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Instead Of Trying To Motivate Yourself, Work On Growing Your Discipline

Do me a favor. In your mind, picture your most grace-filled friend: the one who consoles you when you’ve blown all your new year’s resolutions, normalizes your struggles, and reminds you that your worth is not defined by your accomplishments.

Oh, hiiiiii! *waves frantically* It’s me! I have all the grace, for myself and everybody else. I don’t need the validation and pats on the back because I’ve given them all to myself, becoming even a bit too assured of how awesome I am, whether I’m checking things off my to-do list or not.

In the midst of 2020, that was a good thing. On the days when I was mentally and emotionally depleted and declared unlimited screen time for my kids in order to make it through the day, I experienced zero guilt. I wrote up cute little schedules, ignored them after a few days or weeks, and never judged myself for it. As long as there was love in my home, I considered each day a win.

In November, though, I started to feel a shift. I still wanted to be kind to myself but — as anyone who’s experienced true, honest friendship knows — kindness doesn’t always look like a pat on the back. Sometimes kindness is shedding light on an area that needs growth, or doing the harder thing because the result will be worth it.

I realized that the soft cushion of grace I had laid out for myself had aided my survival of 2020, but it wouldn’t help me thrive. My days were all starting to blur together, and I knew it would take a change to lift my energy and my mood. So I turned to social media, asking friends for “some advice on how to get motivated — how to wake up in the morning feeling ready to pursue PURPOSE.”

I got some incredible advice: daily gratitude practice, celebrating small wins, mindfulness, affirmations, journaling, working out, and setting small, achievable goals, to name a few. I eagerly jotted these down, trying hard to not feel overwhelmed at the thought of another to-do list (even one that was for the sake of my mental health)!

As I started to slowly implement a few of those strategies, two pieces of advice stood out. The first: my favorite mama-coach asked me, “What if it’s not about motivation, but discipline?”

You know that feeling when truth just slaps you in the face? Yeah. I needed that slap. I had been focusing on “how can I feel motivated?” instead of “how can I grow the muscle of discipline?” And once I remembered that self-control is a fruit of the Spirit, and therefore something I have access to according to my faith, I became eager to grow that muscle, knowing that God promised to help me.

The second: another friend recommended I read The Willpower Instinct. For some reason, I typically avoid books that sound self-help-y, but like I said, I was eager, and Dr. Kelly McGonigal did not disappoint. I’d highly recommend it; the dozens of scientific studies she cites, which I don’t get into here, are equal parts fascinating and motivating. (Also, can we talk about how great it is that her name is Professor McGonigal?!)

But before I share my highlights, I need to state that I’m not jumping onto your screen right now as some hyped-up motivational speaker, shouting empty platitudes I found on Google. I am painfully aware of how horrendous the past year has been for our mental health, and the last thing I would want is for this post to result in anyone feeling worse about their current unmotivated state. Please know: I. Am. With. You. I’m sharing these reflections as a fellow warrior on the battlefield. As I was limping along a few months ago, feeling like I was hanging on by a thread, these are the concepts that helped me take grace-filled baby steps toward what I want my days to feel like.

For most of 2020, I felt like life was just happening to me. I don’t want to feel like that anymore. Taking control of the small, but powerful choices that I have in my grasp has been empowering. I’ve felt a heaviness lifting, and that’s what I wish for each of you.

So after all that background context (now you know what my husband has to deal with every time I tell him a story) — here are the 6 biggest lessons from The Willpower Instinct that have changed the game for me:

1. Find your REAL “why”

Sometimes what we think we want is not actually our biggest motivation. Parents, how often have you told yourself “I want to be a better parent”? How often does that actually help you in your day-to-day decisions? Close your eyes and actually envision what you want your life to look like. Who do you want to be? How do you want to feel? A mom who took the author’s course on willpower did this, and realized she needed a more intrinsic motivation than simply being “good” — that alone wasn’t stopping her from yelling at her kids. What worked? Realizing that at the end of the day, her bigger-picture motivation was that she wanted to enjoy parenting — and it’s clearly not enjoyable to yell all the time.

When you want to give up, step back and reflect on whether you’ve identified your truest, deepest motivation that will compel you to fight temptation in order to reach it. The “halo effect” we feel from being “good” is fleeting, but living out our values because we truly believe and are invested in them has a positive snowball effect.

