Browsing the archives for the elements of motivation tag.
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How to Support Someone in Pursuing Their Goal

Strategies and goals


Have you ever listened as a friend talked excitedly about a new goal–a diet, an organization system, a new way of talking to their kids–and worried that they might not make it? Since it’s easy for motivation obstacles to derail even the best initial efforts, often someone working on a new goal will soon give up or lose their way.

But motivation is easier when there’s someone supporting you. This post talks about a few effective ways to provide that support.

Work Alongside Them
One of the most helpful things anyone can do to help another person make progress toward a goal is to work alongside them. You’re offering a variety of benefits when you go out and exercise with someone who’s starting an exercise program, or sit down and read or study along with someone who’s trying to learn a new skill or subject, for instance. Doing these things with the person you’re supporting provides more structure, heightens awareness of how much and how often they’re working on their goal, offers someone to talk to if things get difficult, creates expectations they can aim to fulfill, and shows sympathy and support.

Share Goals and Progress
If you’re working on a completely different kind of goal than the person you’re supporting–for instance, they’re trying to declutter their house and you’re trying to start up a part-time consulting business–you can get together regularly to talk about how you’ve each been doing–your successes and failures, insights and questions. In addition to being an excellent way to establish a feedback loop, these kinds of conversations provide a low-pressure way each of you can talk frankly about how you’re doing to someone who understands how much work it can be to change your life.

Ask Them About It–Often
Simply asking about someone’s progress and listening uncritically, not offering advice unless asked and encouraging them to build on any successes or good ideas, can be of enormous value. When someone asks me about a project I’m working on, it forces me to ask myself how I’m doing with it, reminds me of my own priorities, makes it clear that other people care about my goals (usually because they care about me), and helps encourage me to make progress so as to be able to have positive things to report the next time I’m asked.

Help Make it Easier
Particularly if someone has good morale but limited resources, it can be helpful to assist them by providing necessities. They might appreciate help getting space to work in; some uninterrupted time; healthy foods; access to exercise equipment; helpful resources from the library, bookstore, or Web; or even just items that make the effort more pleasant. If they work in a particular area, you could provide something that makes that area more efficient, comfortable, or appealing, like a better chair or some art you know they’ll like, which can help support their motivation by increasing the appeal of their day-to-day work on their goal.

Learn More About What They’re Doing
Especially if you already talk with the person you’re supporting about what they’re doing, it can help to study up on the subject so as to be able to have meaningful conversations, ask good questions, know what kinds of support they might need, and point them to good information. Depending on what their goal is, there are good materials available on the Web, in the library, from people who are already successful doing what they want to do, and in many cases on this site (like my eBook on Writing Motivation if you want to help support someone with their writing, or my posts on weight loss for people working on fitness).

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How Not to Blow a Diet Over the Holidays

Strategies and goals


It’s one thing to maintain willpower in normal circumstances, in an environment you can control, after a lot of practice. It’s usually much more difficult to stick to your chosen path when circumstances change: travel, holidays, restaurants, vacations, celebrations, moves, new jobs, and so on. Thanksgiving through Christmas is like a parade of these kinds of issues, at least for anyone working on weight loss. Yet some people get through the holidays maintaining or reducing their weight, in the same way some people can go to restaurants full of unhealthy foods and find the good choices there. How does this happen?

The information in this post is specifically about weight loss, but these tactics work for any kind of challenge to willpower, and apply to sustaining any habit through a hard time. The tactics are 1) commit yourself, 2) get informed, 3) make a plan, 4) throw away illusions, 5) enlist help, and 6) resist attacks.

Commit Yourself
You can either let yourself go on the one hand, consuming huge quantities of food, feeling overstuffed, gaining weight, and possibly feeling unhappy about it; or you can commit to eating modestly and expending a lot of effort, avoiding a lot of foods you’ll probably really want to eat, being conspicuous, feeling much better than everyone else after the meal, and then maybe marveling at your success.

If you do want to eat a lot, probably no one will stop you–but if you’re deciding to eat healthily, you’ll need to commit yourself completely. Habit and tradition are generally too strong to be overcome without real resolve.

