A Guide to Building Sustainable Sources of Motivation

The Motivation Mistake

We’ve all had the experience of wishing we were more motivated to achieve some difficult task or long-standing goal:

Of course we all want more motivation. But many of us never seem to have enough it because we’re mistaken about where it comes from. Most of us think of motivation like a lightning bolt that strikes suddenly in unexpected, mysterious and powerful ways. Which makes sense, because it does.

Sometimes.

This unexpected surge of motivation is what I call Capital-M Motivation.

And yet—despite the brilliance and excitement of that initial flash of Captial-M Motivation—we all know how those stories end. The mindfulness cushion gathers dust under the bed, the blog languishes wherever it is that neglected blogs go to die, and the carbs reclaim dominance over the kitchen after a week or two. And then we feel guilt and frustrated with ourselves, swearing off crazy self-help schemes for good.

But in the back of our mind, we remember how exciting and powerful those epic bolts of motivation were. And those Capital-M Motivation memories — because they’re so vivid and powerful — form our basic belief about how motivation works. And this belief about motivation keeps us hoping and waiting for more, even though we know deep down we know this isn’t a sustainable strategy.

You get the point. Waiting for motivation to strike is a recipe for brief excitement followed by chronic stagnation and regret.
Thankfully, there’s an alternative…

Everyday Motivation

At this point, I hope I’ve illustrated how Capital-M Motivation is not the reliable source of motivation for serious goals and ambitions. From here on out, I’ll try and show how, 99% of the time, motivation works in an entirely different, much more mundane way. In fact, it’s so ordinary that we don’t even acknowledge it as motivation. And as a result, we never update our implicit beliefs about how motivation works and continue to think of it as a magic bolt of lightning. But the secret to being more motivated in a sustainable way is to completely re-think what motivation is and how it works.

In a nutshell, I’ll argue that for all practical purposes, motivation is nothing more than goal-directed positive reinforcement. That means that if we want to feel consistently motivated to do challenging things, we must have reliable sources of positive reinforcement built into our lives. And, as we’ll see, that means routines.

The Magic of Positive Reinforcement Routines

Consider the person who gets up at 5:00am every morning and goes running for an hour at the gym. We tend to make the mistake of assuming that this person is so because they are either A) just lucky and feel motivated to work out early, or B) it’s just in their nature somehow to be energized and excited to run at 5:00am.

But when you look closely at people like this — people who consistently seem to have the motivation to do challenging and ambitious things — what you often notice is that they’ve built routines into their everyday lives that provide consistent positive reinforcement for doing difficult things.

Back to our early morning runner:

In each case, these little routines consistently remind their brain that, even if I feel crappy when I first get out of bed, I know I’ve got a blueberry muffin/Desperate Housewives/Me-Time coming.

In psychological terms, these little positive reinforcement-generating routines form the key ingredient in the feedback loop that allows us to consistently feel motivated to do difficult things:

Do something small but difficult → Get reward for it. → More likely to do difficult thing in the future.

Without the missing piece of positive reinforcement routines, most of us will find ourselves in that uncomfortably familiar position of waiting around for Capital-M Motivation to strike, or trying to push and will our way through difficult tasks, which — as we all know — almost never works in the long-term.

But by learning to build routines into our lives that consistently generate positive reinforcement, we will always have some minimum viable motivation with which to do difficult but important tasks. The rest of this article will walk through specific steps and techniques for building these positive reinforcement-generating routines that are the true source of practical, everyday motivation (i.e. the kind that gets real work done).

Step 1. Start Ludicrously Small and Obsessively Specific

LUDICROUSLY SMALL

Very briefly, think about something you’d like to accomplish. Let’s say, write a novel. Spend a minute or two imagining what your future tome will look like, what color the cover will be, your mom’s face when you giver her the first copy, etc.

Okay, stop.

I hope you soaked it all in because that should be the last time you spend any considerable amount of time thinking about the end result. It’s all about routines from here.

Now, think of a very small daily routine which, if you did it consistently, would eventually result in your final product or end result. To stick with the novel writing example:

Takeaway: In the beginning, your routine should be so small that you’d have to try hard not to do it.

But I’m not going to get very far writing a mere 300 words a day!

Well, let’s take a closer look at that. Say you only wrote 300 words 5 days a week for a year. That’s about 78,000 words. War and Peace it is not, but it’s still a lot of words. Guess how many words are in the first Harry Potter book? 77,325.

Now, let’s say you’re just slightly more ambitious and you did 300 words 5 days a week for a month. Then for the next 2 months you bumped it up to 500 words. And for the last 9 months you keep 500 words as your minimum but ended up averaging 700 words per day. That’s 152,000 words in a year. Here are a few minor literary works you may have heard of with fewer than 152,000 words: A Tale of Two Cities, Schindler’s List, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Wuthering Heights, and To Kill a Mocking Bird.

