Growing The Motivation Needed
Growing The Motivation Needed
Dear Tacit,

I struggle with the self-control I need to make healthy improvements in my life. I cannot seem to find the motivation to change my habits.  Any suggestions?

Signed: Growing The Motivation Needed

Dear Growing The Motivation Needed,

I saw this terrific meme the other day which sheds great perspective on the power of small changes.  It explained that if we read just 20 pages per day, we will have read about 30 books by the end of the year. And if we saved just $10 a day, we will have $3650.00 by the end of the year.  And if we run/walk just 1 mile a day, we will have completed a marathon’s distance in less than a month.  And if we declutter just 1 room in our home per week, we will be able to finish the whole house in 3 months.

Many people believe that once we make a decision to adjust a pattern in our lives (especially if it is for the purpose of helping us feel better physically, emotionally and/or mentally), the desire for that change should somehow create the spark of motivation in us needed for this change to be successful.  And they often jump into this decision to modify a habit by taking a giant leap as their first step.  But that’s not how successful and long-lasting change works.

Long before our brains can grow the motivation needed to enjoy a new habit, we need to engage a very different response.  We need to tap into our willpower and self-discipline.  And we need to use these abilities to help us intentionally (even forcefully) take the first few steps towards the shift we want to create.

Motivation is never derived from just our thought processes alone.  It first requires routined actions/behaviours to kick off the chemical chain reaction which will then produce the hormones (like dopamine and serotonin) that eventually give rise to feelings of motivation.  This process takes time.  The myth that 21 days are needed to break or create a habit has long since been debunked.  According to the Journal of Social Psychology (2009), we need anywhere between 18 and 254 repetitions of something, before the pattern will take hold, longterm.  It is usually not until the 66th time (as an average) before our neural pathways begin to grow around this new brainwave pattern, so a real sense of habitualization can start to be generated. This is where motivation is born.

The self-discipline needed for these routine actions is often (at least initially) a trying experience.  It can be irritating and uncomfortable – it is exhausting – and it requires a great deal of repeat.  The first few steps we take, propelled by willpower alone, are always more successful when they are baby steps and not giant leaps.  Big steps are draining, and they leave so much more room for failure.  We need time to find the new rhythm of things, and to make sure we have our balance with the change we are trying to create.  We need to tweak the new patterns until they run smoothly.  Smaller steps give us this wiggle room to do this, paving the way for success.

There are a few things that can easily derail this process of conscious willpower (and even interrupt our flow of motivation, once it starts to happen). Other more fun and interesting distractions or habits can lure us away from what we have decided we need to be doing.  The craving for immediate gratification over long-term rewards tempts us into putting off the new patterns for another day.  And the simple dislike and/or the effort required for self-discipline are very reasonable deterrents from our paths of success.

Here are some easy things you can do to help fight back against these challenges:

Start with small changes.  Perfect them and once they feel easy, let them grow a little bigger.

Break your day into 3 parts (morning, afternoon and evening).  If you slip backwards on the step you are on with the new action pattern, retry it again in the next part of the same day – don’t wait until “tomorrow” to reset.

Reward your successes.  Sit in the feeling of accomplishment and notice what that experience is like.  Focus on and absorb the success steps – not the slips.

Be accountable – to yourself or to someone else – for what you are trying to do.  Use a visual reminder (checkmarks on a calendar, for example) or a verbal check in (with a friend who will hold you to task) to help your self discipline grow into motivation.

Piggy back your new desired change onto an already well established habit or routine in your day.  It’s always easier to grow something new from something else that is already strong.

Take Care!

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