Why Successful Habits Are About Structure, Not Effort

The number one driver of whether a habit change is a success or not is how big the initial goal is. Everyone, if they’re consistent, will eventually achieve something massive. But the people that end up failing are the people trying to achieve overnight success.

Why Successful Habits Are About Structure, Not Effort
[Image: Flickr user Simon Q]

As the founder and CEO of Lift, a popular set-goals-and-do-them-every-day app, Tony Stubblebine is immersed in the hows and how nots of what makes for productive habits.


In a recent talk with us, he shared his own secrets of productivity, like the necessity of rituals, why he found an office right next to a gym, and why putting your running shoes on is better than setting a goal of running 20 miles. An edited version of the interview is below.

Start with a small goal

The number one driver of whether a habit change is a success or not that we see is how big is the initial goal is. Because everyone, if they’re consistent, will eventually achieve something massive. But the people that end up failing are the people trying to achieve overnight success.

A goal we looked at in depth recently was meditation. We researched the people that were failing at meditation and the people succeeding at meditation. The people that were succeeding were like, “Well, I just started with two or three minutes a day and my mind was a complete mess but that’s okay.” People that were telling us that they were failing were telling us, “I just sat down for only 30 minutes, but I couldn’t keep my mind clear, so maybe meditation’s not cut out for me.”

It’s not that either of those two (people) have more aptitude for meditation, it’s that one of them set themselves such a big goal that they had so much early failure that they ended up being completely turned off and thinking, “Well, I’m never going to reach this goal.”

Consistency Trumps Everything

There’s a Stanford researcher that we worked with at the beginning, BJ Fogg. He has this concept he calls “Tiny Habits.” The idea is to start with something really, really small and let it grow into a bigger habit or routine. You could write your goal as “go the the gym.” Not “stay at the gym for an hour,” but just “get to the gym.” Put on your workout clothes. It’s not that you have to run five miles; what matters is that you just get your running shoes on three times a week. In a month or two months, you’ll be running as far as you want to run. That consistency ends up trumping everything else that you can do with goal setting.


The structure matters. People put all of this effort into optimization and research, but honestly everything we see about success rate says that the most important thing is to structure your goals so you can be consistent.

Schedule it and create an automatic reminder

You can be motivated, you can be able, but if you forget to do it, you’re not going to make any progress. Having a trigger in your life is a big part of that structure.

Make sure you have the tools to do it

When I found office space for Lift, I found space across the street from the gym. You want to make it easy on yourself; you don’t get bonus points for making it harder. You can make it easier by reducing the scope, you can do that by getting a better tool.

If you go to a gym, a lot of time it’s hard because you don’t know what exactly to do, you’re shy or uncomfortable around some of the machines. That’s why a lot of people get a coach at the gym, it makes it easier for them to get started. Then on the trigger part, you can link your goal to a pre-existing behavior.

Set your priorities first thing in the morning

For me, my number one productivity practice is to set priorities at the beginning of the day, before I get lost in the chaos that goes on around me. When I sit down at my desk, I set priorities. I’ve trained myself that that’s the trigger for this other goal that’s not as natural, but is actually really important to me. It was a major a-ha moment when I realized that productivity is about how important the things that I get done are. I used to count how many things I crossed off my to-do list. Now, much more importantly, I actually work in the prioritized order.


Pick a replacement habit

A common tactic applicable to any type of behavior change is picking a replacement habit. If you have a bad habit, the way to break it is not to just will yourself, which is a ton of effort, but to give yourself an alternative.

The Bottom Line:

Just know what you’re going to do as soon as you get out of bed–those are the sorts of approaches that let you break bad habits.

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.