Takeaway: Start (much) smaller than you think you should. You can always increase the intensity or duration once the routine is established more firmly.

OBSESSIVELY SPECIFIC
Choosing a routine that’s ludicrously small is a good first step. But it’s also essential to be hyper-specific about the details of the routine.

The proverbial when, where, who, and what are a good place to start:

When you’re first starting off, have an end date for your new routine. Don’t commit to a year of writing every morning, just commit to two weeks and re-evaluate after that. Having a visible end date can be especially motivating when you’re first initiating a routine. Of course, if the two weeks goes well, by all means stretch it out to two months or a year.

Step 2. Minimalist Analog Tracking

You must track your routines. Not only will it keep you accountable, but more importantly, the physical act of indicating every successful implementation of your routine will be an important source of reward and positive reinforcement.

Now, you can track your routines however you like, but I strongly recommend a system for tracking that is both as simple as possible as well as analog. Just like starting ludicrously small makes it hard not to accomplish your routine, having a system for tracking your routines that is almost stupidly simple and straightforward makes it more likely that you will actually track it.

And then there’s the positive reinforcement angle: We all know how good it feels to physically cross things off our to-do list, and having a physical, analog tracking system taps into this reward system. Side Note: I don’t care what the technophiles tell you, the brute physicality of drenching a calendar square in bright red Sharpie ink feels way better than clicking a checkbox in some app.

A great way to track a routine in a simple, analog fashion is some version of The Seinfeld Method. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Buy a calendar.
  2. Put it visibly within the location of your routine (e.g.: on your home office desk, in your laptop sleeve that you bring into Starbuck, your gym bag, etc.)
  3. Buy a big, colorful marker.
  4. After each successful routine, fill in or put a big mark through the calendar square for the current day.
  5. Don’t break the streak.
  6. If you do miss a day, now you have more motivation to go at least one day longer this time around.

Step 3. Social Support (the Right Way)

The basic idea of recruiting another person to support you in your endeavors isn’t bad. But most people do social support the wrong way, primarily in these two ways:

  1. They view their social support person’s job as checking in on their progress toward their end goal or outcome.
  2. They think of their social support person as someone who will prevent them from falling off the wagon or slipping up.

To see why these are problematic, let’s take a step back and remember what we’re doing here: Building routines that will consistently generate streams of positive reinforcement and thus maintain a baseline level of motivation to help us complete challenging endeavors on a regular basis.

Number 1 is a mistake because — just like we want to maintain our on focus on daily routines not long-term goals — we should recruit a social support person who does the same. Their job is to help and encourage you solely with your daily routine, not your long-term goal or outcome. In fact, they shouldn’t even know what your long-term goal is.

In other words:

Number 2 is a mistake for two reasons. First, it’s based on fear rather than reward. Recall that positive reinforcement and consistent rewards for doing your daily routine is the key ingredient in building motivation. Many people make the mistake of using a social support person as an enforcer whom they will feel guilty about disappointing. And while fear and guilt can be temporarily motivating, they’re much less effective in the long-term. As a result, your social support person’s role should be to provide positive reinforcement for your successes. And when you slip up, they should be validating of the slip up and encouraging of future attempts.

The second reason Number 2 is a mistake is that you should have sole responsibility (and glory) for completing your daily routine. Having an “accountability buddy” who shows up at your front porch and 5:00am and drags you out of bed may work once or twice in the short-term, but it’s not a reliable long-term plan because it places the source of your success outside of you. If you really need someone to force you into doing your daily routines, it’s a good indicator that your routine isn’t ludicrously small enough.

To sum up, when you go to choose a social support person, try to find someone who will be A) okay with just knowing about the process and not the end result, and B) understands that their job is only about positive reinforcement and validation, not accountability.

Action Plan: Keep it simple. Having a social support person doesn’t mean daily half hour meetings or someone with similar interests who’s trying to achieve the same things. All you’re looking for here is someone who’ll agree to take 30 seconds out of their day to be encouraging of your efforts.

I think a simple text message exchange is totally sufficient:

So think of a friend who meets these criteria and shoot them a simple text or email along these lines:

Hey Grace, I’m wondering if you’d be willing to help me out on a little personal project. I’m trying to be more consistent with eating a healthy breakfast, and having someone to check in with via text once a day and let them know how I did with it would be really helpful. Interested?

If they are, briefly explain their role:

I’m not really looking for an “accountability partner” or anything like that, just someone who will be encouraging when I succeed and supportive when I slip up. Just one text exchange per day would be fantastic!

Of course, those are just examples. The essential part is to keep it simple and explain that all they need to do is respond positively or encouragingly once a day (or however often your routine is) via text.

Step 4. Treat Yourself

This one’s easy. Plan to give yourself a piece of chocolate after each successful completely routine.

