We often know the right thing to do but have trouble actually doing it. We understand how our bad habit is harming us or why a new, healthy habit would benefit us, but we still don’t feel motivated to change. This habit might be exercising three times a week, consistently eating healthy food, or stopping smoking. Even if we are given a list of all the ways our behavior changes will benefit us, sometimes it still feels impossible to make any progress towards our goals. One helpful way to tackle this problem is to look at what hinders motivation and what creates it.
One core hindrance to motivation and effective behavior change is a poor image of ourselves, both in terms of low self-esteem and a low concept of self-efficacy (meaning, very little belief in our capacity to accomplish anything). Interestingly enough, our opinion of whether or not we are likely to succeed dramatically impacts our likelihood of success.
Our experiences, the people we surround ourselves with, and our self-talk shapes our concept of self-efficacy. When we succeed, our self-confidence is boosted, and when we fail, our self-confidence can take a nose-dive. It is essential that we surround ourselves with positive mentors and models whose successes’ can inspire us, whose failures’ can remind us of the inevitability and importance of failure, and whose lives can motivate us towards positive self-change.
It is unsurprising that failure can cause us to doubt our ability to succeed. The important thing to remember is that failure is one of the key steps of learning. No progress can be made without some failure. Failure is not a reason to quit but an opportunity to try again, learn, and grow. By setting small goals, we feel a sense of progress which motivates us and increases our likelihood of success. At the same time, we need to keep our eyes on the bigger picture, the larger goal. That way, even when we inevitably make mistakes along the way, we can remind ourselves of why we are trying in the first place. We can celebrate our successes while not becoming derailed by failure.
Our self-talk is incredibly important and intrinsically tied to how motivated we are. There is a technique in psychology called “Motivational Interviewing”. It is used in counselling sessions to help individuals feel more motivated to actively take steps towards their goals. One tactic is to evaluate the pros and cons of change and stagnation, envisioning what each different future could look like. This enables a person to rationally choose which future they desire more, motivating them to work towards it. Another tactic is to discuss a person’s values. This provides room for the individual to contemplate what truly matters to them and gives them space to look at whether or not the behavior in question supports or undermines those values. You can use these same techniques in your thought life in order to motivate you. Look at the behavior that you want to start or stop doing. How does it align with the future you want or the values you want to reflect?
In fact, all of the mental strategies mentioned, whether it be the mentors we seek to emulate, the stories we tell ourselves about our failures, or the logical contemplation of potential futures and the nature of our values, are useful to tools to motivate ourselves to work towards our goals.
Another essential part of motivation and completion of our goals is our social identity and social connections. There has been extensive research done as to how social identity impacts addiction, especially how isolation perpetuates negative behavior. Building community with others around healthy habits (such as joining a running group if you want to start running consistently) and even just with people who are positive influences on you, increases the likelihood of you succeeding with your goals. Their successes can motivate you to work hard for yours, and their positive input can counter lingering negative self-talk. In a similar vein, negative social pressure can keep you stuck in bad habits. Recognize the power of peer pressure and use it to your advantage by surrounding yourself with positive influences.
One significant hindrance we have to breaking bad habits is the natural dopamine response in our brain that makes bad behavior addictive. Our body is literally reinforcing our negative behavior, making it even harder to quit. One way to counter this dopamine response is to implement environmental changes to make our bad behavior more difficult. Some examples of this include not having any junk food in the house or changing your grocery store route. If the habit you are trying to break is physically harder to accomplish, you will be less likely to fall back into it.
All of these strategies are ways to motivate yourself towards accomplishing your goals, making you far more likely to succeed. Behavior change takes hard work but it is possible. Take small steps, recognize your progress, and remember to cheer yourself on! You can do this!