or anything else. So that took me down the path of personal development. I’m a NLP trainer—although there’s some stuff in an LPR question, there’s some useful stuff there to studying a lot about influence and persuasion and how you influence others, but influence yourself—and then all the psychology of behavior change. And that immersed me in that journey—which I’m sure I’ll have some practical things to share with people—but that’s basically the background of what got me into this, was frustration with myself and others not doing the things that we know are actually in our own best interest.
How to change your habits
Ari Whitten: Yeah. Fascinating kind of transition that the story—this journey—that life has taken you on, as far as what you’ve become interested in and what you’ve become an expert at. I’m curious: what is some of the science that you’ve learned around facilitating new habit formation and facilitating behavioral change? What kind of fields of research have you dug into, and what were some of the key findings around those topics?
Derek Doepker: Yeah, so for looking at habits in—first of all, why habits, and that would be because, if you look at health and energy… So if someone is fatigued or they’re having health issues, it’s probably not a—I mean, in some cases it could be just like an acute, sudden thing happen to them. But a lot of times, it’s things that have been happening over the past months to years have compounded behaviors that could be a light exposure, their circadian rhythms getting thrown off—all these things. It’s usually a result of habits, right? What you’re experiencing today. So that is the core area that I focus on. And so if you go something like Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit, he talks about the three phases of the habit cycle: there’s the cue, the routine, and the reward. So if you break that down, then you can go, okay, how can we shift any one of these things in order to change habits?
So probably the simplest thing, the—I don’t know if I’d say it’s the easiest shift—but one of the most powerful shifts, if you want to change your habits, is people think it’s about willpower. Some people think it’s just willpower. “I gotta have more discipline or willpower.” And I think it was Yogananda has this quote, “Environment is stronger than willpower.” So it’s common sense if you think about it; that it’s like, you start with the environment that will affect your behavior. So if you change the cue, which is some sort of trigger in your environment—maybe it’s a time of day; maybe it’s someone—they see cookies and they smell the cookies and they’re like, “Now I want cookies.” They didn’t five minutes before, but as soon as there’s that cue, that’s what triggers the desire. Virtually all your habits have some sort of cue associated with them, so breaking a bad habit is that, you could remove that cue. Or bringing in a good habit is, what can you put in your environment that makes that habit almost effortless or automatic?
So, just really simple example—someone wants to eat more fruits or vegetables: put it in plain sight. Bring it to the front of the refrigerator, even. Make that easy to access. Someone wants to cut out some of the junk food: remove it from the house. Or some people just put it in a cupboard that they don’t go into. Or, “I got a family!”—okay, we’ll create a separate system if necessary. And I know it’s not always practical, but like, whatever you can do to separate your… Shift the environment so you’re not seeing it, you’re not hearing about it, you’re not having these things that are coming in and triggering you as a cue to engage in the habit. So that’s one piece.
Second piece is the routine, and that’s the habit itself. So you could have the same cue, but you substitute. So instead of thinking, “How to change my whole diet?” a lot of times I’m like, “Well, what can you just swap out? So what do you normally have, and what’s a better option?” So that’s the diet, or it can be exercise; we could go into sleep—I’ll leave it up to you if you want to cover certain areas around health and how we can apply it to that. But the idea—probably the easiest one to explain is: I don’t teach people like, start a whole new diet. I go, what are you currently having at that time of day? What’s pretty close? And if you can swap it out. So if they’re having candy, okay, some [Rococo] and nuts, or something like that might be—it’s easy, it’s convenient—maybe a similar kind of texture that they can do that. And I’m like, let’s start there, because is it perfect? That’s not the concern. It was just a real easy substitution so that it takes almost no effort or willpower to just instantly swap that out.
Then finally, there’s the reward in that is: for all things to become habits, there has to be some—dopamine release, that sense of like, “Ah, yeah, good job. I’m happy about this.” And we could dive in deeper into that too. But for now, just covering the overview, that means feeling a sense of self-acknowledgement for even the littlest things that you do. So I’ll give an example, like: working—I hear examples of this, like—“I went to the gym today and I exercise, but I can only go for 30 minutes and then I didn’t feel that good. And so many people like my friends, they’re in such better shape than I am…” And so they’re like beating [themselves up] and I’m like, “No, that’s a win!” You gotta acknowledge that you got to own that because as long as they’re going, “Yeah, but I could have done better…”—that will not reinforce it as a habit.
So it’s actually starting even just your own internal self-talk to go, “Oh that’s good! I ate one piece of celery today. Okay, that’s a step in the right direction, nice job!” And that ability to acknowledge yourself is so key because that’s what’s going to reinforce it and make something an ongoing habit.
How to appropriately self-reward
Ari Whitten: Now I want to kind of dig into some nuances there for just a second. You said, let’s say, somebody has a stick of celery on that day and you say, “Good job, that’s a step in the right direction.” What if it’s in the context of, they normally have five sticks of celery, and they normally have three salads, and they ate a bunch of McDonald’s—and this is probably an exaggeration of what might actually occur—but let’s say they’ve binged on McDonald’s, and did skip their two normal daily portions of salad and four of the five pieces of celery, but they did have one piece of celery. Should they be rewarding themselves? Should they be patting themselves on the back in that scenario? I mean, what is the appropriate sort of way of self-rewarding oneself in a context like that?