Get Informed
What foods will be at the event you’re going to? Which ones might be good choices for you to eat? Find out the calorie counts (or exchanges, etc.) for each one. Whatever system you use to track what you eat, apply it to the things you expect to see at the event you’re going to, so that you know for certain whether or not a sliver of pumpkin pie fits in your plans, or whether the potatoes or the cranberry sauce are a good idea. If you don’t have a system for tracking what you eat, you’ll almost certainly need one.

Make a Plan
If you expect trouble over the holidays, that’s an immediate indication that the habits you already have probably aren’t up to the challenge. So you’ll need to make specific plans for behavior–plans more advanced than a general intention to eat less. Willpower is not a vague energy that you can draw from the æther to apply to different situations by “just doing better”; it’s using mental tools to steer yourself into acting differently than you usually would.

What will you eat? How much will you eat? What will you do if the food you’re expecting to see isn’t there? What will you not eat? What will you say when someone tries to urge you to eat it, since after all, “it’s a holiday” or “it’s just this once” or “Martha made it herself” or “it doesn’t count”? What anti-hunger techniques will you use? (See “24 Ways to Stop Feeling Hungry” for some options.)

If you want better choices for food, considering making or bringing them yourself. Eating separate food from everyone else takes a little courage and makes you stand out. But it also demonstrates that you’re serious and committed.

Remember that you’ll need to plan for each event you go to, or else make rules that will keep you on the path for all events. It especially helps to have an emergency plan for unexpected events, like when someone brings cake into the office or you’re invited to dinner on short notice.

Throw Away Illusions
You may not need to hear these things, but in case you do: when you’re trying to lose weight, everything you eat “counts.” Your biology won’t care that it’s Thanksgiving. If you don’t get to eat something that looks good to you, you’re not owed any compensation. You don’t get any do-overs except that you can try again the next time an event comes up. Some people at the event may try to make you feel guilty for not eating; if they don’t have to haul the resulting fat cells around, though, they don’t get a vote.

Enlist Help
If you tell people in advance that you’re losing weight and really don’t want to gain it back over during the holidays, they have more of a chance to prepare themselves and to assist and support you. Walking in the door with your own meal in Tupperware when some one’s already gone to the trouble of making your favorite pie can cause trouble both with your relationships and your eating habits. Giving notice in advance can make it easier for others to help.

Not that everyone will necessarily want to help. Some people may feel that your work on your weight is an implied criticism of their own weight. Others may mistakenly think that trying to lose weight means that you think you “need” to lose weight to be a valuable person rather than that you’re just a valuable person who just wants to lose weight. Some people may be offended that you don’t stick to traditions or don’t eat what they’ve prepared. You’ll have to decide whether it’s more important to have their approval or to stick with your own priorities. It’s very easy to go with the approval; that’s the popular choice.

Resist Attacks
It’s very likely that someone will offer you food that doesn’t fit your plans–and maybe even try to insist. In addition, foods have a nefarious and evil way of offering themselves. Plan how you will resist these attacks and remind yourself that they are attacks when they occur (not in the sense of someone else intending to cause harm, but in the sense of posing immediate and real danger to your well-being). It sometimes helps to recognize the attraction before fighting it, for instance saying mentally “Yes, I could have some more mashed potatoes with gravy, and I would probably enjoy them. I ‘m just choosing not to.”

Specific ways to resist attacks are listed in that article on hunger I mentioned.

Holidays and special events aren’t easy to navigate. If, like me, you’re walking into the den of the beast with the intention of coming out lighter on the other side, good luck! Today I weigh 182 pounds. I’ll update this post in early January to let you know how it came out for me: I expect to have lost at least a few pounds. (Added later: want to know how it went? Read the follow-up post.)

Photo by Donna Grayson

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Don’t Feel Motivated? 10 Ways to Find Motivation Right Now

States of mind

Owl taking flight

If you don’t feel motivated right now, are you at the mercy of your brain chemistry, washed in and out of motivation on tides of dopamine and adrenaline and all the rest? In a word … no. There’s no magical way to ensure you’ll always be motivated, but there are some simple things you can do at practically any time to get motivation running.

Before I talk about those specific tactics, I want to be sure to mention that reading this article alone isn’t likely to get you motivated, but doing one or more of the things this article describes can help quite a bit. Knowing something isn’t the same as acting on what you know –though there is one exception, which I’ll mention.

Without further ado, then, here are 10 things you can do to get motivated right now, each supported by substantial research.

