Proof That Motivation Doesn’t Last—Look At The Difference Between October And November!

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.

October 2013

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:

October

About the markings: The text and checks mean I met all of my mini habit requirements. The “G” in the lower left corner means that I went to the gym on that day. The “2k+” markings stand for extra effort in writing (2k = 2,000 words). The three notches in the upper right corner of each Saturday is a tally of how many times I went to the gym that week.

 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.

November 2013

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!).

November

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.

About the Author

I'm lazy, but you can call me Stephen. When you're as lazy as I am, you need superior strategies to live well. My strategies are so effective that I'm productive every single day. As the world tries to figure out how to always stay motivated, I create strategies that don't require it.

Michal

Stephen, I think you are throwing the baby out with the bath water. You mistake motivation with excitement. It’s just a part of definition. I tend to understand motivation as another definitions says:
a reason or reasons for acting or behaving in a particular way.
Stop the crusade against motivation!

If I would argue in a way you do, I could say: Willpower can’t take you the distance. Motivation can.
Because it’s my experience. I’m constantly motivated, but I’m not constantly excited. I’ve build my own mini habits and their sole goal is to refresh my motivation every morning.

Motivation is a healthy attitude. Flash in the pan is not. Don’t mistake those two.

I don’t defend early enthiusiasm. We have idiom in Polish very similar to “flash in the pan” and we almost unanimously agree it describes our nation. It’s stupid and uneffective to depend on it. But it’s NOT motivation.

Both “flash in the pan” and Polish idiom refer to a violent fire. In my experience real motivation is like the embers.

Stephen Guise

Again, I’m using this definition of motivation:

“the general desire or willingness of someone to do something.
synonyms:enthusiasm, drive, ambition, initiative, determination, enterprise;”

The other definition of motivation is inconsequential (“the reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way.”). My reason for exercising hasn’t changed in 28 years. My reason for writing hasn’t changed since I wanted to write.

When people try to get motivated, they’re attempting to raise their “desire or willingness to do something,” which is the definition I’m using and talking about. I will never stop my crusade against “getting motivated” because it is an inferior strategy that does not work for the majority of people.

Willpower works every time as long as it lasts. And using willpower doesn’t kill motivation. It just means you can take action when you’re not motivated. Today, I don’t feel motivated to go to the gym because I’m starting a more difficult workout program. I’d rather eat cheesecake in bed and play video games. Mmmm… but I’ve got the willpower to make myself go and when I’m finished, I’ll be very glad that I went!

Duff McDuffee

Dude, nice work on the book sales! (I bought a copy.)

I think you nailed it with habits and motivation. Basically what you are doing is utilizing the hedonic treadmill, that supposedly terrible thing that we adapt and become comfortable with our new station in life and thus aren’t any happier. But that’s actually what we are going for with behavior change–the new behaviors are so ordinary and automatic that we don’t get so excited about them anymore and don’t need “motivation” because it’s just the new normal.

I don’t celebrate and boost my ego every time I don’t drink alcohol, but a recovering alcoholic might do so in the first few weeks of recovery (I’ve never been a drinker).

I think the difference between your approach and BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits is also interesting. Fogg’s model is brilliant in that it eliminates willpower too (mostly) by focusing on linking a very, very tiny action (even smaller than many mini habits) to a specific trigger *which is already automatic for you*. That last bit is the key, and prevents the inevitable “oh God it’s 1am and I forgot to do my daily habits” thing, because the timing is already chosen in advance. After this, that.

But I don’t think Tiny Habits has a monopoly on how to go about this either. I like your Mini Habits version too, which I’d more call “mini commitments.” There’s definitely something to be said for things that we consciously choose to do each day (or 3x/week, etc.). I think consciously chosen, willful actions develop willpower and self-efficacy better than new, very easy and totally automatic behaviors. But I could be wrong. It’s interesting to ponder the differences though, and to play with them.

Also, I’ve been doing a lot more pushups and pullups after starting to read your book.

~Duff

Stephen Guise

Well said! You summed it up nicely.

In the Mini Habits book, I fully support the trigger method (it’s sound and it works), but also give the alternative of the once-daily (no trigger) method. One reason for this is to learn self-discipline.

When I started out, I’d often do my habits “at the buzzer.” But as time went on, I found ways to meet my easy challenge during the day. It is a much more autonomy-based method than Fogg’s, which is why I prefer it. Studies have shown that the feeling of autonomy is critical for satisfaction in the workplace, and also for goal achievement.