Derek Doepker: That’s a great point, and that that is: okay, well was this actually a step in the right direction? Was it a step backwards? And that’s going to depend what is their usual habit, right? So if they’re usually eating a bunch of vegetables or whatever, today they regressed, they went backwards to only one stick and eating a bunch of junk, what I found—and it’s going to vary based off the individual—most people will take the, “I’m going to beat myself up for all my failures” approach, and that can kind of work very short-term, but it’s not typically what actually creates the habit, because you do need the reward. So sometimes, actually looking for the one little good thing that you did, can actually be helpful. And this actually—I’ll jump away from health for a moment to just show you how this applies in different context:
Like a manager or a boss at a job. The tendency is, “Oh, my employee—I’m going to talk about all the things that they did wrong. Oh, you didn’t get this in on time. This isn’t good or whatever.” When you study human behavior and performance, a lot of people will actually do better if you can find the one little thing that they did right, and praise that, and try to set them up for success, because success breeds success.
So I’m not saying there isn’t a place for discipline or to say, “Hey look, that wasn’t that good, step it up”—at the same time though, there is something to go, “Okay, what went well? What worked?” And finding even the smallest little thing and then acknowledging that, so, “Yeah, you know what? It wasn’t a perfect day, but I did have that one piece of celery. That’s good!” Then the next part—we want growth, though; we want improvement. So a great question is: what can I do even better? So it’s always focused on the future.
How to deal with negative emotions and self-motivate
Ari Whitten: Do you mind if I interrupt you for just a minute before we get there? I want to add—you just triggered a memory of mine from actually many years ago—some research that I read around something called “the healthy obsession model”, and in the context of weight loss and specifically there were some researchers looking at… they were looking at the traits, the personality and behavioral traits of—the psychological and behavioral traits of successful weight-loss achievers versus non-successful weight-loss achievers, and they were specifically likening the traits of a successful weight-loss achievers to those of an athlete—of a high-level athlete, of a committed athlete. And there were several aspects of this. This is a pretty fascinating research, actually; I used to have some presentations that I would kind of lecture on the details of this research. But they identified some several specific traits that kind of made a successful weight loss achiever similar to high level athlete in there—for example, their mental toughness, their ability to tolerate physical discomfort and kind of push through those, whether it’s the physical discomfort of hard training and soreness, or the physical discomfort of hunger pangs and cravings and so on.
But one of the traits that is a bit counterintuitive that they had identified—and you kind of alluded to this in passing is: counter-intuitively, the successful weight-loss achievers actually have a stronger negative emotional reaction to deviations from the optimal plan. Now I think the context is really important here—basically what this means is, let’s say they’re doing really good with their habits, eating what they’re supposed to be eating, sticking to the plan, exercising, sleeping well, meditating, taking care of their, their stress levels, and so on—everything’s really dialed in. And then one day, all hell breaks loose. Everything goes down the crapper and they binge, and they feel lazy, and they just feel like sitting around watching Netflix all day. Well, the ones who are successful have a negative reaction—a stronger negative emotional reaction to that, where they go, “This is out of control. I need to get myself back on track. This is unacceptable. Tomorrow I’m starting—I’m doing things right.”
Whereas a lot of the people who are less successful, basically just kind of go, “Screw it. I’ve already failed. I might as well just keep failing. I might as well just forget about that whole thing that I was trying to achieve.”
So anyway, I just thought I’d add that—obviously context matters such that, if somebody is not doing the right habits frequently, and then they have a deviation to it, one’s reaction to that would be different than if they are doing the right habits most of the time. But I just thought I would interject that here as being relevant to that discussion.
Derek Doepker: Yeah, and I’m glad you brought that up, so I’ll touch back on where I going in a moment. But on that point, that’s what I’ve noticed is, like: there’s a standard that you have for yourself, and I feel like athletes and people that—there’s like, this sort of self-standard of, “I know what I’m capable of. I know who I am.” This is way out of that. And it’s that incongruence like, “Oh, I can’t let myself be like a lazy slob all the time or whatever.” Right? And that negative feeling—I also want to make a point of nuance: I’m not saying it’s all going to be sunshine and rainbows and positive— negative motivation tends to be stronger for human beings. Avoidance of pain, avoidance of like, “Oh, I don’t want to go down that path.” It can be stronger.
What sustains tends to be a sense of constant—of feeling a positive, like, “Oh, I feel good when I exercise. I like that I exercise.” Like, what gets me going to the gym is not avoiding getting out of shape. That’s not what’s kept me in the gym for 15 years. If I were to not go to the gym for a week or two though, or exercise at all, I start to get like, “This isn’t me.” I feel like—you get this itch, like, “This is not who I am.” Right? That identity. So what keeps the person going tends to be like almost an identity-base or congruence with who they feel they are, and not wanting to divert from that.
I’ll make a note—I’m glad you brought up athletes because this has been my observation: I don’t have research off top of my head, this is more anecdotal, is that: I do Brazilian jujitsu. So when I first get started and when someone’s first learning something, it tends to be a lot more praise-oriented, where it’s like, “You’re doing a good job!” [or,] “Hey, that’s good!” You don’t expect the white belt to do well. So it’s not like, “No, you’re doing that wrong, you’re doing that wrong, and doing that…“—That would demotivate someone who’s just starting out. They need those early wins. And I think Tim Ferriss talked about this, and this guy I know who coached basketball players talks about this: you got to have the early wins. But once you get to a high level, a high caliber like the top people, you don’t need to, “Hey good job! You showed up for class!” It’s like, “Here’s what you can do better.”
