Finding and keeping the motivation to change

Aug 24, 2018

By Amanda Gale-Bando, Ph.D

One of life’s greatest challenges is getting and staying motivated. Perhaps you want to exercise on a regular basis, eat healthier, make a doctor appointment you’ve been putting off, get to bed earlier, or spend more quality time with your family. Even when you know you want to make such a change, time can slip past – first a week, then a month, then another month, before you realize that the situation remains the same.

You may become self-critical, believe it’s your fault for being “lazy,” and tell yourself you need to “just do it.” Since self-criticism is the antithesis of long-term motivation, you’ll likely find yourself back at square one. The recipe for sustained, long-term motivation and success is to tune in to what is truly important to you, set clear goals aligned with your values, and reinforce each step you take toward them.

Values set the stage for motivation

Motivation is ignited when your goals align with your core values – what is most important to you – rather than what others think you should do or what you believe a “good” person would do. Your core values are not based on judgments or others’ opinions. Knowing what is truly important to you and constructing goals based on those values helps set you up for success.

Think about what’s most important to you right now in your life – without judgment or thoughts of what you “should” want. Some examples might be family, social activities, romance, career advancement, or adventure. The key to identifying values that will inspire motivation is to be truthful about what excites you. Click here for a useful exercise to help you articulate your values.

When you’re honest with yourself about your current values, and you develop goals to help move toward them, it stimulates motivation. Imagine trying to eat healthier because someone else thinks you should. How unmotivating! It is extraordinarily difficult to sustain any change based on someone else wanting it for you. Now, imagine you decide that you want to feel great in your body. Maybe you want to be pain-free, more active with your family, or less sluggish in the afternoons. You decide that eating healthier would feel fantastic and set out to change some of your eating behaviors to support this value.

When your goals are connected to what matters to you, you’re more likely to stick with hard decisions because you know they’re leading you toward where you want to be. Instead of saying “no” to dessert because you think you should, you say “no” because you’re motivated to get and stay healthy. Having your value-based goals crystallized in your mind makes this decision easier. And the more you make decisions in line with your values, the more likely you are to do the same at the next opportunity.

Reinforcement keeps you motivated

Another critical factor in cultivating motivation is reinforcement – anything that increases the likelihood a behavior will occur more frequently. Reinforcement is an effective way to achieve lasting change, and it can come in many forms. After taking a step toward your goals, try congratulating yourself (“Good job!” or “I did it!”), enjoy a favorite treat, draw a smiley face on your to-do list next to the task you accomplished, or stop and notice the feeling of pride.

To discover what is reinforcing for you, you can try some of the suggestions above or come up with your own and see if you start engaging in your desired behaviors (e.g., making healthy eating choices) more frequently. Successful reinforcers increase motivation, and you will notice yourself move forward more consistently. If you do not see this success, change up the reinforcers until you discover what works best for you.

Set realistic expectations

It’s important to realize that progress does not happen in a straight line. Even when you reinforce a behavior, it’s impossible to go from overeating at every meal to a healthy-eating lifestyle immediately, with no relapse. Change doesn’t work like that.

Change is messy. We’re hardwired to slip back into old, ineffective behaviors that have been reinforced again and again over time. Even when you don’t want to, it’s easy to fall into old routines like overeating, watching TV all day, or going back to that “I’ll do it tomorrow” mentality. It takes time for the reinforcement of new, more adaptive behaviors to take hold and override the old.

Learn to anticipate this tendency and give yourself a break when it happens instead of punishing yourself, and you’ll be able to view “failure” as an opportunity. In fact, you can reinforce yourself for noticing that you’ve engaged in behaviors you’re trying to change and then focus your attention on what small step you can take to course-adjust and move in the direction you want.

Practice, practice, practice!

Getting the hang of reinforcement and motivation takes practice. By identifying what you are already doing that’s working, or taking very small steps forward, and then rewarding those actions, you will begin to build that muscle. Punishment (e.g., criticizing yourself) extinguishes motivation; setting goals in line with your values and reinforcing steps taken toward them ignites and maintains motivation.

Here is a practice that will help you with building this muscle:

Start by noticing your breathing. Simply notice that you are inhaling and exhaling. Pay attention to where in your physical body you feel your breath.

Take three to five breaths this way, and when your mind wanders away or zones out, gently bring your attention back. You can think of each breath like a weightlifting rep, or an exercise to build your ability to put your attention where you want it.

Now, using this idea of placing the mind where you want it to be in the moment, recall one thing you did over the past 24 hours that was a step toward your goal. Unless you achieved a massive goal in the past day, this exercise requires you to let go of judgments and notice little ways in which you were effective.

If you were tired and you got up on time, that’s an accomplishment. If you felt depressed and didn’t want to get out of bed but you took a shower, perhaps that was effective. Don’t dismiss anything for not being “good” enough or “big” enough.

When you have that behavior in mind, reinforce it. You can reinforce with encouraging self-talk, such as saying, “Good job,” or “I did it,” or “Nice!” Or simply notice that the task was accomplished and is part of a growing pattern of new behavior. Remember, if your mind wanders or starts telling you that it wasn’t good enough, your practice is to gently bring your focus back to what you did well and reinforce it.

You may also reinforce your behavior through soothing touch. Try placing your hands over your heart center, or one hand over the other hand, or gently cup your face with both hands. This is touch that feels loving and sweet. Again, when your mind wanders, gently bring your attention back to what you did well and reinforce it.

This practice may increase your motivation in a way that is sustainable and reliable. Get in the habit of finding one thing every day that you did that’s consistent with your values and turn your mind toward noticing what you accomplished and reinforcing it. Remember that when your mind goes toward judgments about you or your behavior not measuring up, it will extinguish your motivation and ability to move forward. It’s not wrong. This is just what minds do; they wander, and they come up with judgments. Your task is to calmly notice when this happens and bring your attention back to reinforcing your accomplishment. Practice, practice, practice this and you will notice that your motivation grows and your ability to take more steps toward your goals increases.

 

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DISCLAIMER: The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amanda Gale-Bando, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist trained in evidence-based, scientifically grounded therapies and practices (DBT, CBT, and mindfulness) specifically designed to help with emotion dysregulation, shame, and self-criticism and help people shift from surviving to thriving.