2. Understand dopamine

This one blew my mind, y’all. I’ve always associated dopamine with happiness (the “feel-good” hormone, right?) Come to find out, dopamine doesn’t activate an actual sensation of happiness, but of wanting: it’s the PROMISE of happiness we’re feeling. Unfortunately, we easily confuse the two, and thus sabotage finding true satisfaction.

Dopamine is the feeling that races through us when we’re thinking about something we really, really want — like when I see the Krispy Kreme sign light up. But McGonigal asks us to pay close attention to how we actually feel after we get what we crave: is it all that we imagined? In the case of my donut cravings, I’ve started to notice that the craving is always strong, but the actual taste? I mean, it’s nice, but not what my mind had hyped it up to be — especially when I’m seeking it out as a stress reliever. Non-food indulgences tend to go the same way. Mindlessly scrolling through social media. Skipping my workout. Those don’t rejuvenate me like they seemingly promise to. As we know from experience, and as McGonigal highlights, “when we’re stressed, our brains persistently mis-predict what will make us happy.”

So, what can actually boost our happiness? According to the author, “we need to separate the real rewards that give our life meaning from the false rewards that keep us distracted and addicted.” Working out, good conversation, meditation, spiritual gatherings, physical touch, and being creative all activate oxytocin — a true feel-good reward. But here’s the catch: we have to remember how good it feels so that we’ll pursue it over promises that won’t deliver. McGonigal gives an example of a student of hers who avoided yoga class for 3 years because it felt easier to unwind by drinking wine and watching TV. When she finally went back to class, she was blown away by how good she felt. She decided to record herself in her happy, peaceful state afterwards so she could remind herself how “worth it” it was later.

To be clear, dopamine exists for a reason: it helps keep us motivated and even boosts our memory and learning. But chasing the promise of reward will always be just that — a chase. Instead, let’s seek out actual mood-boosters that are sustainable over the long haul. For me, the short routine of doing a 7-minute workout in the morning, reading my devotional, and choosing an affirmation for the day has created such a shift. Just like the yoga lady, once I realized how “ready for the day” I felt afterwards, I wanted to keep doing it! I never used to set my alarm to get up before my kids. Now, my 6:45 wake-up is second nature. And remember how I said I give myself all the grace and resist routines? Well, I literally haven’t missed a weekday workout in a month, which feels crazy to even type, knowing myself! I really do attribute that to the mental shift described here: making the “harder choice” to get the real reward, knowing that choosing it will become easier and easier as that choice bears fruit.

3. Who’s the “real” you?

This one is simple, but powerful. Who do you believe is the “real” you? Is it the you who sets goals or the you who can’t help but to lose control? This question is so important because it has the power to combat “moral licensing” — the name McGonigal gives for our tendency to reward ourselves for good behavior in self-sabotaging ways. She writes:

Moral licensing turns out to be, at its core, an identity crisis. We only reward ourselves for good behavior if we believe that who we really are is the self that wants to be bad. From this point of view, every act of self-control is a punishment, and only self-indulgence is a reward. But, why must we see ourselves this way? Moving beyond the traps of moral licensing requires knowing that who we are is the self who wants the best for us, and the self that wants to live in line with our core values. When this happens, we will no longer view the impulsive, lazy, or easily tempted self as the real us. We will no longer act like someone who must be bribed, tricked, or forced to pursue our goals, and then rewarded for making any effort at all.

She continues:

When you think about your willpower challenge, which part of you feels more like the real you? Do you feel like the kind of person who can succeed, or do you feel like you need to fundamentally suppress, improve, or change who you are? Do you identify more with your impulses and desires, or your long-term goals and values?

When we commit to seeing ourselves as the person who wants to pursue the goal, not the one who needs to be reined in and controlled, we can more easily avoid self-sabotage. This has been so true for me. I used to complain that I’m simply not the type of person that can stick to a routine, even something as simple as one task. But guess what? The little morning routine wins I described earlier gave me a boost of confidence, so I decided to institute Wednesdays as laundry day. Instead of seeing it as an uphill battle against how I’m wired, I’d simply try my best, knowing that in the long run, more predictability will bring me less anxiety overall. I celebrate myself when I do it, thanking myself for pursuing the peace that comes from that small sense of order. Not seeing myself as the enemy has been a tremendous help.

4. Self-forgiveness over guilt and defeat

While guilt is not how I’d describe my own feelings when I don’t live up to my goals, I definitely get frustrated and tend to give up easily. But there’s good news for all of us: beating ourselves up doesn’t push us toward our goals, so we can stop doing it!