It’s constantly at that high level they want the challenge. So it’s more—I almost see it like this shifting balance between praise, “Here’s what you’re doing well, you’re amazing, keep up the great work,” and “Okay, here’s what you need to work on, here’s what’s not so well, and if you don’t fix that, you know you’re [not] going to get submitted.” And so it’s a little bit more challenging and what’s not working well. So the top level athletes, they can still benefit from praise, but it’s like, if anything, their egos could be too high; you need to keep it in check.
Ari Whitten: Whereas the motivation at that point is, perfection and mastery. And so the goal is like, intentionally seeking out any aspects of your game where you suck, so that you can fix them.
Derek Doepker: Yeah. And they built up the confidence at that point. So once you have a certain level of achievement and habits, you’ve built up the belief in yourself where you kind of tolerate a little bit more of the, someone challenging you and, let’s say, negative feedback or constructive criticism. So a lot of what I’m doing, I’m constantly looking through the lens of like, what is an individual need right at this moment in time? Like, what’s kind of universal, but was also personally-tailored to where a person’s at? And that’s that nuance. That’s like, is this a deviation or are they trying to just start a habit going? Are they regressing? Are they progressing? And so in order to maintain a balance, I would go back to, “Okay, what did I do well?” That’s always fine to acknowledge your successes—and then, “What can I do even better?” Or, “What didn’t work?” So the person who goes, “Oh, I screwed up today, I binge ate or whatever,”—dwelling on what’s already happened, there’s nothing that’s going to come from that, other than looking at, “Where did I go wrong? Wait a second. What led to my binge-eating? What was the cue for that? Let me let me decode that so that tomorrow, I do something so it doesn’t happen again. So going forward, I’m going to do better.”
What happens with the person who goes, screw it, which is a very common thing—it’s hard for me to understand that. That’s one of the frustrating things that led me to research. This was like, “Oh, I’m following this diet plan, and I had a couple drinks tonight, and I didn’t follow it, and it’s Friday so you know what, I’ll just start over again on Monday.”
I’m like, no, you just start—it’s fine. Look, it happened. Great. So like, immediately you just get back on track. That’s, I think, the difference in mentality. So I can give some practical tips of how to do that, but I’d say it really comes from this idea of beating oneself up over the mistakes—it’s okay to have some negative emotions around that, that can be useful, but then it’s turning it into something practical, and again, it’s that, how can I do better? What caused this? Let’s identify what happened and then now going forward, was I unprepared? How do I be prepared tomorrow? Was I around certain influences in my environment? If I’m serious about this, or I need to cut those people out, or minimize my exposure? What is it that happened? And then now let’s fix that going forward.
Ari Whitten: There was a third piece of this that I think I interrupted you before you got into it—did you get to that or…
Derek Doepker: So basically they’re all like, what worked? What could I do even better? Those are the two main things. So that’s kind of the positive and the negative. And then the if-when-then planning is… What the research shows is, if people just have a good intention, “I’m going to start exercising this week,” I think it’s somewhere in the 30% range of people who actually follow through. It goes up to almost 80% if people are like, “This is when I’m gonna exercise: after work at 5:30, I’m going to drive to the gym. I’m going to do this plan.” So they actually have an exact plan in mind for what they’re going to do going forward. “So if this happens or when this happens, then I will do ‘blank’”. “When the server hands me the menu and asks if I want dessert, then I am going to order…” This one guy did, “I’m going to order a green tea,” or “I’m going to order whatever.” So you’re not caught off-guard in those situations. You’ve actually thought about the obstacles or the challenges that are going to come up, and then you have a plan for it and mentally rehearsing it, so that those things act as a cue to do the thing that you do want to do: the positive behavior that’s going to be healthier.
How to avoid (tech) distraction
Ari Whitten: Yeah, got it. So I want to present something that I think is probably the most complex, nuanced, and the most difficult example of the pattern of behavior that you’re talking about. I’ll present it kind of sequentially: so one is a simple example of what you’re talking about is, let’s say somebody like walks into the office where you work and it was like, “Hey, I baked some fresh chocolate chip cookies at home today,” and then puts the tray right next to your desk and is like, “Hey, would you like some?” Now you’ve got this, in your face, environmental trigger or cue that it’s—for most people—very hard to resist something like that. Maybe a more subtle version of this is like, you’re at home and you’ve got the cookies in your pantry, so it’s not quite as in your face, but it’s still very clear that, just the presence in your environment—even if they’re hidden in a cupboard, they’re still kind of in your environment. Your brain knows it’s there.
I was reading this book by Nir Eyal called, Indistractable, and he’s basically talking about this problem of modern-day distraction, especially with technology, and that we’ve become entrained into this habit of being highly, highly, highly distractable to the extent where we’re literally compulsively checking our phone, our texts, our email, or Facebook, or social media, or Instagram—all these different things—we’re checking them 300-500 times a day. And—this is the part why this is tricky—because there isn’t necessarily a readily-identifiable cue that’s present, like there is with the cookies being presented in your office or the cookies in your home, where it’s very clear what you need to do in the environment to fix that. This is—it’s a much more subtle thing where you’re starting to be triggered, to compulsively check your email or your Facebook, it’s almost like the absence of a cue—the absence of any other cue is triggering the compulsive behavior? Meaning, if you have a moment to yourself where you are not being distracted by something, your brain will compulsively seek out distraction on its own. So I’m just curious if you have any thoughts on that.