Seriously, you need to literally treat yourself after each successful routine. It doesn’t have to be chocolate, obviously, but it should be something that is both immediate and enjoyable.

Here are some examples:

Take Action: As usual, keep it simple. Also, make sure that your treat — whatever it is — is built into and easily accessible from wherever your routine occurs. In other words, I’ll find a treat for myself in the kitchen after I do my 50 sit-ups is not a great idea. Have your treats ready and waiting immediately in the same vicinity as your routine. This means planning out and preparing your treats ahead of time.

But I don’t want to have to eat chocolate every day in order to become a successful writer?

Treating yourself is an important step to establishing your routines. Once your routines are firmly in place, you can modify, lessen, or entirely cut out some of your treats.

Step 5. Make a Plan for Falling Off the Wagon

There’s a lot of truth in the old saying that Failing to plan is planning to fail. But Failing to plan to fail is just as dangerous.

Of course we shouldn’t plan to fail on purpose, but we can still acknowledge that failing in at least minor ways in virtually guaranteed. And if we want to maximize our odds of rebounding well from those inevitable setbacks, we could do worse than have a specific plan for it.

Once you’re solid on the steps so far, think through ahead of time what you will do if you fall off the wagon and slip up on a routine. The details of how the plan looks are probably less important than simply having some plan at all. Here are a few recommendations:

Take Action: These should get you started. But whatever your plan is, I recommend turning it into a simple checklist and keeping it with you whenever and wherever you do your routine. For example, jot down the four things you want to remember to do or not do after you slip up on a 3×5 index card and keep it in your desk drawer/gym bag/wallet/etc.

Step 6. Make Your Routines a Part of Your Identity

Ultimately, we get the biggest increase in overall motivation when our routines become a part of our identity. Professional athletes are a great example of this.

If you asked Tom Brady what his identity is, I doubt Super Bowl Champion would be his first response. It would probably be something a bit more ordinary, like football player or professional athlete. And if you asked him how much time he spends thinking about winning the Super Bowl, I would put big money on that answer being dwarfed by the amount of time he spends thinking about last week’s game film or his morning workout regimen.

In other words, high achieving professional athletes tend to tie their identities to their routines not their outcomes, because they understand that practice and routines lead to championships, not passions, aspirations, or dreams. By tying their identities to their routines, they create continuous cycles of positive reinforcement, which generates the motivation needed to do the difficult things that actually lead to winning championships — practice, drills, conditioning, film sessions, etc.

So, How do we actually tie our identity to our routines?

I think there are two practical things we can do to start, although ultimately this step takes time to fully develop.

1. Develop the habit of identity-focused self-talk.

If you don’t already, start paying attention to the language you use to describe yourself and your routines. How do you think about yourself when the alarm clock goes off and you picture how snowy and cold it is outside on the running trail? Is your first thought about how you feel? I’m so tired and sleepy… Or is your first thought about who you are (or at least who you want to be)? I’m a runner.

The first one reinforces how good it feels to stay in bed, and therefore increases your motivation to stay in bed. The second one is reinforcing of your routine, and therefore has a better chance of getting you up and running.

A great way to practice this identity-focused self-talk is to begin a little ritual of saying I am the kind of person who (your routine here) immediately before you begin your routine.

2. Share your work.

By showing other people that you frame you identity in terms of your routines, it will encourage them to think of you and talk about you in the same way. And when they do, it will be motivating to you. Here are some examples:

All of these are examples of encouraging your friends and people around you to think about you in terms of your routines (and not your goals, aspirations, personality, etc). Eventually this will come back to benefit you in the form of positive reinforcement when, for example, you overhear a colleague or friend describing you as “a runner” or “an annoyingly productive morning person.”

Step 7. Construct a Web of Motivating Routines

Just like a well-balanced investment portfolio is diversified, with multiple, relatively independent investments, eventually your motivation portfolio should be similarly diversified.

If part of your investment portfolio involves stocks, you probably want to be invested in more than one company’s stock. Similarly, for a given routine or goal, you want several sources of motivation: The blueberry muffin before you get to the office to write + Your social support buddy’s positive comments after you write + That letter your grandma sends once a month telling you how proud she is.

But a well-balanced investment is portfolio is probably composed of more than just stocks; it probably has some bonds, maybe some real estate, a few securities, etc. Similarly, when it comes to our motivation portfolio, it’s important to have entirely independent and separate sources of positive reinforcement in our lives. Even if the routine we’re concentrating on is eating more healthily in the mornings, having several other — totally unrelated — positively reinforcing routines will indirectly help with the eating more healthily in the mornings routine by increasing our overall level of positive reinforcement and therefore motivation.

