“I just don’t feel like it.” Ever said that one, former procrastinators? “I’m not motivated to study for the exam.” “I can’t make myself eat raw vegetables.”
In his book Mini Habits, Stephen Guise (See “Helping My Brain Say ‘Yes’” March 11, 2019) sheds light on both motivation and willpower. I find his study and observations helpful because I’ve pondered these two for years. Condensed from his book (with comments):
If getting motivated is your strategy, you cannot build habits. Motivation is an important feeling with many benefits. Think of it as a bonus, nice when it appears. Motivation is unreliable because it’s based on how you feel and that’s unpredictable. Feelings vary with the weather, hormones, blood sugar, etc. Motivation is not bad, but it’s an unreliable strategy for lasting change. The number one rule for any foundation is that it must be solid.
A destructive habit is believing that you have to be motivated to act. When you can’t do anything unless you’re motivated, it primes you to enter a laziness spiral. The idea that motivation precedes action can become deeply ingrained. But feelings and actions do not have to match. Believing that they must match creates a confining, frustrating lifestyle. (We’re trapped, waiting until motivation comes through for us.)
There are three reasons why forcing yourself to do something with willpower is better than trying to get motivated: 1) Willpower is reliable. Forcing yourself to do something no matter what is dependable. 2) Willpower can be strengthened like a muscle. 3) Willpower strategies can be scheduled.
Burnout is willpower exhaustion. Five factors deplete willpower: effort (includes decision making), perceived difficulty (drops when you begin), negative effect (minis don’t feel negative), subjective fatigue (minis are not demanding), blood glucose levels (minis preserve energy). A mini habit is so easy it’s achievable even if these factors are in effect.
Stress lowers willpower so you tend to repeat what you usually do. (Snack, yell, veg out) Stress increases habitual behavior – for better or worse. But habits can be naturally stress relieving. (Walk, pray)
Mini habits make exercising willpower easy. They’re so small they don’t demand much.
Mini habits are low-willpower Trojan horses that gain easy access into the brain’s control room then perform big results. Stephen Guise didn’t feel the burden of a workout because he didn’t ask his brain for the whole thing – just one push up. Mini habits are suited for any mood or situation. They expose you to your doubts and fears in a way that feels safe and empowering.
Over time, frequent repetition of forcing ourselves to perform small achievable tasks makes our willpower stronger. (At the same time, we’re progressing on our goals, enjoying success, and gaining confidence.)
Consistent repetition of small steps. No motivation required, just a speck of willpower. Readily, steadily.
For what job have you relied on motivation to get you going? What mini habit can you begin that will move you into progress on that job?