And I’ll also add a couple simple things that I got from this book that have been very helpful for me in wasting less time through distraction and minimizing some of the tech distraction is: there’s like a Facebook newsfeed eliminator, which is just a little plugin that you download for free in five seconds, and it literally shuts down your entire newsfeed on Facebook, so that when you log on to Facebook, you no longer have this immediate population of all these different things that all your friends and colleagues and people you know are up to, and are posting about. So you’re not inclined to spend 20 minutes scrolling through there. And one of the other ones that I got is: this email management technology—his one you have to pay a little bit of money for—it’s called SaneBox, and it basically goes through and sorts all of your emails that are from third-party sources or promotional, business-related stuff, and it basically just filters them out of your main inbox. So I went from having 500 emails a day to having 40 or 50, which is a huge relief for me.
So these little pieces of technology can minimize a lot of the distraction that you’d otherwise have. I think it’s a good example of it. But I’m just curious if you have any thoughts on kind of this problem of compulsively checking tech 300 or 500 times a day.
Derek Doepker: Yeah, definitely. And it’s the sign—I mean the way habits form and the science behind it, it’s going to be similar, whether it’s a quote unquote “good” habit or a “bad” habit. And something bad can become—or something good could become bad in excess. So with technology, Facebook, there’s so much dopamine, there’s so much stimulation and novelty, it’s just—it really is like an addiction. And I’ve certainly—I know I’m checking Facebook—I’m like, “[What do] I even need to see on here? What am I doing?” And I don’t even remember how I got on. I’m like, [inaudible] “Wait, what was I doing like five minutes ago?” So it’s definitely become a part of the programming. And as you mentioned with the “there’s no real discernible cue”, it could be though. It can be boredom, as you said; it could just be like, “I don’t have some kind of rapid stimulation going on my head or something coming into me—oh, it’s a quiet moment, what am I supposed to do here? Just sit here and, I’m sitting, waiting in line, I don’t know what to do. I gotta pull my phone out. Oh, I’m going to the bathroom, sitting down, I gotta have my phone—”
It’s funny because I was actually reading an email. I got Ian Stanley as a marketer, but he’s talking about many great ideas when he’s just sitting in the bathroom, but no, doesn’t have his phone with him. You don’t have a phone, don’t have a book, don’t have anything. It’s just like, a moment of quiet. Or in the shower and you don’t have that stimulation. Then all of a sudden, that’s when great ideas pop in, and it’s like your brain is finally getting a break, and that goes to show how important it is to take those breaks.
People, I think, have become—myself included, to a degree—somewhat addicted to stimulation, so it’s lack of stimulation that’s becoming somewhat of a cue, if I were to say that. The optimistic side is—I notice for myself, so this is just a personal experience—if I’m on vacation though, like I don’t miss checking Facebook. Or if I’m out in a completely different environment or highly engaged in something, I’m not missing Facebook; I’m not missing checking my newsfeed. So it does seem to indicate that there is an environmental component to it.
Certain routines and things that we get caught in. So in terms of handling that, you mentioned basically that it’s a form of environmental control, somewhat kind of accountability as you bring now the technology which can be the challenge, also becomes a fix, because now there’s other technology that eliminates the newsfeed. James Clear, who also writes on habits—a big fan of his work—I remember reading something that he talked about when he was working on his book, Atomic Habits, was that: in order for him to get things done, he had his assistant go in, change the passwords on his social media sites, so he couldn’t log in. And then on the weekend, I think it was, he got the password so he could do it.
Ari Whitten: We need to just—we all should hire assistance to just periodically change our social media login information, email login information, like every week or two, so that we just get locked out.
Derek Doepker: Yeah. Well it goes to show—I think this ties into something deeper, which is this idea—I remember talking to my mom and it was something health-related—but it’s like, I feel like if I’m an adult, I should just be able to do this myself. Like, I should just be able to practice self-restraint. And I think what happens is, there’s almost kind of an ego component of like, “Oh, I shouldn’t need a tool. I shouldn’t need someone else to hold my hand and be like, ‘All right, I’m going to change your passwords.’” But we’re human. So we very much respond to our environment. We respond to accountability. We need to create these boundaries. So one of the healthiest, most adult things that you can do, is actually taking these steps to go, “Look, I know what my limits are. I know that I’m going to be distracted by social media if I don’t put something in place to keep me focused.” So the easiest way, again—it’s not that it’s easy—but the most effective way is, I go, how do I create this environment so that it’s either very difficult, if not impossible, to do the thing that I want to avoid? And it becomes far easier and more effortless to do more of the things that I do want to do. And that takes some design. You got to environmentally designed—just like you’re talking about installing software, getting an assistant, getting a friend.
I remember when I wanted to change my language, that’s hard. Hard to change your language from, “Oh, I have to do this, I have to do that.” And I wanted to shift it to, “I choose to. I’m choosing to do this, I’m choosing to do that.” And so we just had a pack with each other. Like, if I’m saying certain things, you call me out. If you’re saying certain things, I’ll call you out. And it takes time. But you start to catch yourself, and you shift your behavior, you shift your language. And as human beings—we’re tribal beings, so we’re going to respond to other people in our tribe, wanting to meet their standards. And I say, you just got to go with it. You got to learn how to use these things and leverage these things to your advantage.
The “Can I just...?” technique to help motivate oneself
Ari Whitten: Do you have any specific practical tips as it relates to people trying to adhere to healthier habits, as far as eating, or lifestyle factors that could improve their health?