Then there’s the idea of developing multiple cues (also in the book). With traditional habits, to try to form multiple triggers for a single habit is a recipe for quick willpower exhaustion. But with mini habits, they’re so willpower-efficient that you can conceivably develop multiple triggers at the same time without burning out (though it will definitely take longer). It happens by finding different places in your life to fit in the new behavior. It’s a little dangerous though if you don’t want a habit to become too strong. Bad habits are often so strong because they have a sprawling root system of different triggers.

And when you think about bad habits, multiple triggers is how they are formed naturally. It’s only when we decide to “create a running habit” that we focus in on a single trigger.

So this autonomous and free-roaming mini habit concept allows you to develop habits in a more natural way, or, in a way that feels most natural to you. I’m VERY sensitive to feeling controlled, even by my own goals, and will resist strongly if I try too much, so this works out really well for me.

The idea of developing multiple trigger GOOD habits is something I’ve never heard about (it’s in the book), and something I think is worth exploring further. I write every day, but it varies tremendously when I do it. I’m in between type A and type B personality, but you can see how this is a Godsend for type B personalities. They can reach their goals while maintaining a flexible schedule.

Congrats on the extra push-ups and pull-ups! Last week I started a more intense workout regimen to gain muscle mass. It’s hard to believe sometimes that I got here from one push-up, but that’s the truth.

Stephen Guise

Update: the workout was awesome and I’m so glad that I went. I was NOT motivated to go, but once I got there, I got into it. This is how it is almost every time for me.

Andrew Brown

Congratulations on your success, however I think your conclusions here are a bit broad. Clearly the effects of using same motivational strategy fade over time, but that is part of the nature of motivation itself. The kind of motivation it takes to initiate an action is not the same as what is needed to sustain effort over the long-term. The goal, in my opinion, is to internalize the benefits of something we are trying to undertake so that the motivation moves from the celebratory, reward based approach, to an intrinsic value based one.

That is not to say that willpower is not needed. Indeed willpower is what sustains us when motivation slackens, but willpower is like a muscle in that it gets tired when used and if we want it to be stronger the exercise of willpower needs to be interspersed with periods of rest.

Stephen Guise

I see what you’re saying, Andrew, but internalizing the benefits of an activity does not require motivation. The best way to do that is experience (seeing is believing). As for how to get there, a willpower-first strategy can still utilize motivation. It just doesn’t depend on it. Motivation though, naturally forces a “if I don’t feel it, I can’t do it” attitude, which is killing goals as I type this.

I disagree on this point (depending on what you mean by “rest”):

“the exercise of willpower needs to be interspersed with periods of rest.”

Willpower is limited and can be depleted, yes, but I’m convinced that the best way to strengthen it is with daily, minor use that can fluctuate up, but never down (& no days off). This is possible without burn out. After about a year, I would have burnt out at least once or twice if it were possible, but I don’t miss days. Not even Christmas.

And I’ve seen no evidence—scientific or personally—that shows a burnout and resting cycle to be an effective strategy for increasing willpower (if that’s what you’re suggesting).

My mini habits strategy is based on consistent willpower usage, but the tasks are small enough to always be within your willpower ability. It trains you for endurance over one-time willpower “max reps.” And we NEED willpower to be available 24/7 if we want to guarantee success in habit modification. Consistency is the king of the subconscious.

Studies:

Leading self-control researcher Professor Roy Baumeister found in 1999 that students who had exercised their willpower to improve their posture for two weeks, “showed a marked improvement on subsequent measures of self-control” compared to those who hadn’t worked on their posture. Another study found that a two month aerobic exercise program resulted in improvements in other unrelated self-control activities.

I find that these two studies support the idea that using willpower is what strengthens it (as opposed to muscles, which are strengthened in the repair process). Neither study mentions any period of rest. Willpower was stronger immediately after the periods of increased usage ended. I believe that going to sleep every night is plenty of rest if you’re using willpower in a smart way.

jamie flexman

I totally agree with you about motivation running dry. Motivation to me is a fleeting feeling that needs to be acted upon immediately. But it’s like a battery; it runs out and we lose the ability to self motivate next time.

For me it’s about discipline – use mini goals and not only form a habit, but ‘become’ the thing you are trying to do. If we have to use willpower, to me that suggests that somehow, it doesn’t align with who we really are and what we want to achieve.

When something just feels right, it’s as if motivation doesn’t even exist – we find ways to get it done with minimal fuss.

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