I did a little blog on motivation back in July after going to see Sir Ranulph Fiennes – I was moved then, as I am now, to ponder upon this subject. Now we are in January, the month of good intentions and promises to yourself that often end up broken by February, I am looking at motivation from a slightly different angle.
What is it, and why is it so difficult to keep?
The dictionary definition of motivation is ‘a reason or reasons for acting or behaving in a particular way’. Synonyms for motivation are incentive, impulse, inspiration, spur. I like these words because they clearly embody the impetus to do something, however, have you noticed they are also fleeting and symbolise a brief moment in time?
That is very much what motivation feels like. It is here for a brief moment; the drive to do something and achieve a goal is very powerful and what makes us want to do better. But by its very definition it is not sustainable in the long term because once that moment of desire to do better has passed, we are left with nothing to keep us on the path we have set ourselves.
Traditionally, we use goals to attempt to maintain that motivation. Especially in January. We want to lose weight, get fit, be better parents, try harder, be nicer, learn a new skill, travel more. These might be admirable, but they are also very vague. In my Pilates training, I’ve been taught to set SMART goals with my clients, SMART stands for:
S – Specific
M – Measurable
A – Achievable
R – Realistic
T – Timebound
This is so that goals can be set with more clarity, direction of purpose, within realistic timeframes. They aren’t vague aspirations anymore, they are solid, tangible and have the added benefit of having something to measure to see how well you are progressing. Surely this is the way to achieve your dreams, right?
It certainly helps, and so long as someone is there to keep you on track and hold you accountable, then it can work. But motivation may still suffer and peter out, particularly if the goals set are taking longer to achieve or perhaps weren’t really achievable in the first place. And if you don’t have someone holding you to account (a personal trainer, fitness coach, nutritional adviser, whoever it is you need to help guide you and keep you on track) it is very hard to do this on your own and can be very costly if that guiding influence is someone you need to pay for their expertise.
A friend of mine recently pointed me in the direction of an excellent book on how to increase good habits and decrease bad ones. As I read this book, I realised that what the writer was talking about was motivation. By changing how we think about our motivation to do something, and to turn it into something that is more habitual rather than a spur of the moment thing, we have the power to transform our lives.
He also debunked the theory that on their own setting goals, even SMART ones, is the answer. I found this truly fascinating. To form good habits that in turn keep us motivated by giving us positive feedback, we need to change not our goals and aspirations, but how we think and feel about ourselves. We need to stop telling ourselves the negative things we all do; I’m lazy, I’m not a morning person, I don’t like exercise, I can’t sing, I don’t have time, I’m a smoker; and start making statements that reflect who we want to be.
· I am not a smoker (for someone who is giving up smoking)
· I am a dancer (for someone who is learning to dance)
· I am a musician (for someone learning a musical instrument)
· I am a calm, rational person (for someone wanting to deal with situations differently)
Positive affirmations aren’t new, but they are powerful. I’ve used them myself to good effect and can vouch that they really can have a big impact. By telling yourself out loud that you are the person you want to be, your mindset shifts as your beliefs about yourself change. You simply cannot keep saying ‘I am a calm, rational person’ if actually your behaviour clearly indicates the opposite, which tends to mean you end up actually changing to fit this new view of yourself. Wow!
The reverse is also true; you will never change if you don’t believe you are the person you aspire to be. I’m not a psychologist so I don’t know why this works – maybe it doesn’t work for everyone but I have found it very effective.
What is also fascinating is the power of the process. The how is as important than the what. So, whilst it is important to have a goal to give us direction and meaning, without knowing how you are going to achieve that goal, the goal remains unattainable and distant. Thus, motivation inevitably deteriorates.
So my view is that sustained motivation is really about forming positive habits that allow us to achieve our goals. Habits are small things that together are very powerful and have a huge impact on us in the long term but are pretty unnoticeable day to day. But our habits cannot change if we are ignorant of them or believe in our old identity.
So this January, if you really want to make a positive change in your life then you could try doing things a little differently, buy a really nice note book and a pen and make it yours and yours alone, then write down…:
· The goals you want to achieve this year and make them SMART, eg
o Goal: I am going to spend more time doing quality activities with my kids
o Note on SMART: this goal currently isn’t specific enough, it doesn’t say what activities, how often, with which child, when etc
· The habits and beliefs in yourself that are holding you back, eg
o Belief: I am too busy after school pick up to fit all this in
o Habit: I spend too much time on my phone (note: there are probably lots of habits that support this belief!)
· Your new identity, your beliefs that fit with the goals you’ve set, eg
o Belief: I always make the hour of 3.30-4.30 totally about the children, they decide on an activity and I do it with them (Note: some criteria might be needed! like activities have to be free or outside etc)
· How you are going to achieve those goals, eg
o Process: Talk to kids about what they would love to do most with me and make a list together
This is actually one of my own goals, so I might write back later in the year to let you know how it goes (nothing like holding yourself to account to keep motivated)!
If you need a bit more help or inspiration to get started, then go read Atomic Habits by James Clear. It’s a good read with practical tips to help focus the mind.