When I started tracking my mini habits on a giant calendar, I was motivated.
Just because I don’t rely on motivation doesn’t mean I don’t feel motivated. With any new venture to improve yourself, motivation almost always starts out strong (as you’ll see!).
And because I wasn’t trying to “spark” my motivation during my mini habits journey, this fact serves as a reasonably effective control. In other words, by not trying to manipulate my motivation higher as most people do, I would theoretically have more “natural results.” That said, the following is clearly my anecdotal experience and not a scientifically-valid experiment.
Also, I use the term “proof” personally. It proves to me that motivation doesn’t last (along with the science and human history that suggest it doesn’t last). Nobody is able to prove without a doubt that motivation doesn’t last, because it’s an abstract concept. You can decide for yourself what you think this evidence means, if anything.
Quick Science Recap: Habits Are Unemotional, But Why?
Two diary studies (Wood, Quinn, Kashy) found that people were more likely to think about other things when doing something habitual than when they did something non-habitual. This is fairly obvious as habits are notoriously “mindless” by nature. They noted this and the increased attention and focus required for non-habitual tasks. But what’s really interesting is along with decreased attention, or perhaps because of it, they found people to be less emotional about their habitual behaviors.
Think about a recent emotional moment in your life. I mean the actual moment. Imagine yourself there.
In every very emotional instance in my life, I realize it has involved my mind fixating intensely on one (emotional) thing. Examples are romantic moments, a tragic event, Mini Habits becoming the #1 best-selling Nonfiction book in the USA (whooo!), etc.
It consumes your entire mind. But habits? You don’t even think about them. How can you be emotional about something you don’t pay attention to? The answer is that you can’t, and you won’t. This is a case where I’m looking at the science and running a little bit with it, but it’s not a far leap, and it sure is a logical explanation for why habits are emotionless.
Before we get into these details, I want to clarify that NONE of this was planned, because it’s going to seem like it was when I point out the pattern. It’s odd how obvious it was, and that I just recently realized it.
What I’m about to show you happened naturally, and according to what we know about habit formation and motivation, it makes perfect sense why. This progression encapsulates all of my experiences with motivation in life. Though I do want to reiterate that this shows the effect that motivation had on me and when motivation came and went. It does NOT show my “results with motivation,” because I was NOT relying on motivation to take action at any time.
Let’s begin in October.
This was the first full month I began tracking my progress with my mini habits on a giant calendar. My mini habits were to read 2 pages a day, write 50 words a day on two tasks (toward a book and a blog post). In addition to those, I had a 3x a week exercise habit (that was mostly formed). This is the calendar where I tracked everything:
I was excited and motivated in October because I knew that mini habits would work from my experience with The One Push-up Challenge. And that enthusiasm shows in the OVERLY! EXCITED! way that I marked each day complete.
Take a closer look. There is a gradual decrease in how dramatic my expressions of victory were from the beginning of the month to the end. You’ll see an increased number of plain check marks toward the end. It appears that the first “plain n’ boring” check mark was on the 25th, which was exactly 35 days after starting.
In November, the checks took over. I ditched the daily success phrases, but still wrote a victorious exclamation at the end of the week (e.g. BOOM! BAM!).
During this transition, I remember feeling somewhat guilty or wrong for “only” checking off my progress. It felt like it wasn’t enough even though I still got my work done. In the previous month, each day looked like a giant accomplishment and was super exciting, and now I was just…checking it off?
Here’s the thing: I wanted to check it off; the same person who was going crazy with wacky, winning phrases wanted to write simple, boring checks.
I grew tired of coming up with those overly excited markings because I didn’t feel as excited about it. I wasn’t as motivated. This includes enthusiasm about the tasks themselves.
I wasn’t very excited to write 2,000 words on a given day, even when I did write that much. Toward the end of this month, I stopped tracking my word count for this reason. It just wasn’t exciting enough to write about anymore.
This is exactly what motivation does to us—it sets an emotional standard that we can’t sustain; an emotional standard we’re biologically not built to sustain. This ultimately discourages us and makes us feel like something is off, which can sabotage our goals. The reason I kept going, and continued using checks, is because I understood what was going on in my brain, and I had prepared for it from the beginning.
How I Prepared For The Inevitable Motivation Loss Sometime Between Week 2-6
During the previous month (October), while I sure looked motivated by how I noted my successes, the truth was that I was NOT relying on it during that time. I would always use willpower to start, often when not feeling like doing it, and motivation often helped me overachieve, which excited me even more.
Motivation played the role of support throughout my first several weeks (and to this day). This is the only role it can capably fill.
I must repeat that. I did not rely on motivation from the start. This is critical, because some people might think they can “ride” motivation until it drops off, and then switch to willpower. Not only is this very difficult to do, but it’s irrational.
If you’re going to need willpower to sustain you at some point, why not start with it right away? This especially makes sense because willpower acts like a muscle—it either gets stronger or atrophies depending on how much you use it. So when people rely on motivation until it runs out, they’ll try to switch to using their atrophied willpower muscle and fail miserably.
It’s a lot like flying too. If you have a choice between a direct flight and a two-leg itinerary to your destination, you always take the direct flight. It decreases your chances of hitting flight delays, takes less time, and is much more convenient overall.
The destination is habit.
Motivation can’t take you the distance. Willpower can. Take the direct flight and use willpower (with Mini Habits, of course).
The subscriber-only message on 2/25/14 expands upon this post!
The expanded article includes: pictures of my December and January calendars and additional discussion of the results and how they relate to motivation. It also includes a surprising revelation: people naturally don’t prefer the “motivated” state when it comes to personal growth. Join Deep Existence below to read the rest.