  1. Get a little exercise. It may sound unappealingly healthy, but research strongly supports the idea that even a 10-minute walk can make you more alert and energetic, and can improve your mood quickly.
  2. If something’s bothering you, fix your thoughts. Often we hold ourselves back by delivering a negative running commentary of broken ideas. You can detect and repair these broken ideas: click on the links for the step-by-step details.
  3. Visualize a result you like. If you have a task in front of you that you might not enjoy doing but will definitely enjoy having done, take a few moments to visualize what it will be like when you’re finished. Picture handing in the research paper early (and the shocked expression on your professor’s face), or the clean kitchen you’ll have, or the items that will disappear from your To Do list or inbox, or whatever other result you want to achieve. Spend a little time in the future enjoying what you’ve done, then come back to the present and start doing it.
  4. Just stand up. Momentum can be invaluable in making progress, and sometimes we work too hard trying to talk ourselves out of getting any momentum going. Ignore your own objections or complaints about the task at hand and concentrate on some very easy first step, like standing up and walking over to the filing cabinet, or looking up the phone number you’ll need to call, or putting on your shoes.
  5. Meditate. Honestly, try it–even if it’s “not your thing.” Meditation can pay off immediately by relieving stress and improving focus. If you don’t know how to meditate already, this article points you to online resources that can have you meditating within half an hour. You don’t even have to do a great job of it: even a little success at meditating can provide benefits now.
  6. Remember why it’s important. If you already have something in mind to do, spend a few minutes thinking about why it’s important to you. Does it provide a much-needed paycheck? Strengthen a relationship? Keep you on track to do something you love? Promote your happiness? Help your kids or your spouse be healthy and safe?
  7. Write down some reasons to do it. Grab a piece of paper or pull up a blank word processing document and write out why it is you want to do the thing or things you’re not doing. (You can also do this in your head, but writing it down can have a stronger effect.) Also list the immediate benefits. What do you get out of doing the thing right now? Peace of mind? Improvements in the space around you? A better mood? A stronger sense of purpose and self-reliance? More?
  8. If you feel overwhelmed, focus on one thing. Our brains are only physically capable of focusing on one thing at a time. Therefore, even if there are a lot of things that may be clamoring for your attention, you will be rising to the greatest possible level of responsibility if you just 1) figure out which one is most important to do now, and 2) get started on that one. All the others can be ignored until it’s their time.
  9. Talk or write it out. Talking with someone supportive or writing down your thoughts journal-style can help clarify what your obstacles are or what it is you really want to be doing, and why.
  10. Find inspiration. This is the situation I mentioned where just reading something can sometimes improve motivation. You can also get inspiration by other means, like talking with someone who inspires you. If you know of anything or anyone that will help you focus on what you want to do and get you fired up, go drink from that well. Alternatively, reflect on a time when you did well at the thing you’re about to attempt: remember how it felt to succeed at it. Inspiration isn’t always available whenever it’s wanted, and it doesn’t always work, but when it does work it can propel you forward.

Photo by ChrisBravoTown


How to Repair a Broken Idea, Step by Step

Handling negative emotions

Restoration of a statueIn previous articles, I gave a general introduction to broken ideas and talked about how to detect them. In this article, we’ll take a look at a process that lets us repair broken ideas, removing obstacles to self-motivation and willpower.

Idea repair is serious medicine
In an array of psychological studies, idea repair (known in the literature as “cognitive restructuring,” “cognitive behavioral therapy” (CBT), and by other names) has proven effective against a wide variety of problems, including anxiety (including social anxiety), depression, repeat offenses by convicted felons, and many other issues.

Idea repair is not the same as “positive thinking”
Just to clarify what idea repair is and isn’t, I’d like to point out how it’s different from simply “thinking positively.” Positive thinking would direct a student who’s worried about failing a test to tell herself, “I will pass this test!” This may in some cases help with immediate mood, but it’s not necessarily any more realistic than the broken idea “I won’t pass this test.” Idea repair requires looking at situations realistically and in terms of what we really can do in our lives to make things better. If the student were to use idea repair, she might change the thought “I’m going to fail this test, and it will be awful!” to “It’s possible I’ll fail this test, and if I do, I’ll deal with it.”Assuming that she already knows whether she’ll pass or fail doesn’t do much to motivate her to improve her chances: instead, it tends to make the outcome look like it has nothing to do with her actions. Taking a realistic view, on the other hand, gives her the tools to face her situation and do something positive about it.

