How are your nearly brand new 2020 goals going? Are you still super-pumped and a fixture in the gym 24-7, or madly doing company process reinvention to stoke revenue and profit this year? Most people find that even this early in the year, the bloom may already be off the rose!
At the beginning of the year when the psychological boost of a clean slate is in full force, we often feel super-motivated. The goals and imagined vision of life with the results of our changes are still relatively fresh in your mind. But take heed –they fade very quickly. That sense of devotion and energized passion tends to disappear.
By the end of a few weeks, if we haven’t been successful at doing what we planned to do, we find ourselves struggling to rekindle that motivational candle. Instead of succumbing to that ultimate destiny, let’s seize upon the best of what science and psychology can offer for successfully making behavior changes that stick.
When that passionate psyched feeling starts to fade, sometimes we try to rekindle the spark of motivation. We dig deep for some ethereal emotional pool that will restoke our resolve. Usually, this is a fool’s errand. As it happens, motivation is grossly overrated and deeply misunderstood. Our strategies for getting some of the elusive stuff usually fail. That’s because we have a misunderstanding of what it is and where it comes from.
Consider those super-disciplined folks you know who are at the gym every morning at 5 AM, or jogging miles every evening, regardless of the weather. Surely, they have serious motivation. Nope! Not in the way we usually mean. They don’t get motivated and then go for a jog. Instead, they go for a jog and become motivated. You may be thinking I am completely nuts. That makes no sense!
Our normal way of thinking about motivation is as a feeling or emotion that hits us, and then because of it, we are propelled into action. In that scheme, no motivation no action. It’s your basic if/then statement: If X then Y. If motivation, then action.
In that model, the absence of motivation leads to inaction. Hence, when motivation fades, we stop doing what we meant to do, and our goals recede into memory.
That isn’t how motivation really works. Instead, the first time we take action we do it for any number of reasons. Because we have an idea of some end result, or a goal we mean to accomplish, or we make a promise and then try to fulfill it. Any of those can provide an initiating impulse that gets us into action. But then, once we have taken the tiniest action in service of that goal, vision, dream or promise – the reward centers of our brains are treated to a little squirt of dopamine. That’s one of our pleasure-related neurotransmitters. We get a neurological participation award for our action.
In other words, we create a small win, our brain gets a small reward.
Since the dopamine causes the feeling of pleasure, the action becomes associated with a memory of something other than drudgery and difficulty. The action caused the dopamine. The dopamine caused pleasure, ergo, the action caused pleasure.
If you’re tracking your new goal’s habit performance, then you go home and put a check mark in the box for today. The beginning of a multi-day streak is born with a single check mark. And guess what happens the next day when you look at that check mark and ponder performing your new habit? You guessed it didn’t you—a little squirt of dopamine reminds your brain of yesterday’s pleasurable aftermath. And you find yourself inclined toward putting on the shoes, lacing up and hitting the pavement again – despite sore knees or achy muscles.
- The action caused the dopamine.
- The dopamine caused the pleasure response.
- The pleasure response created a pleasant memory.
- The memory births motivation.
- Which gives rise to more ACTION!
Going back to our syllogism. When you jump over the in-between steps, it wasn’t motivation that drove an action, the action caused the motivation.
In other words, “Motivation isn’t something you have. Motivation is something you get, automatically, from feeling good about achieving small successes. ” (Jeff Haden, The Motivation Myth)
Here are a couple of enhancing additional steps to deepen the process and build a virtuous cycle pictured above:
Shout from the rooftops.
We tend to keep our goals and undertakings private. This can be a hedge against the embarrassment of failure. But, be brave! Instead of betting against yourself or your organization, put it out here. Go public with the company goals too. By declaring your intention, you build more reinforcement, dopamine, acknowledgement and winning. Remember: small wins cause pleasure. Pleasure creates motivation. You can give that to yourself by using this system to build small wins. You can give it to your team by handing out kudos for successful change efforts.
Finally, I alluded to it above, but let me say it explicitly:
Create a method of tracking and documenting actions.
Whether a calendar, spreadsheet or tracking app, documenting the small wins memorializes them. It deepens the reinforcement. When you see multiple days or events in a row you are confronted with the possibility of breaking the streak. Breaking the streak would be like losing the preceding days of successes –and thanks to loss aversion—that would be painful! Give yourself all the benefit of these tools. Build in the wins and the dopamine reinforcement. And then, you will never have to think about motivation again!