“I’ve just been so busy the lately”. It’s something we all say, ALL the time. In fact, if we had to write our catchphrases on our tombstones, let’s face it, we’d all have “I was just so busy” engraved into eternity. Maybe it’s a cliche—how can EVERYONE really be THAT busy? Wouldn’t we have built Babylon by now if we were really a whole society of worker ants constantly busy? Yet, this is how life feels for most of us. A whirlwind of obligations, prescription pick-ups, attempts to pack kale-filled lunches, social events that feel more like burdens you’d rather skip because more than anything in the world a night off and a nap sound like paradise. Any additional insert in the schedule, especially time to take care of our bodies or spirits, feels both like a luxury we can’t give ourselves permission for or a guilt trip we don’t even want to think about. “Yeah, I really should be going to the gym more…” is about as motivating and filled with personal growth potential as 6 wheatgrass shots lined up waiting to pack you full of nausea-inducing super nutrients. So what’s the deal. What is the missing link for motivation? I wanted to write this post to investigate the motivation puzzle for myself as much as others: why is it so hard to get ourselves to do something that will ONLY make us feel better and more peaceful?
Often times our personal goals are pretty admirable. They reflect who we want to be, the ultimate manifestation of our most enlightened selves who exercise/meditate/eat vegetables/drink 8 glasses of water/volunteer/call our moms/juice cleanse every.single.day. These are our lofty expectations of ourselves-because why wouldn’t we think big?!- and while they are definitely admirable they don’t exactly line up with our daily habits. This one factor accounts for one of the main reasons we never quite make it to that 5th visit to the gym this week (let’s be honest, 1st visit…) We’re inspired by dramatic self-improvement stories we hear on tv or our colleagues’ newfound spiritual growth upon their return from their yoga retreat in India, yet when we take the first steps towards change for ourselves we often start hard, ie purchasing the box set of Insanity workout dvds, and burnout fast. Our kick-butt-take-names spirit gets us fired up to overhaul our whole lives, but in reality we don’t even have daily routines in place to support small scale changes. We try to tackle the whole problem, and in throwing ourselves at it with more fury than can possibly be sustained, we overextend ourselves and end up more exhausted and burned out than when we started. So here it is. Even though it’s not as glamorous as suddenly converting to Veganism and losing 40 pounds in 30 days, science has proven we are much more likely to actually achieve positive change if we build small, sustainable habits of self-care. And the funny thing? We’ll actually get to that dramatic transformation we dreamed for ourselves, and potentially surpass it, when we start small, keep at it in little doses, and make healthy actions habitual.
What if taking better care of ourselves was as natural, habitual, and automatic as checking Instagram? Psychologists have proven that in order to sustain a behavior, it needs to become part of our daily routine, which means introducing small changes that we can repeat. In fact, they now believe focusing on self-motivation is exactly the opposite of what we need in order to sustain positive new behaviors. If you have to motivate yourself to do the new thing, it’s already too late—it’s a burden, not a habit. In order to stick with a new routine, experts suggest making small changes to your lifestyle to support the new habit: buying frozen fruit instead of ice cream so that when the craving hits, grabbing the for the mango in the freezer feels less like punishment and more like a not-so-inconvenient switch. Instead of overhauling our whole lives, what if we focused instead on replacing some of the little crappy negatives (curse at other drivers in traffic anyone?) with slightly better habits, like laughing at the jerks? If we want to stick to a goal of better health and wellness, we need to start putting it into our lives in small, repeatable doses that won’t burn us out, until the new habits feels so natural, going back to our old lifestyle will feel strange and boring in comparison.
But Excuses are Fun!
So, cool. We can all agree that drinking water every time you wanted a soda wouldn’t be the hardest thing to change. But, we may also have to admit, making excuses is pretty satisfying. Who doesn’t love cancelled plans and indulging in treating yourself to a whole bag of Hint of Lime Tostitos, because you just deserve it? Or burrowing in the covers rather than driving in the rain to yoga? Making small changes to our routines may be the ticket, but some of us might need an extra push just to get there. If you were the kid who was more motivated by being grounded than the satisfaction of a good report card, I’ve got some ideas to get the new habits to habit-level (here’s the secret, it takes repeating them—a lot).