Identify the broken piece
In order to fix a broken idea, we have to first know how it’s broken. I go into this in some detail in the detection article, where I describe the 11 kinds of broken ideas. (You may sometimes hear a different count based on grouping them slightly differently; the list is based on Dr. David Burns’ cognitive distortion list, which is generally given as 10-15 items.)


  • “Everybody thinks my dancing looks stupid.” (mind reading)
  • “He’s just saying I’m a dedicated worker because he has to say something positive in the review.” (disqualifying the positive)
  • “I’m scared something will happen to him. He’ll probably be in a car accident.” (emotional reasoning)

Notice that these ideas aren’t necessarily impossible: they’re just assuming too much, in a way that tends to make it harder to take positive action.

Rephrase the idea in a strictly truthful way
When repairing a broken idea, it’s necessary to take out all guesswork, undo exaggeration, and include all the facts that matter. Restating a broken idea into a repaired idea is often a source of immediate relief, because it allows us to stop battling ourselves.

Repaired examples:

  • “I’m worried that other people may judge me negatively because of my dancing.”
  • “My performance review had some discouraging parts in it, but he did compliment my dedication.”
  • “Just because I feel scared doesn’t mean that there’s anything to be scared about.”

When repaired ideas break again
Repaired ideas tend to bring some immediate relief, but we tend to have some of the same kinds of broken ideas in many situations over time. Unfortunately, repairing a broken idea doesn’t mean that it won’t come back broken later. So what’s the point of repairing them?

There are at least two major benefits to idea repair even when broken ideas keep coming back. First, there’s the immediate relief in the situation in which the idea has been repaired. And second, repairing an idea over and over will eventually make the broken idea come back less often and less severely, and consistent effort has a good chance of getting rid of a broken idea permanently.

Photo by A Sheer Moisturizing Experience


How to Detect Broken Ideas

Handling negative emotions

broken cup

Some of the most powerful obstacles to self-motivation are broken ideas (or “cognitive distortions,” to use the formal term). A broken idea is any false thought that makes it harder to solve problems constructively. An introduction to them can be read here.

Examples of broken ideas
1. A man has been applying for jobs, but isn’t getting any interviews. He thinks “No one wants to hire me. I’m going to run out of money and be homeless.” This kind of thinking will make it harder for him to be motivated to apply for more positions, and he will tend to come across as less confident and positive to potential employers when he does have contact with them.

2. A mother is late dropping her children off to school, then has can’t get the car started when she tries to leave the school. She concludes “This day is a disaster.” This puts her in a pessimistic frame of mind, so that she tends not to do things that would make her day better and to interpret events in the worst possible light. (For more on this specific situation, see my articles Having a Bad Day? Here’s Why and How to Stop Having a Bad Day.)

The Red Flag
Detecting that a broken idea is in place is easy in the sense that, if you’re feeling bad, there’s a very good chance you’re nurturing one or more broken ideas. Being willing to pay attention to your own thinking does take some effort, which you can help bring out of yourself by committing to being mindful of your thinking in bad situations. It’s often harder to do this because of mood congruity, which gets in the way of imagining better times when we’re experiencing negative emotions. Fortunately, since we generally don’t like feeling bad, we’re often also driven to seek relief, which idea repair can provide.

Finding the broken idea
Identifying the broken idea requires reflecting on what we’ve been telling ourselves, whether mentally or (and this often easier) by writing it down. If you’re not sure what you’ve been telling yourself, start by writing down your present thoughts about the situation: broken ideas tend to persist as long as the mood they cause. This makes it possible to examine thoughts and figure out where they’re broken.

But What if The Broken Idea Is True?
Broken ideas are generally false (or at best, nothing more than a pessimistic guess), and they fall into specific categories of falsehoods. It’s easy to mistake them as truth because they often seem plausible: the job applicant might not find a job soon if he keeps searching in the way he is now. The mother’s experiences so far in her day have been unpleasant.  Yet short of having supernatural powers, neither one of them can infallibly predict what will happen going forward, and both of them are taking a small number of incidents and imagining that they describe a large, absolute pattern.

