by Marnie Burkman, M.D.
Change in every moment is a given. It is empowering to set conscious intentions around what changes will support your growth, health, and long-term goals. However, knowing what you’d like to have in place “someday” is very different from the day-to-day process of making that happen. The latter is usually much harder! Using an alphabet analogy, it can feel overwhelming to set an intention to change at point “A” knowing that all the steps between “B” and “Y” are needed to finally have the new change at point “Z” fully integrated in our lives. The brain gets exhausted just imagining all those steps that might be needed -- and the initial spark from the intention quickly burns out if motivation is missing to start the action steps.
Here are seven effective ways to boost and sustain your motivation for making good changes in your life:
1) Ask yourself, What is the first small step? And when that is completed, What is the next small step? Usually people are able to commit to one small step and this quiets the mind’s tendency to resist anything more complicated. That one small step may seem simple, but is actually creating movement in the nervous system as new neural networks align to the desired behavior.
2) Set a time-limited goal -- a "lab experiment" -- for practicing the next small steps. Not too long -- more than one month could feel overwhelming and trigger doubt that you’ll persist before you even start. Depending on how much you struggle with your motivation for that particular change, your time-limited experiment could even be "for the next 20 seconds" for a challenging or chronic issue. For example, let’s say you’re working with making healing gestures for anxiety. Your experiment could be practicing belly breathing for just 20 seconds -- that’s 1/3 of a minute -- when you feel the familiar butterflies in your stomach. Then renew this "experiment" throughout the day. If you are wishing to develop a new habit such as exercise or cleaning household clutter, you could choose to do the activity for 5 minutes-a-day with a timer set, stopping when the timer goes off. Time-limited experiments help you consistently practice the desired behavior and remove the mind's excuses (such as, “I don't have enough time”) while also removing the "shoulds" of guilt (such as, “I should finish this whole task...” or “I should spend hours on this...” or “I should be perfect at this already...”).
3) Give yourself a simple, healthy yet satisfying reward for following the habit change. Examples include applying a sticker or drawing a symbol on a calendar on each date you practice a small step -- this rewards you with visual recognition of your accomplishment. You could create a reward jar, where you put in a slip of paper for each day (or each small step) that you practice. Each piece of paper can equal a monetary amount that you cash in at the end of the month to treat yourself to something special. The brain often seeks short-term results and good feelings to stay motivated for a long-term habit change. So, create a short-term simple reward so that the practice itself is satisfying and a sense of completion can be felt all along the way towards long-term change.
4) Ask others to support your growth. For example, texting a friend who agrees to be a positive coach can instill motivation. Even better, if you are both working on a similar change you can offer each other mutual encouragement and ideas. Social connection itself stimulates feel-good hormones -- how nice to combine a feel-good state with a difficult habit change! The new changes start to remind you of the good feelings you receive from your social support rather than the mixed feelings you might have felt on your own.
5) Read inspiring articles where other people share their own stories of making the same type of life changes. Especially look for stories where people vulnerably and whole-heartedly share what they learned about themselves along the way, not just about achieving “results” (being too end-product-oriented can prompt stress and unnecessary comparisons if you can’t quite “get there” the way someone else could). Learning from others’ stories can trigger feelings of shared humanity and spark you to feel innovative perspectives related to the change you are practicing.
6) Use an external cue to remind you to practice the new steps so you don't have to just rely on your willpower or memory. Place a post-it note reminder on your bathroom mirror or computer or in your car (i.e., anyplace you can’t help but see it). Set a phone alarm or chime to ring at certain moments throughout the day. You may still choose not to practice the new habit but at least you're making the choice more conscious -- until one day you do choose the new behavior. If you start to repeatedly ignore the cue (the mind can be tricky sometimes!) change it up to a different cue to keep it fresh.
7) Remember a time from your past when you enjoyed practicing the desired habit, even if it was only for a few moments. In a study from the University of New Hampshire examining exercise motivation, researchers asked subjects to recall positive or negative memories of exercise and these groups were compared to those who were not asked to recall a memory. Those that recalled something positive were significantly more likely to exercise in the subsequent week compared to the other groups. (1)
Vast visions of the long-term changes you desire can be wonderful to imagine. Paradoxically, the joy from these visions is not received on the day -- perhaps far into the future -- where the vision fully manifests, but from the soul-searching, exploratory process of simple growth steps that can only occur in the journey along the way.
1. Biondolillo M & Pillemer D. Memory 2015; 23(3): 390-402.
Marnie Burkman, M.D., is an integrative psychiatrist who offers a blend of conventional, complementary, and alternative mental health care that honors, nurtures, and compassionately guides the healing of one’s body, mind, and spirit. She received her medical degree from Tufts University School of Medicine and is board-certified in psychiatry and holistic medicine. Visit michiganIntegrative.com.