What happens when you criticize yourself? Well, it doesn’t feel good, so naturally you want to escape the “conversation” with yourself and the accompanying guilt, shame, and pain. And how do you escape? Probably by making a decision to indulge in something that brings instant gratification and sets you back from the very goals you’ve set.

Try being gentle with yourself instead, as counterintuitive as it may sound to some. Why does it work? You’re less likely to walk out on the “conversation” when your inner dialogue is kinder. Self-forgiveness helps you stick around long enough to analyze how you’re feeling, what led you to make a decision you regret, and what you can do better next time. That’s way more productive than escaping and repeating the cycle!

As McGonigal puts it, “It’s forgiveness, not guilt, that increases accountability. Researchers have found that taking a self-compassionate point of view on a personal failure makes people more likely to take personal responsibility for the failure than when they take a self-critical point of view.”

5. Break out of autopilot

As we discussed in point two, instant gratification is a beast. One way to resist it: try the 10 minute rule.

Studies show that instituting just a 10 minute wait time before giving into temptation shifts whatever we’re trying to resist from a “now” concept to a “later” concept. Once we do that, we can more soberly and accurately compare the temptation with our long term goals. In a “now” vs. “later” battle, “later” doesn’t stand much chance. By pausing for 10 minutes, though, it becomes a fair fight of “later” vs. “later,” and I have the space to reframe my dilemma. Last Monday, for example, my body woke me up too early and I couldn’t get back to sleep. I was annoyed, to say the least. On autopilot, I would have just laid in bed and mindlessly scrolled on social media. But I paused. Would that decision really help me start off my day with intentionality and positivity? Definitely not. Instead, I sat up, pulled out my laptop, and worked on this blog post. And it felt so great that I texted the two girlfriends who serve as my accountability/cheerleaders to brag about it. Even at 6 a.m., that pause helped me see my two options for what they truly were, and I was able to choose well.

Obviously, this strategy is only for things you’re trying to resist, like mindless scrolling. Is your willpower challenge something you’re trying to do more of, like getting your home organized? If so, simply flip the strategy and take 10 minutes to DO whatever it is that will move you closer to your goal — then you have permission to stop. Chances are, it will feel great and you’ll keep going. And if not, 10 minutes was better than nothing!

Those 10 minutes allow us the space to be mindful, to observe the way we’re feeling when we’re faced with a willpower dilemma. In fact, this is how the book concludes: “If there’s one ‘secret’ to willpower, it’s the power of paying attention, not running on autopilot.” In the difficult times we’ve been living in, I’ll be the first to admit that my brain has felt like mush some days, and all I’ve wanted to do is “check out.” But this information reminds me that any little steps I can take in the direction of mindfulness will serve me far better in the long run.

6. Remember, your future self is YOU! Show yourself some love!

This is another fact that amazed me: When we envision our future selves (like when we optimistically say “I’ll feel like doing that tomorrow”), we’re literally using the part of the brain that thinks about other people — not ourselves. We completely dissociate from whatever actual emotions we have about the task at hand in the present, assuming that this mysterious Future Me will somehow feel differently.

But Future You is… wait for it… YOU! And science shows that people who have a better sense of their future self being THEM are far more likely to make decisions that will be beneficial in the long run.

So how do we cultivate this sense of [future] self? Here are a few ideas:

Create a vivid “future memory” of any kind — close your eyes and experience a day in the life of your future self, whether it’s next week or next decade.

Write a letter to your future self. In your letter, describe what you’re doing now, or jot down that visualization you just did of what your life might be like.

Pose this question to yourself: What would your future self thank you for if you were able to commit to it today?

I’ll leave you with that question because, for me, it has been what has helped me most over these past few months as I’ve been climbing out of the haze of the difficult emotions that the past year has brought. It helps me remember that I deserve a life marked by peace, joy, and fulfillment. It reminds me that cultivating that life is in my power today. It draws my attention to seemingly small decisions I can make right now that will energize me to not only be fully present and live as my most authentic self, but to also be a compassionate partner, an intentional parent, a dedicated employee, a loving friend — all roles that are truly important to me.

Motivation will ebb and flow, but I can arm myself with a mindset that values discipline and consistency over quick fixes. Like any muscle, I can grow my self-control — it’s not fixed. As I lovingly cheer myself on to do just a little more each day, I’m caring for who I am now and fighting for the wellness — mind, body, and soul — of Future Me. And after the year we’ve had, we all deserve that.

About the author
I believe empathy and vulnerability can change the world. Follow Ellie on Instagram or read more articles from Ellie on Thought Catalog.

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