Categories of broken ideas
To identify a broken idea, compare it to these categories. Devised by Dr. David Burns, they not only make it easier to spot a broken idea: they also supply the solution in a way described in more detail in Wednesday’s post.

  • All-or-nothing thinking: Seeing situations in black or white; thinking in absolutes.
  • Overgeneralization: Taking separate incidents, like rejected job applications or being late, and concluding that they’re controlled by a large, unvarying pattern.
  • Mental filtering: Putting all one’s attention on negative qualities.
  • Disqualifying the positive: Dismissing good factors in a situation.
  • Mind reading: Making sweeping assumptions about what other people are thinking.
  • Fortune telling: Making assumptions about how the future will turn out.
  • Magnification and minimization: Exaggerating information, often to support a negative viewpoint, for instance exaggerating someone else’s positive qualities to make yourself look worse or their negative qualities in order to make them look like a villain.
  • Emotional reasoning: Assuming that because something feels like it’s true, it is true.
  • Should statements: Imagining that the way we want things to be has direct influence over how things really are. Often involves anger at other people for not acting the way we would make them act if we were in control of them.
  • Labeling: Using words to generalize or explain a person or situation in a way that’s misleading or incomplete.
  • Personalization: Exaggerating our idea of how much a situation relates to ourselves; taking responsibility or blame for things that are not in our control.

Wednesday: Repairing Broken Ideas
Once we’ve identified a broken idea, we can work on repairing it. My follow-up article addresses this step by step.

Photo by johndan


6 Ways to Be Happy at a Job You Don’t Like

Handling negative emotions


There are two common kinds of advice I’ve heard given to people who don’t like their jobs. One is “suck it up,” which is pragmatic but not very inspiring. The other is “then get a different job,” which is inspiring but not always pragmatic. In this post, I won’t attempt to untangle the question of when it is or isn’t a good idea to leave your job, although sometimes that may be the best call. Instead, let’s say that you’ve decided you want to stay at your current job, and the only problem is, your job is a drag. Is it possible to be happy even if you’re spending 40 hours a week (or more) doing something you don’t like? Often it is. Other people are living happy lives despite lousy jobs. Why not you?

1. Remember Why You’re There
It’s nice to have a job, to be paid, and to have something to do. You might have other reasons for your job as well. Getting in touch with them dispels the false idea that we’re forced to be at work. Sure we need to work to get money to live (most of us, anyway). But there are people who don’t have the work or the money, and it’s nice not to be in that situation.

2. Know What You Don’t Like
As with most situations where we have negative emotions, one of the first and most important steps is mindfulness. When we find ourselves reacting negatively to a situation and want to change that reaction, it helps (a lot) to figure out where the reaction is coming from. Sometimes the answers are fairly obvious (“I don’t like it when my boss comes into my office every five minutes to ask about something”) and sometimes they’re may be something that you haven’t consciously considered before (“Come to think of it, it’s this depressing room that’s bothering me the most.”) If your job isn’t satisfying to you, there’s probably more than one reason. Pay attention to your thoughts whenever you’re feeling most unhappy: this leads you to the causes.

3. Change the Details
Improving your actual job situation–negotiating a raise, getting transferred to another group, trading some responsibilities, etc.–is too big a topic to go into in detail here, but it’s well worth thinking about. Would better tools help you enjoy your work more? Creating more social ties with coworkers? Making your work environment more welcoming? Taking on more responsibilities? Sharing certain jobs with coworkers?

It’s not unsual to feel as though certain kinds of situations are unchangeable, only to find out that a simple request or a new approach can change them in important ways. Look for these kinds of opportunities.

4. Fix Broken Ideas
As human beings, we have evolved amazingly sophisticated mental systems for making ourselves miserable. Very often, we tell ourselves false (though true-sounding) stories in an ongoing mental commentary. Some examples are things like “She should have done that last week,” “I’m completely miserable here,” “This project is doomed to fail,” and “They all think I’m an idiot for forgetting about the presentation.” These broken ideas can be repaired by restating them as factually as possible, for instance “It would have been easier for me if she had done that last week, but she’s not always going to do things the way I’d like.” Broken ideas create tension and stress. Repairing them allows us to let go of negative ideas that are dragging us down.

