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Instead of Waiting for Motivation, Build Habits


Jun. 20, 2021 Psychology Today

“But I just can’t find the motivation” is probably one of the most common complaints I hear in my private clinical psychology practice. I have heard this from clients who come in with a severe depressive disorder (where amotivation is a symptom), but also from clients who are struggling with a general lack of impetus. I have worked with people who want to work harder, study more, exercise more, develop a new hobby or commit to a new business idea, but struggle with building the momentum they need. They might think about doing things, but find themselves procrastinating, or never actually commencing an activity, despite their best intentions. I have certainly been in this space as well—most of us probably have, at various points across various arenas. Motivation is not something I struggle with much anymore, and there is one simple reason for this: I don’t wait for motivation.

When I want to do something, I try and think about whether it is something that has value for me and whether it is something I have the time and resources to commit to at present, and if yes, I plan for it, and make it a habit. I treat anything I want to do much like I treat brushing my teeth. Regardless of the circumstances of life, I brush my teeth twice daily and I try and treat other activities (such as work and exercise) in a similar way. I do these things as scheduled, regularly, typically at the same time each day, and I do them regardless of whether I want to or not. Sometimes energy and inspiration are missing, and I might amend what I do (a gentle stroll vs. a bike ride, editing a blog post vs. writing a book chapter) to account for this, but I adopt the ‘bum on seat’ philosophy (i.e., just get your bum on the seat and see what happens). This philosophy carried me through a 60,000-word doctoral thesis, and it works very well for a slew of other commitments now. I often suggest that my clients try and build habits instead of waiting for motivation to strike, and those who are able to adopt this philosophy generally have much better success with forming and adhering to commitments than those who continue to wait for that elusive motivation.

Habit formation

When forming habits, I follow a range of simple rules, these include:

Decide whether you can commit to forming a new habit. It is helpful to remember the opportunity costs that everything brings. Each hour you spend working, as an example, is an hour taken away from sleep, learning, exercise, friends, and recreation. Everything we commit to has a cost and we all have finite resources. Remember that new habit formation will necessarily come at a cost, and consider whether the benefits of a new habit outweigh the costs. The world is drowning in productivity information and exhortations to do more, but the wisest thing you can do sometimes is to simply decide that you don’t really want to swim.

Keep it simple, start small, and be regular. The best new habits are those that are achievable. We are unlikely to be able to commit to a new exercise routine that takes an hour a day, but will probably find more success if we commit to walking for 15 minutes, three times a week. It may not seem like much, but it is a lot more than nothing. Habits can build over time, and you can always increase the amount of time/energy you commit to something once an initial baseline has been established. It is better to only try and form one new habit at a time, to avoid overwhelming yourself.

Chain habits. It is much easier to commit to a new habit if you link it to something you already do. I have clients who walk their dogs daily and have recently started jogging every second day with their dogs, instead of strolling. This is far easier to commit to than a whole new form of exercise, as they leave the house to walk anyway. Some other examples might include; practicing Duolingo while waiting for your coffee to brew or meditating for five minutes straight after breakfast.

Evaluate. It is OK to start a new habit/routine and realise that it is not actually serving you in the way you hoped. Set aside time to re-evaluate habits and routines regularly (monthly is a good interval) and give yourself permission to change things that are not bringing the results or satisfaction you are seeking. Over time, as we achieve greater success with forming new habits and build interest in life and a sense of self-efficacy, we are likely to notice increased motivation as a by-product of commitment to habit formation.

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