Derek Doepker: Yeah, so if I were to just give people one technique, one tip—I mean, I talked about environment a lot, so I think that would go a long way—but if there’s something else, it’s what I call, “three magic words technique”. And what they are is, “Can I just…?” And then you do what’s called a micro-commitment. So BJ Fogg has talked about tiny habits, and this idea that a micro-commitment is really tiny, small action that you can do that you’re guaranteed to say yes to. So when I talk about eating vegetables, if someone is not eating vegetables, so let’s start at ground zero—no vegetables a day—then it would be, “Can I just eat one piece of celery? Can I just eat one carrot a day?” And let’s go to exercise—this is where it’s really practical: “I don’t feel like going to the gym.” Okay, “Can I just do two minutes of exercise?” Okay. “If I can’t do that, can I just do ten jumping jacks? Can I just do one jumping jack? Should I just put on my exercise shoes?”
You find the smallest thing and it’s like, what’s that gonna do? Like, you’re not gonna change your life with these tiny things. What happens, is momentum generates motivation. If you get that first step out of the way—I’ve heard stories: someone goes—they just went to the gym, they’re like, “Can I just go to the gym? I’m not even going to do any exercise. I’m just going to go to the gym and I’m going to sit down, and then I can leave.” So they did that for a few days, and after a few days they’re like, “I’m already here. I might as well start doing something.” And what happens is, by taking the smallest step, then you get into momentum.
And for myself, even though I somewhat enjoy exercise and had been doing it consistently, I still find myself going, “Ah, I dunno, maybe I can kind of take it easy or whatever.” And I’m like, “Hey, you know what? No, I’m just gonna go and I’m going to do one exercise. Then I can quit if I want.” Once I do one exercise, I’m going, “Okay, can I do one more?” Sure. Five minutes into it, the blood’s flowing, I’m feeling good—now, I don’t want to stop now, even though I’m telling myself I can go. “Oh, I don’t want to leave. I’m already warmed up. Now I’m enjoying myself.” But if I were to tell myself, “No, Derek, you’re gonna go to the gym and you’re going to do an hour of the toughest workout of your life,” I might mentally psych myself out. But if I give myself the micro-commitment that gets my foot in the door, and then just nudge it along, little by little, this is working with your brain in a way that it appreciates, because it’s not overwhelming it, and you’re gonna find this balance. You got to do just enough that it’s kind of a challenge, but you say yes to it. Now, if you’re a hardcore athlete, then your “Can I just…?” might not be necessary. You might automatically just do it, or you might need to do something a little bit more. But the idea is, you find the smallest thing that gets you into action, and then you repeat it.
So I’ll give one more example: “Can I just meditate for 30 seconds?” Yes. Okay, 30 seconds into it, I’m almost always going to keep going, and then keep going, and keep going. I can stop after two minutes, I can stop after five minutes, stop after ten minutes—but the key thing is, you get the consistency now because that’s something you can keep up every single day without fail, versus the, “Oh, I can’t do 10 minutes today, so I’m going to stop, and then I go a few days without doing it, then I do it another day, then I quit, and while I haven’t done it all this month…” That’s where it leads to all that, up-and-down “yo-yo” sort of stuff. And that’s why things don’t stick because it lacks the consistency. So “Can I just…?” gives you the consistency.
How small actions can generate self-sustaining habits
Ari Whitten: Yeah. I’m curious if you’re familiar with the book, The Motivation Myth. I read that book maybe a year or two ago, and it was profoundly insightful around the concept of motivation, because so many people—me included previously—kind of just felt like you needed to wait to be inspired to start something, to start working towards a goal or a vision. And the book really shows that the actual science indicates that it’s the opposite. It’s exactly what you were just describing, which is that, by taking a little bit of small action—even when you don’t necessarily feel like taking action—taking a little tiny action towards that thing actually creates a spark of motivation. And then taking another action builds it and builds it until it’s a fire. And it’s a self-sustaining habit that you don’t need to use willpower to kind of be motivating yourself or driving yourself to do something that you don’t want to do—it just sustains itself. I think it’s a really unique way of getting this point across, as you were just saying, to understand that motivation isn’t something you wait to be inspired with; it’s something that you have the power to create by taking these micro-actions towards your goals.
Derek Doepker: Yeah, that’s exactly it. And it can go both ways, right? You can get motivated and then take some sort of action. The idea is then, you’re dependent on just… fate? Circumstance? “Just maybe something will happen that’ll motivate me.” Whereas it’s far more empowering when you realize that, Oh wait a second—you are in control—to a degree—of your own state, of your own emotional state, of your own state of motivation. And so for instance, I mean, there’s research on just physiology: if I were to just like hold myself in a really bad posture and look like I’m sad and miserable, I’m going to kind of start to feel it. Whereas they do research: put a pencil in someone’s mouth and just force them to smile, all of a sudden they start feeling happier just by changing their physiology into that of a smile.
So you can take these small actions that shift your state, and then from the more ideal state, then you make a decision. So to make this practical: if I’m sitting around, binge-watching Netflix for three hours, and then I go, “Okay, do I want to watch the next one?”—this doesn’t usually happen these days that much, but it has been known to happen—so then I’m going, “Okay, now do I want to go workout?” Like if I asked myself that question in that state, I’m much more likely to get a no. But if I go, “Okay, can I just get up, put on some music and dance—because I like to dance—for a couple minutes, just take a break to see how I feel.” And so I dance, now I’m up, I’m moving, and then I ask myself, “Okay, now do I want to go work out or do I want to go back to sitting down and feeling lazy?” And I’m like, “Nah, I don’t want to sit down. I’m feeling good now. Now, I want to go work out.” So you do the small things that shift your state, then you make key decisions. And this can apply to so many areas of life where the decisions you make in a really poor state tend to not be the best decisions, whether around your health or anything else.