5. Get Into Flow
The ultimate way to enjoy your work is to learn to get into a state of flow with it as often as possible. Flow is a state in which you’re challenged, but within your abilities; you’re able to focus without distractions or interruptions on a task; and you’re getting moment-to-moment feedback of some kind on how well you’re doing. Being in flow means being absorbed in the work and losing track of time because you’re so interested and involved. Not everything can be done in flow, but while it may be easier to imagine it working for surfers and violinists, it also can work beautifully if you’re washing dishes, filling out paperwork, or repairing a lawnmower.

Some tips on getting into a flow state are here. The most useful thing I can say about flow in a single sentence is that it only happens when you’re focusing on one thing, not when you’re allowing yourself to be distracted, or when you’re stopping and starting different tasks. Having fun while working, surprisingly, turns out to be easiest when you are working hard and efficiently.

6. Find a Goal
Flow experiences and most other kinds of enjoyable activity require having a goal (or goals). Just responding to things as they come is not generally an effective way to seek happiness. Even if your goal is just to improve your turnaround time by 5 minutes or to find something positive to say in every customer interaction, it allows you to focus and think about it rather than about boring, distracting, or tedious details that might otherwise take up your attention.

If you’re not happy at work it may be that you should consider another kind of job, but whatever position you have, there will very likely be parts you don’t enjoy. By remembering your reasons, knowing what’s behind your dissatisfaction, making the most of your work environment, fixing broken ideas, aiming to get into flow, and finding goals, you’ll have the best chance of being happier with your work … and taking those positive feelings with you when you go home.

Photo by chinogypsie


Don’t Be Tricked By Fake Goals

Strategies and goals


In another article on The Willpower Engine I mentioned the useful mnemonic S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound) for checking to see if a goal is a good one. In this article, I’ll get more specific about goals that seem to be good but aren’t: fake goals.

If it’s not entirely up to you, it’s a fake goal
What do I mean by a “fake” goal? A fake goal is anything you want to have happen that you can’t always make happen by your choices and actions. This is tricky, because often people won’t take responsibility for something that really is within their control (like a child saying she didn’t do her homework because it’s impossible for her to remember it), while at other times things are likely to be within our reach but not within our direct control (like being hired to play with a particular orchestra).

It’s important to sort out real goals from fake goals because fake goals screw us up and cause real damage. For example, if my goal is to become first violin in the Peoria Symphony Orchestra, I might practice obsessively for many years to get good enough to play with the PSO and give an awe-inspiring audition, but if they already have a first violinist who is extremely good, happy with the post, and in good health, that dream might never come about, and I might become depressed, frustrated, and anxious while missing out on amazing opportunities because they don’t match my (fake) goal.

On a smaller scale, I might have a goal of winning a local dance contest, then get upset when the contest judge’s sister-in-law wins it instead.

In both cases, the skills and resources needed to achieve the fake goal are in my hands, but sooner or later it comes to a decision that someone else makes, and as I’ve written about in another article, other people are not under our control in any healthy and meaningful way.

Losing weight: a classic fake goal
One very popular fake goal is losing weight. At first glance, this might seem contradictory. Surely getting fit is under our control? And in large part, it is–but losing weight is not necessarily the same as getting fit.

For example, take my own fitness saga. I got serious about fitness in late 2005 by beginning to log how many calories I was eating each day and starting to exercise regularly. Since that time I’ve lost about 50 pounds. So how is weight not a good indicator? Well, there are two main problems with it. First, there’s the fact that weight isn’t the same as fitness (and neither is BMI, which simply uses your weight and height to come up with a number). In the summer of 2007 I went through a transformation from a relatively heavy guy to a relatively fit guy–and didn’t lose any weight, because as I was gradually losing fat, I was also not-so-gradually building up muscle.  And second, weight varies throughout the day and from day to day based on things like water retention, time of day, and the last time you’ve eaten. On the more extreme end of things, yesterday I weighed in several times and found my weight varying five pounds from waking to bedtime!

So if weight isn’t a good goal, why do I pay any attention to it? Because it’s useful information. Often the indications we get of how we’re doing in our progress to our goals are limited or imperfect, but limited and imperfect information is worlds better than no information at all. While it doesn’t convey the complete story of my fitness progress, the fact that I’ve lost 50 pounds so far and am nearing my target weight is one of the clearest indicators I can give myself or others about how things have gone for me.

