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Two kinds of self-motivation: habits and projects

Strategies and goals

In recent posts I’ve talked about willpower, but there’s another kind of self-motivation a person might want to develop: the motivation to complete a particular project.

bowlingballsWillpower is the kind of thing you need if you want to quit smoking or resist making snarky remarks at staff meetings or to make the effort to memorize names when you meet new people. Project motivation is the kind of drive you need to finish a novel, learn a foreign language, or make major home renovations.

Many insights and techniques apply to both these kinds of self-motivation, but it’s worth knowing whether which habit or a project is more important to you at the moment so that you can focus on the approaches that will be most useful to for that particular goal. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, we have a limited amount of time, energy, and attention to change our behavior. If we try to do too much at once, it’s like trying to carry a bunch of bowling balls in our arms: one bowling ball is manageable, but trying to carry four or five is a disaster. Fortunately, once we master one kind of self-motivation, it’s often possible to move ahead and add others, one at a time, mastering each before we proceed (like carrying the bowling balls separately).

So what’s your biggest priority, right now, the one thing that self-motivation would help you the most with? If it’s a willpower issue, like losing weight or being a better listener, focus your efforts on being aware of your own mindset and recognizing opportunities for making good choices. If it’s a project, begin by choosing a very specific goal–for very big projects, perhaps a waypoint rather than the big end goal–and lay out the specific steps you’ll need to take. Then, figure out what changes you need to make to be able to take those steps–for instance, where the time to do them will come from.


  • Which strategies will help you most depends on whether you’re working on willpower or creating a push to complete a project.

Photo by Rick Kennedy

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