Many of my clients, especially the younger ones get frustrated because they have things they want to accomplish, but they have trouble getting themselves to start. They want to exercise more, but can’t get themselves to the gym. They want to study more but can’t get themselves to open their books. They want to socialize more but can’t muster up the courage to go out and talk to people.
As I delve more into the science of behavior and motivation, I learn many of my clients have one thing in common. They bite off more than they can chew at the start, and then get demotivated and quit. The other thing they do that interferes with their goals is to plan to start “tomorrow”, and tomorrow never happens.
My clients know that starting these good, healthy habits will be a big benefit to them in their lives, so they can’t understand why they can’t just do it.
The problem is that many of the things we “need” to do in order to feel good about ourselves, cost us in mental and physical effort. And the human brain doesn’t really like expending energy. Our brains are geared towards conserving energy, not expending it. Our brains tell us not to repeat things that are painful or cost a lot of energy. This may be the same principle in play when we touch a hot stove. Our brain says to us, “don’t do that again, that hurts. So goes the motivation when we do something like work out too hard. We may feel good about burning calories on that first workout, but if we push ourselves and use up all our will power, we are still fighting our brain’s insistence not to do that again because it wasn’t fun.
So, what do you do? You’re trying to start a habit of doing something your brain really doesn’t want you to continue. How do you convince it otherwise so it will be on your side?
Here’s the trick. Start small and do just enough so that you’re still enjoying the activity, and then quit for the day while you’re ahead. Most activities, even math homework, can be enjoyable, or at least satisfying, in short bursts. For math, for example, you might feel good about the fact that you got out your books and started trying to understand algebra, just for a few minutes. You want to stop while this still feels good, rather than push through until you’re in agony.
Then, the next day, you add just a little more time to your task. If you did 5 pushups today and quit before your arms really hurt and your brain is asking why are you doing this, you’ll have the slightest feeling of, “I wanted to keep going”,and then, “I want to do that again”. This way your brain sees this as enjoyable and instead of dreading when you have to do it again, you’ll be anxiously awaiting the time when you get to do it again. Then in a few days, you add just a bit more. And in this way, you start to develop a new habit for something that you need to do but don’t necessarily want to do (at first). Pretty soon, the exercise or homework or yard work won’t seem like “work” because you let yourself develop an interest in doing it by starting slow and building up.