A bad goal can be a good aspiration
But if winning a contest or losing weight isn’t a good goal, what should we do instead? Give up on goals? Rid ourselves of aspirations?

Definitely not. To motivate ourselves, aspirations (like winning a contest or losing weight) can be powerful tools. In addition to providing valuable feedback, aspirations can fuel our visions of what we want the future to be like, which can be powerfully motivating. However, we need to treat aspirations less seriously than goals. If we’re not achieving our aspirations, there comes a crucial moment when we have the choice of either getting attached to it in a way that will hurt us or surrendering it so that we can focus on other opportunities that might pay off better. What this means is being willing to look at the scale that says I just gained two pounds, reflecting that my diet and exercise have been excellent over the past couple of weeks, and shrugging it off with the thought that unless I’m confused about what I need to do, my progress will show up on the scale sooner or later. It also means looking at the contest I didn’t win or the orchestra position I wasn’t offered and recognizing that there are other contests and other positions, and while the loss or the lack of a job playing violin might be valuable information for me to think over, it isn’t the end or the goal.

Real goals are about what we do, not what we’ll get
The most powerful and productive goals are ones that are connected with a change in habits and the immediate, reliable benefits of what we’re doing. (For example, read about this related research finding.) Instead of having a goal to lose weight, I can (and did) strive to get in the habit of eating more healthily and mindfully and to exercise regularly. My goal in doing these things is to constantly become healthier, have more energy, and improve my mood. I certainly had aspirations of looking better, being strong, and winning Taekwondo sparring matches, but if I had focused on those instead of on progress, I would have been disappointed when I didn’t look much different after the six months, wasn’t noticeably stronger for some time, and lost at my first Taekwondo competition (though I won at my second).

The violinist would be better served by a goal of getting in a certain amount of good practice every week, and the dancer by the goal of perfecting a new dance routine for every competition that comes down the line. Both people are likely to have a lot of aspirations about things they can’t entirely control, especially other people’s opinions of how well they do, but can take these in the context of their specific goals.

When several small goals = one big goal
A note here about multiple goals: in other posts, I’ve talked about the importance of focusing on only one new goal at a time. It would probably be more precise for me to suggest focusing on only one new area of accomplishment at a time, since a violinist could simultaneously be working on the related goals of practicing twenty hours a week, mastering a particular piece, and making certain bowing techniques available by reflex. At the same time, it’s worthwhile to consider whether some goals would benefit from being broken down. For instance, eating better and exercising are complementary parts of an overall fitness goal, but both of them can take a lot of learning, planning, and effort to achieve, and it might work best for many people to get one on track before really digging into the other.

Photo by Dennis Sylvester Hurd.

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On Zen Habits, a top-notch article on habit change


In a new post on his Zen Habits blog, “The Habit Change Cheatsheet: 29 Ways to Successfully Ingrain a Behavior,” Leo Babuta posts an exceptional list of good advice on habit change, from quitting smoking to getting fit to quitting your job. A number of points will seem familiar to regular readers here.

The list can be a little overwhelming, as he mentions, but he also presents habit change in terms of some basic points that are not so overwhelming.

The Zen Habits site does sometimes feature posts that are mainly personal opinion, and I often find parts of posts there that I feel should be qualified; with this post, though, while there’s plenty to amplify on (and there are links to some posts in which he does give more information on certain points), Mr. Babuta seems to me to be on very solid ground.

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Willpower Is Exactly Like Owning a Dog

States of mind


Willpower needs a metaphor, and it needs a metaphor that has something to do with how people really acquire it, none of this stuff like “iron will” or “inexhaustable drive.” Those not only sound unattainable, but they also don’t even sound very fun. Real willpower is actually pleasant to have, doesn’t require bionic implants, and in many ways is exactly like owning a dog.