So, once you establish a solid healthy morning eating routine, you can start developing smaller unrelated routines that act as additional income streams of positive reinforcement:

Of course, you probably want to continue building upon an initial, high-priority routine: If your long-term goal is to run a marathon, you’ll have to build upon that initial routine of walking around the block once a day. Just don’t forget that, in addition to continually developing routines for your top-priority goal, it’s important to create entirely new routines in very different domains or aspect of your life in order to establish a well-balanced and diverse portfolio of motivation-generating positive reinforcement routines.

Putting it All Together: A Case Example

Jeremy has a goal of losing 15 pounds in time for summer. He’s got a family reunion on the lake beginning June 1st and wants to look his best. He’s wisely decided that, while exercising more would help some with his weight loss, the best thing he can do is to cut back on his calorie intake each day. So, where to start?

1. Start ludicrously small and obsessively specific.
Jeremey realizes that one source of excess calories is snacking in the evening. He initially decides on no food after dinner. But then he thinks again, and goes even smaller (and easier): No snacks after 8:00pm. He also decides that he’ll do this routine for a week, and once that’s established, he’ll consider moving it back to no snacking after dinner.

Jeremey then goes through the specifics of the 4 Hs: When, Where, Who, What. The when and where are pretty well-covered already since Jeremey spends most evenings at home in his apartment, and his routine (a negative one, by the way (i.e. not doing something rather than doing something) already includes a specific 8:00pm time frame.

In terms of the who, because he tends to snack with his wife in the evenings, he smartly has a discussion with her about it. She agrees to join him in his no evening snack, although if she really wants to she’ll do it out of sight.

As part of thinking through the what, he decides with his wife that in order to offset the loss of pleasure from snacking, they’re going to finally break down and buy the complete box set of their favorite show and watch it in the evenings.

2. Minimalist analog tracking

Jeremey gets a legal pad and draws a single row of 7 boxes, each one labeled with the day of the upcoming week. He finds a big purple marker from the supply drawer and places both on his nightstand near his bed. He commits to either filling in the square after a successful evening of no snacking after 8:00 or an X if he slips up. At the last minute he decides to be even a little more neurotic and place the legal pad and marker on his pillow each morning so that he literally cannot get into bed without tracking his evening no snacking routine.

3. Social support, the right way

Jeremey asks his buddy Dave at work to be his social support guy. He explains the routine (not the end goal), and lets Dave understand what he needs: Each evening around 10:30 (when Jeremey heads to bed) he’ll text Dave and let him know how he did on the routine. Dave’s job is simply to provide a brief text back of positive reinforcement for success or a validating message and some encouragement if Jeremey slips up.

4. Treat yourself

One of Jeremey’s guilty pleasures is playing a racing car game on his iPad. Lately he’s given it up because he feels like it’s a waste of time. But for the next week, he’s downloaded the game back onto his iPad and given himself permission to play for 15 minutes in bed after successfully not snacking after 8:00pm. He keeps his iPad visible on his night stand.

5. Make a plan for falling off the wagon

Jeremey find a 3×5 index card and writes the following on it:
In case of evening snacking slip-up: 1) Be careful of my self-talk. Remember that being overly critical of myself isn’t helpful. 2) Text Dave right away and own the slip-up. 3) Remind myself: Even if I slip up once out of seven days, that’s still a pretty good success rate (85%). He places the index card on his nightstand.

6. Make your routines part of your identity

Immediately after finishing dinner, as he’s putting his plates in the sink, Jeremey says a little mantra to himself: I’m the type of person who doesn’t snack late at night. Additionally — even though he feels a little embarrassed by it — he sends out a short tweet to his rather small Twitter following explaining his plan to not snack after 8:00pm. Each night, after filling in his calendar and playing his iPad game, he tweets about his success with his routine. Occasionally he gets a like or comment in response which is reinforcing.

7. Construct a web of motivating routines

Even though his focus for the first couple weeks will be on his routine of not snacking at night — first not after 8:00pm, and then not after dinner — Jeremey briefly brainstorms some other small routines he could start building in the future, all of which would provide increased sources of general positive reinforcement in his life, and therefore increase his overall level of motivation.

He comes up with:

With a little luck, Jeremey will be off an running with his new routine. And hopefully, his end goal of dropping those 15 pounds.

Summary

The basic argument of this article goes like this:

So, if motivation depends on consistent goal-aligned positive reinforcement, and positive reinforcement relies on routines, we need to consciously begin building these reinforcement-generating routines. And I’ve found that there are 7 useful steps to doing this:

  1. Choose routines that are ludicrously small and obsessively specific.
  2. Track your routines in a minimalist and analog fashion.
  3. Recruit the right kind of social support.
  4. Reward yourself with treats.
  5. Make an explicit plan for what you will do if you slip up.
  6. Build your identity around your routines not your goals.
  7. Create a web of independent motivation-generating routines.

Final Thoughts

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