1. Make a commitment contract, and a penalty for breaking it
Accountability is a pretty powerful factor. Tell someone about your goals—remember: small, achievable changes— and have them help you stay in line. This could be a friend you commit to working out with, a fitness group you commit to showing up for, or even just a contract with yourself. This will work if it carries consequence for flaking: are you really gonna leave your poor friend alone to run those stairs, knowing the sass that will inevitably be served? One of the most effective movements in fitness has surged in popularity—and loyalty—because of this factor. Known as ‘The November Project’, what initially started as some bros doing early morning circuits at Harvard at the crack of dawn has become a trend nationwide of die-hards who show up to work out at sunrise, no matter what, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. One of the reasons it works is not just the camaraderie of a tight-knit, tribe-like community, but that not showing up carries the threat that this community will good-naturedly haze no-shows on the November Project’s website in a section entitled “We Missed You”. In this shameful corner, not only will they post a picture of the said defector lifted from their Facebook profile or provided by friends, it will be accompanied by comments from those who did show up like “you must have gotten too drunk the night before” or “perhaps you were lost on a Segway tour.” Hey, who said hazing was just for frat boys? As brutal as this sounds, loyalty to The November Project is remarkable, and people are not just showing up begrudgingly—they are ecstatic to be there and people are hugging each other far more than you would expect anyone half asleep to want to. So, as masochistic as it sounds, this kind of accountability must be working on some level. If signing up for public humiliation sounds motivating but also horrific, another way to keep yourself accountable is with cold hard cash. Perhaps this stair-running friend of yours would like $20 for her time when your lazy butt doesn’t show up to work out with her? Or you could download an app like PactApp that keeps you honest: every time you skip a workout, it charges you by deducting directly from your bank account. The upside? Every time you do, you get a cash reward, paid for by fellow app-using defectors who also realize they need to make it cash to make it real. If giving yourself an extra nudge in the form of the threat of shame or cash sounds better than a free fro-yo after 10 punch card for your achievements, go for it—the goal is just to show up.
2. Treat yo’self
But, maybe that fro-yo punch card is just what you want! If you trust yourself to have the keys in the ignition and get yourself to do that thing you said you wanted to, no matter if it’s working out, eating some spinach, or finding time for mindfulness in your day, then pairing it with a reward may help you keep up this behavior. Much like Pavlov’s dogs, psychologists have proven we respond overwhelmingly to positive reinforcement for a behavior. Even if the new behavior feels unnatural at first, rewarding yourself with a special smoothie from the shop around the corner from Pilates only when you go to class can help your brain attach positive associations to the activity itself, since you can only achieve the reward when this activity is performed. Even if the reward feels like the only reason you get yourself going, research has proven that sticking to the new activity is more important than how you got yourself to stick to it. Eventually (research says 30x is the magic number of repeating an activity for it to become habit) the physical and psychological benefits of the activity alone will become reward enough and smoothie time will feel like an added bonus. And by that point, it’ll be habit and feel strange not to go to Pilates.
3. Make a plan for the cop out moments
So, you know why you self-sabotage, you know you need to be threatened/rewarded, and you know that if you stick it out for a certain amount of time you will get to the point where positive change becomes habit. But what about those moments when you just feel defeated and pessimistic? Have a plan. Research shows we are much more likely to fail if we’re blindsided by unforeseen factors including losing drive because of life circumstances or being pulled in other directions. One of the best things we can do for ourselves is plan in advance for these moments to occur, and decide in advance how we are going to handle them. This is one way we can anticipate and prevent our tendency to bail, like making a commitment to our future selves that yes, we know it will be hard, but when that time comes we have a plan to stay strong. Maybe on a day when we’re feeling down, instead of going to the yoga studio we do 20 minutes of yoga at home—we’re allowing some wiggle room for stuff to happen, but saying we care for the commitment we’ve made to ourselves and that means doing a little is enough, vs. doing nothing and giving up completely because we feel defeated. If we plan in advance for some tough days, and know how we’ll handle them, we can only get blown over a little instead of completely knocked down.
See you in class 🙂
Gabriele Oettingen, PhD, psychologist at New York University and author of Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation
BJ Fogg, Stanford Professor and Behavior Scientist and his work on behavior design