So that’s why state management and the understanding that you are in charge to a degree—I’m not going to say absolutely—but to a degree, you can manage how motivated you feel. So if you’re not feeling motivated to do something, then you go, “What’s the small step that I can take that will generate that motivation, that will start to now cultivate that fire of motivation and inspiration?” Then when you’re in that more motivated state, you take the next step and the next step, until it turns into, as you were saying, that fire of inspiration.
How to interrupt bad habits
Ari Whitten: How do you interrupt—so when that’s happening in a bad direction—how do you interrupt it? So let’s say, someone is stressed from work, or relationship stress, financial stress, whatever. And then when they’re stressed, they have a tendency to binge on potato chips and ice cream. What do you do to interrupt a pattern or habit like that?
Derek Doepker: Yeah, so the phrase, I mean in NLP, it’s called a “pattern interrupt”. And so the idea is, really anything that does interrupt that. And I will say that breaking bad habits is not the area that I’ve studied quite as much as generating good habits. Although it is somewhat of an inverse, there’s still certain things, so I’m not going to claim to be—I don’t wanna give the impression I can help someone with a serious addiction; they would want to see a specialist. But if it’s just like, “Oh, I have a desire to… I’m feeling kind of stressed,” the mind is kinda going, “I’m thinking about this ice cream, thinking about whatever else,” it will be pretty much anything that gets your mind completely in a different state. So you could find what works for you.
For me, if I can, again, put on music and dance—I’ve heard someone— a speaker, Stacey O’Brien, to give credit—and she was talking about her former business partner, I think, stole millions or something. It was some horrifying situation. And so she was going into a like, downward spiral depression. So as those thoughts came up—negative thoughts—she would just start doing math problems in her head. Like multiplication. Or, like, some people, they count backwards. Or just anything complex math, because what happens is just like, it just gets your brain out of that emotional sad state and almost a more analytical state.
Ari Whitten: It’s funny that she chose math—to focus on numbers after someone just told millions from her. For me, I’m sure that would trigger me. I’m like, if somebody stole millions from me, I would be like, “Get these numbers away from me! I never want to think about numbers again!”
Derek Doepker: Yup. And I don’t remember the exact details, it was or like suing her with something like that, which is interesting… Yeah, I think she sued her because, not that she did something wrong, but it would make her counter case look like it was retaliatory, if I recall. Forgive me, Stacey, if you hear this and I’m getting details wrong—but I believe it was like that kind of thing. So, obviously very stressful. And yeah, so the numbers though—even though it might be a reminder— I think the principle behind it for anyone is, what’s just going to be completely kind of out of the ordinary? And it’s going to be challenging. Like as she said, she had to go back over and over again, like she’d constantly be drifting back towards the thoughts.
So I mean, “I’m thinking about the ice cream; thinking about this, thinking about that”—“I’m sad; I’m this,”—so it becomes a discipline. And yes, there is willpower involved. And yes, if it were the easiest thing in the world, I guess we would probably be a lot more highly successful, in-shape, great, healthy, fit people. This is a discipline. The optimistic, the good side about it is, it’s not like you got to go into the gym and bench press 500 pounds on your first day. Most people don’t do that. You start with where you’re at, and you just gradually incrementally work your way up to higher levels. So the better you get trained at being in control of your own patterns—of your own state—that in itself becomes a meta habit, if you will, of the ability to go, “Wait a second, how am I feeling? Is this how I want to feel? Do I want to interrupt it?”
And I would also say, interestingly enough—this gets into something a little deeper—that if a person is feeling, let’s say, they’re kind of depressed and they want to eat, the issue might actually be, they need to feel the emotions more. Which sounds counterintuitive, but the eating the ice cream is a numbing behavior, in situations like that. For me, surfing Facebook, when I was feeling—years ago, I went through depression and I don’t know what I want to do with my life—surfing Facebook was distraction. So I didn’t have to think about that. So I’d say distraction is morphine for the mind—the ice cream, the different things. And what I had to really do is actually process the emotions, and to actually go deeper into it and go, “Wait, what is this? What is it that’s coming up for me?” Because there was a message in there.
And so, actually working through the emotions, rather than trying to run away from it, was truly the long-term answer. So on one hand, there’s pattern interrupt, which can be really useful in shifting your state. And then there’s also the deeper work of going, “Why is it that I need to escape and eat these foods? Why am I using food as a coping mechanism? What’s going on there?” And that’s where I say, either a coach or a therapist—or there might be other things with some of this that’s not just a little trick that [inaudible] use, but actually doing some deeper work.
Willpower, the placebo effect, and nuances
Ari Whitten: Yeah. Last thing I want to talk about is willpower. And I know that there’s been some controversy over this, especially in, I think, just the last couple of years. So I know Roy—I’m gonna butcher his last name—but Roy Bauermeister, or something to that effect, wrote a book on willpower many years ago. Very influential book that influenced a lot of people’s thinking around willpower, and promoted the idea of the sort of willpower-depletion model, which is basically—or I think they even call it “ego depletion”, if I remember correctly. And it’s basically like, over the course of the day, [you’re through] having to make decisions, your willpower gets drained, and then you’re less and less likely to continue to make good decisions. However, I’m going to reference Nir Eyal’s new book, Indistractable, again, because this is actually where I learned about the controversy around this theory—I just assumed it was well-established—he actually says in his book that a lot of the latest research has failed to support and repeat some of those original experiments that were used to build out this willpower-depletion model.
