What to Do When Motivation Fades
The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be. --Ralph Waldo Emerson
Whenever a new year or a new month rolls around, many of us make a commitment to change. We resolve to exercise every morning, to eat better, to read more books, and put down our phones. We start off with great success, thinking, “Hey, I can do this!” And we imagine how much better our lives will be when we continue our new habit.
But after a few days or weeks, this idea of behavior change doesn’t seem so exciting anymore. Other tasks start getting in the way, and there are so many more important things to do. Once we lose momentum, it is hard to regain it. And it might even seem futile to restart that exercise program if we’ve missed so many days.
So how do we maintain that motivation for change over the long haul?
Research has shown that willpower is not enough. Willpower might get us through those first early mornings at the gym, but it’s not what will help us stick with our goals and establish our new behavior. We need strategies that will keep us on track on days when we don't quite feel the excitement we had initially or when there are competing priorities screaming at us from our inbox.
Here are some more reliable and science-backed ways to do just that.
1. Connect your goals to your values
When we attach meaning to our goals, we are more likely to stick with the behaviors that help to achieve them. If we are just exercising because we think we should, then it’s not likely to be sustainable. But if you want to exercise because you feel like it reinforces your values of wellbeing, strength, and vitality, then you are likely to feel a deeper connection to your goal, and you are more likely to follow through on the behavior.
It’s helpful to take some time to reflect on the values that are most important to you. Where to start with this? You could ask yourself, “What is most important to me?” You may come up with values like achievement, balance, beauty, freedom, wonder, knowledge, integrity, determination—or your list might look very different.
Then, connect your goals to some of those values. If you notice that there isn’t a connection between your goal in your value, it may be worthwhile to rethink if that goal is really how you want to spend your time.
2. Visualize the steps
Imagery is a powerful tool to maintain motivation. If you have a clear picture of what you want to achieve, you are more likely to have success. There is a reason you see athletes using visualization before a big race or game—it works.
But visualization is more than just magical thinking or wishing for success. It involves the brain making connections that link specific behaviors and movements and actions with certain outcomes. While it might be fun to visualize the celebration after the win, it’s likely to be more helpful to visual exactly what steps you need to take to get to that victory.
If you want to improve your swimming, of course you are going to put in the time at the pool. But you can also visualize the movements needed for your stroke—include the little details—and your workouts are likely to be more effective.
3. Don’t go it alone
Humans are inherently social beings, and connection it is a core human need. We seek out connection for safety, power, and validation. Meaningful connection can be a powerful antidote to loneliness, anxiety, and even depression.
And connection can be a real plus for habit formation too. When we exercise with a friend, we might notice the time passes more quickly. We get to enjoy a conversation and catch up with someone in a different setting. We know they are counting on us to show up, so we are more likely to show up at the trailhead on that windy morning.
And there are other benefits too. We may find inspiration in our friend’s effort, motivating us to continue moving when we otherwise would have quit. Research has shown that health habits of others tend to influence our own habits. People who exercise with a partner tend to work out for longer periods of time, and if that partner is perceived to be stronger, we’ll likely work out more intensely.
Notice that none of these points include telling yourself just to toughen up and use willpower to power through. Self-criticism and self-flagellation do little good when you are working on behavior change that is sustainable and fulfilling in the long run.
Instead, connecting with your values, visualizing the steps that are needed, and connecting with others with similar goals are far more likely to result in the change that you are seeking.
“To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream, not only plan, but also believe.”– Anatole France
Asking yourself, “What matters most?” is a good place to start. Then, plan your steps and create an image in your mind exactly how you will do it, getting as detailed as possible in your images. And don't forget about having fun with a friend--seek out support with a partner for accountability, inspiration, and camaraderie!