Quick Re-cap: In my first post about discipline and motivation, I made a case for treating them as two sides of the same instead of mutually exclusive ideas. I talked about discipline as chopping motivation up into little pieces and rationing those pieces as needed. In a moment of inspiration, I came up with the term “motivation trail mix”.
Then I wrote that the process of rationing out motivation is really the process of developing habits.
Not entirely accurate, because you can lack or be working on developing habits and still have discipline. Right?
But codifying your behavior into habits makes everything run more smoothly and efficiently. Conveniently, discipline can help build good habits and good habits can reinforce discipline.
So it’s probably more accurate to think of developing habits as a way of making each bit of motivation go a little further. Stretching it, if you will. This post is about some ways to develop habits.
Building habits can be tough, but that’s OK. Things worth doing generally are. Building habits requires channeled motivation, but also some strategy. The aim here is to dig into the strategy part a little. I’ll use an example goal of being able to do five pull ups to show how some of these strategies might play out.
1. Start with passion, then research. Figure out what you want to be able to do, then dig into it as a topic. This is a big one for me, as the more I understand something, the more I can commit to it and get behind it. Plus, the more you learn about something, the more options you’ll have. With more options, you’re more likely to find something that clicks with you–and you’ll have some alternatives if the first option doesn’t work out. Then you’ll be making a plan from a position of some knowledge. You can keep yourself motivated by trying different approaches (and learning about something is often inspirational in itself).
In the pull-up example, you might try the assisted pull-up machine at the gym, band- assisted pull-ups, jumping pull-ups to start with slow negatives, inverted rows (lying on your back and pulling up on a bar), etc. You might use all of these techniques or find one or two that are particularly effective for you.
2. One thing at a time. If you’re going to work on your pull-ups, work on your pull-ups. Don’t try to become a chef, volunteer more, and adopt a dog at the same time. It’s fine to have lots of goals, but work on one big one at a time and crush it.
3. You’re not going to crush it all the time. It takes time to build or change behavioral habits, just like it takes time for muscle to grow. Slipping up a few times over the course of two months isn’t going to throw you off track. In our trusty pull up example, not crushing every single workout doesn’t mean not reaching your goal. In fact, no one crushes every single workout. It’s the long game that matters. Focus on adherence to a plan over the long term. It takes time to change an old habit or build a new one.
4. Adopt a positive mindset. Again, easier said than done, but it works. Carol Dweck shares her research on fixed vs. growth mindsets in her book and TED talk. She talks about “luxuriating in the power of ‘yet’ instead of being trapped in the tyranny of ‘now’”. Praising effort, strategy, and process. Focus on these things makes a big difference.
Feel like you’re faking it? Amy Cuddy shares fascinating research on how your body language and position can influence mindset and mood–using your body to fake it until your mind believes it.
5. Realize that you are making choices. This is a piece of mindset. Instead of thinking, “It’s so terrible that everyone else gets to sleep in and I am working out”, realize that you can sleep in if you want. But you are choosing to do something that is making your life a whole lot better.
This plays out quite a bit with diet or ways of eating. Most people who know me know that I don’t eat gluten or grains for the most part, and will say things like, “Oh, sorry, you can’t eat that, can you?” They are being thoughtful, and I gently respond, “Well, I can eat whatever I want, but I know that if I eat that [pizza/doughnut/piece of cake/etc.] I’m going to feel terrible tomorrow.” A shift in agency. My choice.
Positive mindset + realistic perspective + agency + focus on the long game = happy human.
6. Track your progress. This is a technique to be paired with an action plan. Just writing down how many pull ups you can do each day won’t increase your results, but it’ll help you see if you’re on track or not. It’ll help you see the long game. Motivation trail mix. It’s not magic. You still have to plan and execute your plan. This is just a tool.
And don’t forget to pay attention to the qualitative side of things.
7. Find a community or group that is working on similar things. We’re social creatures, and respond to positive and negative social pressure. Sometimes knowing that someone is meeting you at the gym is the little push you need to get out of bed and out the door. Plus there are the reward of strengthened social bonds and support.
To be clear–I don’t hit all of these nails on the head all of the time, and neither will you. No one crushes it every day. This is one of the many things I’ve learned from running first and then from lifting weights. It’s important to show up, to do the work, and to think about the long game. A few slip ups won’t de-rail your progress–unless you let them.
Almost more important than having good days is not letting those less-than-stellar days get into your head. Learning not to judge, ruminate, and sulk about not hitting your goals for a day is an important skill in itself, and one that needs to be practiced constantly.
What about you–what techniques do you use to build new habits?