So I’m curious if you have any thoughts on the whole willpower-depletion debate: is this something that gets depleted or not? And what can we do from a practical perspective to use whichever frame you’re going to arrive at?Derek Doepker: Yeah. So, the idea of willpower gets depleted—and certainly it seems to match some of my experience. I mean, at the end of the day versus the beginning, I seem to be more productive; I seem to be more capable at the beginning of the day. And at the end of the day, I notice I’m kind of like, alright, I just want to kick back and relax—at the same time, I can also think back. And so—this is purely anecdotal [in of] one study, right? From my personal experience.
Other times there have been days where like, if I’m really wanting to remember writing music, I could stay up all night writing music, and I never gotten depleted. I wasn’t using my willpower, I don’t know, but like—I could keep going if I really told myself I could keep going.
And that’s also the other part. If I believe I have unlimited willpower, even if I’m doing something tougher or if I’m like, “I am tough, I can handle this, I got this, you can’t stop me, I’m unstoppable, I got this—” How much does that actually create this belief? And then, is it really finite, or is it that if you believe it’s finite? This is where some—what I’ve heard some people say isn’t the belief that is finite that makes it so, and is it the belief that is infinite, that you might actually have near infinite or incredibly untapped reserves? When hearing about Navy Seals who—they think they reached their limit but find out, wait a second. Human beings are capable of far more than maybe a person might think they are. So I’ll just start by saying, I think it’d be arrogant for me to claim that I have the answer one way or the other. I’ll leave it up to scientists to continue to study this.
And at the same time, there is a degree of self-fulfilling prophecy with a lot of this stuff. Just the fact that you believe something will—I believe—influence your neurochemistry—as a placebo effect, as an example of that. Placebo effect doesn’t work for everything, but there are certain areas—just the belief IN something—can influence your physiology. So there’s probably an element of truth to both of these things, which is kind of the way I tend to think about a lot of stuff, where when I hear any one extreme or the other, I’m like, there’s usually some mix of truth to all of this, because I can see that, practically speaking, if you’re low on energy and if that’s from fatigue, if that’s coming from health issue, depleted neurotransmitters, all those things—we are a physical being. And as a physical being, things get depleted. And if they’re lacking nutrients and the proper production of things, of course that’s going to affect your ability to get things done.
Ari Whitten: Yeah, I mean, I’m glad you mentioned that because I think if you are physically, severely fatigued, like let’s say—there’s some people who follow The Energy Blueprint [in my] work and things like that—when they first start, for example, the program, they’ll say, “I can do three hours of work in the morning, and then I just absolutely crash and I need to sleep for three hours because that’s how fatigued I am.” So at that point where they’ve worked for three hours and their body’s like shutting down, if you ask them if they want to—instead of napping or sitting down and relaxing—if they want to go to the gym and do a hard workout, they’re probably not going to have a whole lot of willpower to be able to force themselves through that workout. So yeah, I think what you said is absolutely correct. I think that nuance of belief and the placebo effect is really important; and self-fulfilling prophecy. And I think also there’s some nuance around one’s physical energy level and mood, and how that interplays with willpower in any particular moment.
Derek Doepker: Yeah. It also raises the question of, do you want infinite willpower? Because if you take that person who is severely fatigued and their body is telling them, “You need to rest for your own good! You need to rest!” The body right now needs rest, and they… Certainly plenty of people can force themselves through things, which could be important—not sometimes, but they continue to do it, and that, in some cases—what actually caused the fatigue is because they’ve been burning themselves out. They’re the super, type A high-achiever, “I can go, go, go and do anything—” And then that becomes counterproductive!
Ari Whitten: Yeah. And believe it or not, there’s actually research to support the fact that the driven type A—classic type A personality types—workaholics, self-critical perfectionists—those people actually do have higher rates of burnout syndrome and chronic fatigue syndrome. So there’s very clear research showing exactly what you just said. Which you’re just saying logically; I’m sure you probably haven’t even seen that research, but the science actually bears it out that, if you do push yourself excessively and not listen to those signals from your body, you pay a price for it.
Derek Doepker: Yeah. So it then becomes this balance of, okay, it’s good to know your belief [that] you can challenge yourself—“Hey, I can do more than maybe I thought I was—” That’s useful. This becomes an honesty with oneself, and a question maybe even then how honest can we be with ourselves. So maybe also the usefulness of having an outsider or a coach or mentor, some people who can give us an assessment and help you realize… I just see both sides of it, because I’ve seen both sides. I’ve seen the people who they just want to, “I don’t really feel like working that hard,” and so they’re looking for a way out. But then I’ve also seen that people who they’re like, “I feel really bad that I just don’t have the energy to work out.”
And it’s like, based off of all the past symptoms, like, your body is telling you to rest—you don’t need to beat yourself up over that. If anything, you need to honor that. So this is where nuance comes in: who are you? What’s the background? Where are you at on this journey? Because you could certainly take it too easy, but you could certainly push it too hard, and that’s not something any person can give you a one-size-fits-all answer on that. It’s going to take some awfully personalized attention and guidance through that process.
So to wrap it all up, when it comes to willpower, I think there’s an element of both: I think it makes sense to realize there’s probably going to be times where you’re more resilient, probably eating a better diet—I know eating a better diet, getting enough sleep, that’s gonna affect my ability to get things done, and your ability to get things done. So that’s where seeing it as finite and valuing it and building it up as if it’s this thing that you want to build up to good lifestyle habits is useful, but also recognizing that, “You know what? You’re probably capable, if you believe”—it’s cliché, like self-help—“Just believe in yourself!” If you believe in yourself and that you’re capable of more, that actually really can have a real impact on what you can do.
