Ah, motivation. It’s a fickle thing, isn’t it? It always seems to come and go in waves, and is rarely around when you need it: when you’ve got to brush up on your presentation before a meeting, or do that final spell check of an article before sending it over to your client. Motivation, being a feeling, isn’t something you can really rely on.
But that’s exactly the point. Motivation is a feeling – a temporary surge of dopamine that makes you feel like you can Take On The World. If you sit around waiting for it to make an appearance before you get up and achieve the things on your to-do list, you could be waiting a loooong time.
Which is why we’d suggest creating habits, instead
While motivation comes and goes, healthy habits complement your routine and help you achieve the things you want to – with or without the willpower. Better yet, if you’re consistent enough with them, you’ll be able to do whatever you’ve set your mind to automatically: dopamine or no dopamine.
You want to learn French? Or start that book you’ve been dreaming of for a while? To go walking in the mornings after breakfast, or start a proper skincare routine? Don’t wait for motivation to spur you on – start forging habits. Here’s how.
First of all, make sure your logic is solid
Before you start doing anything, dig deep to ensure that what you want to do is… well, something you actually want to do. Sometimes, a lack of motivation can signal that the thing we think should be pursuing doesn’t actually resonate with our inner values and goals. If you’re feeling particularly unmotivated to learn to accordion, for instance, maybe there’s a reason. Perhaps it’s because you’re only trying to impress your accordion-pushing grandma, and don’t actually have any passion for the instrument yourself. (Sorry, grandma.)
Focus on something else. Habit-building can be a lengthy process, and you don’t want to devote all that time and energy to something that doesn’t make your soul sing. (Unless, of course, you’re trying to build a habit that may not be all that invigorating, but is conducive to a healthier, better lifestyle, like cleaning your house more often.) Weigh up the pros and cons before you commit.
Carve out the time
Research shows that the “morning” (whenever you wake up) is the best time to forge habits, because the stress hormone cortisol is highest when you initially exit dreamland. This hormone contributes to your learning and memory function, so it’s logical that this would help you create habits… and stick to them.
As I’ve touched upon, though, your “morning” doesn’t have to be the actual morning. Whether you’re an early riser or you wake up closer to noon, the moral is that you should try and enact your habits first thing, or close to. Don’t let more than a couple of hours pass before you get started.
Take little steps
The problem with goal-chasing – particularly when you’re feeling motivated – is that you want to jump right into the big stuff. But that’s like trying to move into a house before all the bricks are set. Your foundation isn’t good, and it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to do your dream justice.
Take things slow. Break down your goal into manageable steps – small, easy-to-do habits – that you can maintain everyday. For instance, if you want to write a novel, set yourself a goal of writing for ten minutes a day (as opposed to finishing the whole project in a month). Once you get used to this, you can choose to ramp it up to twenty minutes, and then thirty, and so on, until you’ve found your flow. The easier you make things in the initial habit-building stages, the best possible chance you’ll be giving yourself of A), persisting with your goal and B), seeing results.
It’s possible that you might want to build up a prior habit before your goal-focused habit, too. Again with the novel example – perhaps you feel most equipped to write once you’ve done some exercise. In which case, you might want to pencil in a brisk ten-minute walk before your writing session, so you’re using the time you’ve carved out to work on your book most effectively. Start your “morning” well, and you’ll be well on your way to cementing healthy habits into your schedule.
Make it easy
There’s no need to make your habit-building a more difficult process than it has to be. Harness help wherever you can (so long as it complements your habit and doesn’t serve as a distraction). For instance, you could download a companion app like Habitica to motivate you, or invest in a daily planner to break your time down more effectively. There are almost limitless references, books and websites to help you kickstart your habit on the best foot, so make sure you know what’s available before you start your journey.
Focus on the long game
Discipline is absolutely crucial to habit-building. In a 2009 study, researchers found that it took 66 days on average to form a new habit and do it “automatically”.
To keep on-track, then, you need to push yourself to do your habit every day, even if it’s only for a couple of minutes. It doesn’t even matter if you have to bend your own rules a little to achieve this. For instance, if you usually revise a language for half an hour a day, but really don’t feel up to the task, make sure you at least learn a couple of new words or revise for five minutes. It’s more important to do your habit “badly” than to skip doing it completely, so that your brain continues forming the pattern you’re setting.
All that being said – don’t beat yourself up if you fall off the wagon. If you skip a day of doing your habit, you might feel tempted to throw the whole thing in the bin – but that would be a mistake. You’re still making progress, even if you’ve had a hiccup. Keep going. Keep trying. And…
Keep track of your progress (quietly)
I’ve kept saying that motivation isn’t necessary – and it isn’t – but it is definitely a nice bonus when it comes to creating your habit! You want to try and harness that extra boost wherever possible. Or, at least, provide your brain with proof that your concentrated efforts are working, to compel you to push on.
To keep things going, then, chart your success in a journal, that you can refer to when you’re losing confidence in yourself. Alternatively, create a chart where you can tick off boxes each day to show you’ve completed your task: a visual aid that’ll serve of a constant reminder of your progress. Sweeten the deal with a reward scheme, too, where you give yourself a present once you’ve achieved certain goalposts. All of this will help to motivate you forwards – and make your goals a reality.
You could also throw some accountability into the mix by getting someone you trust to keep checking in with you. Only do this, however, if it’s absolutely necessary to your journey (and a tried and tested method of spurring you on). Research from NYU suggests that people who tell others their goals before taking the steps to complete them are actually less likely to follow through, as telling others gives you a premature sense of accomplishment. In simpler terms, you feel proud for having shared your intention to complete a goal – removing your impetus to go ahead and complete it.
Others are doing it – and you can, too
So, who’s actually creating great habits right now – and what can we learn from them? We spoke to some folks around the UK to ask them what goals they’ve set – and habits they’ve forged – recently, and how they’ve managed to keep it up.
Digital professional and founder of Symphony VA, Stephanie Conway, shared that she’s learning German.
“I’ve been using Duolingo and speaking with my German friends,” she told us. “It’s really all been about having the discipline to dedicate a decent amount of time to learning the language every day.”
Lucille Whiting, a jewellery designer at Sophia Alexander, also agreed with this philosophy of dedicating time. “I’ve discovered an app called Study Bunny,” she said, “which is based on the Pomodoro technique. Basically, you set a timer for 25 minutes before starting a task, and then really focus on your chosen activity for that time.”
Routine and focus are, again, two key elements of how Lee Chambers, an Environmental Psychologist and Wellbeing Consultant, sticks to his new habit – meditating. “I managed to nail down a consistent meditation practice,” he told us, “by setting an alarm to remind me to do it. I also put my yoga mat somewhere I can always see it as a continuous reminder to get going!”
He went on to add that he also journals about his habit in the evenings to help embed the process – which, incidentally, is what Abdul Shakur, an entrepreneur and Social Selling Expert at Etica Leaders, is learning to do.
“I’ve started journaling using Zelo,” he shared. “Which also allows me to switch off at the end of the day, knowing I can turn my laptop off without feeling guilty that I haven’t done enough.”
Once you’ve forged a habit, you’ll see that motivation really isn’t all that necessary to achieve your goals. Routine, discipline and focus are – and once you’ve got those down, there’s no limits to what you can achieve. We’re rooting for you!
A little inspiration from self-isolation: check out the 10 healthy habits we’ve picked up in lockdown.