How the concept of accountability helps motivate
Ari Whitten: Yeah. Good stuff, Derek. I’ve really, really enjoyed this interview. I want to recap, but I feel like I’m spacing on at least one of the practical tips that that you mentioned. So one thing is the micro-commitments: I think that’s really important. So the micro-commitments, the concept of “Can I just…?” and how that ties in with the concept of motivation, and creating the momentum of motivation—actually building motivation in yourself. There is—the elements you were just speaking to around willpower, placebo, the self-fulfilling prophecy and kind of those other nuances to willpower: what—remind me again—what were some of the other layers of practical things that we want to leave people with—that you want to leave people with here?
Derek Doepker: Yeah. So the micro-commitments are a great way to get yourself into action. Consider what your environment is. So environment—what is in your environment that might be derailing you, that you can remove? What can you bring in? That’s positive environments—also people, so the things that you’re listening to; podcasts like this, hopefully a good source in your environment. So positive influences. And I touched upon this—we didn’t go in depth—but just the idea of accountability. That’s kind of part of an environment, like accountability partnership, accountability groups. If you’ve studied personal development, it’s probably not a new idea to have accountability. It’s not the sexiest thing probably to think about, but it’s—at the end of the day, probably one of the most effective things. If I tell someone, “Hey, I’m gonna pay you 50 bucks, or I’m pay 100 bucks if I don’t do this workout,” or “I’m going to clean your whole house if I don’t follow through on this plan”—there’s places [where], I think, stick. You can donate to a charity that you hate if you don’t reach your goals or you don’t follow through on things. So that’s another way where it’s just about—I say, make your comfort zone really uncomfortable. That’s the easiest way to get out of it. Or stretch it. I don’t say completely break it, but stretch your comfort zone by making it uncomfortable. And that’s oftentimes done with accountability. So those are a few of the concepts.
Ari Whitten: Beautiful. Derek, thank you so much for your time. Really, really enjoyed this. Where do you want to direct people to? Obviously you’ve got a bunch of great books on Amazon—The Healthy Habit Revolution, a number of others—but is there any place in particular—your website—that you want to direct people to? Or any free gifts—or like, do you want to tell people about your services and who your ideal client is that you would like to work with?
Derek Doepker: Sure. Well, first of all, I want to gift to everyone listening to this—actually gift you a copy of The Healthy Habit Revolution, which will cover the things we’re talking about and more. And I know—I mean, hearing on a podcast, and like I said, it seems like there’s all these kind of ideas that are out there—and what I wanted was a very step-by-step process. Like, “This is great, but how do I actually apply—like, what do I apply today?” So The Healthy Habit Revolution is just day one. You do this; day two: you do this. And I take you through a process, piece by piece. So it incorporates the environment component, the micro-commitments, the accountability, language shifts, all of that—and then puts it together into a five-minute-a-day action plan by the time you get to the end of it. So you can get the audio book of it at excuseproof.com/energyblueprintgift. So again, excuseproof.com/energyblueprintgift. So that’s a free copy of the book, then it comes with the workbook that you’ll get for free, so that’s—
Ari Whitten: Thank you, by the way! I appreciate you gifting that to my audience.
Derek Doepker: Yeah! And so you’ll get a recap of some of the things we’ve talked about here, plus more, and now into a step-by-step process. And then yeah, I mean that’s the main thing. You can find my books on Amazon. You can send me an email—if you get the gifts, send me an email, let me know what you liked. Most of what I do these days is more like business-coaching and things. But I love talking about habits and happy to help and anyone with any questions that you might have.
Ari Whitten: Yeah. Thank you! Well if you want—I mean, not that this is a business podcast and probably most people listening to this are just interested in improving their health—but there might be some people out there who might be interested in your business-coaching services. I want to let everybody know, I make nothing—no commission, no affiliated deals or anything like that if you decide to sign up for coaching with Derek—but Derek, please, tell people a little bit about your services in that regard in case somebody is interested.
Derek Doepker: Yeah! So I’ll say briefly: most of what I work with are authors—especially I love working with people in the wellness space, though. So authors or people who want to write a book and turn their expertise into a bestselling book. And then also things with email marketing and all that sort of stuff. So, essentially if I had to summarize it, it’s fellow people with a passion for improving people’s lives, especially when it comes to health and wellness, and how to get the message out there. Because everything I’ve learned about habits and psychology and persuasion for oneself and helping others—same thing when it comes to creating habits for people who want to buy your product and keep using it, but hopefully a good product that enriches people’s lives is the whole idea with that.
Ari Whitten: Beautiful. And if somebody wants to reach you, is the best place to do it to go to excuseproof.com and hit “Contact” there, or do you want you want to say your email, or anything like that?
Derek Doepker: Yeah, my email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ari Whitten: Wonderful. Derek, really enjoyed this. Thank you so much for coming on the show. Long time in the making, and it was really a pleasure.
Derek Doepker: Yeah, I appreciate it, Ari. Thank you.
The Most EFFECTIVE Keys to Building New Habits, Momentum, and Motivation with Derek Doepker – Show Notes
How to change your Habits (06:57)
How to appropriately self-reward (12:40)
How to deal with Negative Emotions and Self-Motivate (15:31)
How to avoid (tech) distraction (25:48)
The “Can I just…?” technique to help motivate oneself (35:29)
How small actions can generate self-sustaining habits (39:20)
How to interrupt bad habits (43:18)
Willpower, the Placebo Effect, and nuances (48:37)
How the concept of Accountability helps motivate (57:37)