Practically anybody can be a successful dog owner if they really want to be: you don’t have to have any special qualifications. This is not to say it’s always easy: it’s just doable. After all, the things you have to do to successfully own a dog are:

1) Actually want to get a dog,
2) Understand how to take care of your dog, and
3) Do a few simple things on a daily basis–like feeding the dog and going for walks

Similarly, the only things you need to do to be motivated to do a particular thing, or to have willpower in a particular area, are

1) Actually want to pursue the goal,
2) Understand how to take care of your motivation, and
3) Do a few simple things on a daily basis–like visualizing where you’re going and and maintaining a feedback loop

Even though self-motivation requires getting several things right at once, and while it does take a continued time commitment, it really doesn’t take heroics. You keep at it every day, even though sometimes you succeed and sometimes you fail (like accidentally leaving the door open so the dog gets out). You keep things in perspective, deal with problems as they come up, and try to learn from your mistakes. Sure, you’ll need to take time out of your day to keep on track. And sure, you’ll probably need to learn some skills, like idea repair, mindfulness, and visualization … just like taking care of a dog means taking a little time out of your day and requires learning how much to feed it, how to keep it from chewing up your favorite shoes, and when to take it to the vet.

Speaking of which, dog ownership also gives us some guidance about what to do if motivation falters–if the dog gets sick. First of all, observe the symptoms: what’s wrong? When did it start? Are there any patterns to it?

Second of all, and dogs are pointing out something very important here, if your dog gets sick, you don’t abandon it (unless you are a heartless fiend): you pay more attention to it. You take it to the vet, give the deadly nightshade plant away to a single, petless neighbor, and offer your dog some extra attention. The same thing applies to your motivation, with the wonderful difference that instead of eventually getting old and slow, your motivation will just get stronger the longer you have it.


If we expand the idea for a minute to say that willpower is like having a pet, and that every different goal is like a different species of animal, we get a better picture of why we don’t try to simultaneously adjust our lives to, for example, a new boxer and a new snake. There’s enough to do when adopting just one species at a time: once the puppy is comfortably settled, there will be plenty of time to go shopping for heat lamps.

Dog in snow photo by digital_image_fan
Dog and snake photo by b.frahm

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How Feedback Loops Maintain Self-Motivation

Strategies and goals


I’ve mentioned in other posts how important feedback loops are to self-motivation, but I haven’t described in detail what I mean by a feedback loop or why they would be so essential. It’s high time to take care of that.

Whenever we’re talking about self-motivation, our intention is to make progress toward a particular goal and/or in toward aquiring certain habits. For instance, I might have a goal of starting a business that provides me with a living wage, or want to change a habit of being late, or be trying to lose a certain number of pounds while changing my eating and exercise habits so that I keep that weight off. A feedback loop is a system that monitors progress toward a goal or progress in acquiring habits and provides information to improve that process. In it’s simplest form, a feedback loop is made up of information about how a process has been going in the recent past, some thought about what that information says about the process, and ideas from that thought for maintaining or improving the process in future.

Why is this important? Because it’s a very common thing to start working toward a goal and then lose momentum. A feedback loop catches us when we’re losing momentum and helps us redirect so that we build momentum back up. Or in the best cases, we find nothing wrong with what we’ve been doing so far but come up with an idea to make things even better. Maintaining a feedback loop means keeping control of our own progress. Not maintaining a feedback loop usually means failure, unless there’s some powerful and regularly-occurring thing in our lives to remind us how important our goals are and keep us on track with sheer energy. As an example of one of those unusual situations where no feedback loop was required: when I was in college I met a very pretty French exchange student who spoke hardly any English. Within a few weeks, I had learned enough French on my own to hold halting conversations in it, urged on by my desire to spend time with this girl. (By the way, I didn’t get anywhere with the girl, but I still use the French). Another example: a woman who “couldn’t” lose weight for years suddenly lost weight quickly when she needed to donate a kidney to her very ill son but couldn’t because of her obesity. But most things in our lives aren’t as compelling as pretty French girls or seriously ill children, so feedback loops come in handy a lot.

Feedback loops need to occur often enough that we stay on top of our process, usually at least once or twice a week. It’s often best to schedule regular days or times to do the feedback work, so as to avoid the danger of always  pushing back feedback “just until tomorrow.”

What forms do feedback loops take? There are a lot of options:

  • Writing in a journal
  • Meeting or talking on the phone with a friend (preferably one whom you’re helping  to work toward their own goal)
  • Participating in online forums or chat groups
  • Attending meetings (Weight Watchers, Alcoholics Anonymous, writers’ groups, etc.)
  • Talking out loud to yourself (preferably not in situations where it will make you look like a crazy person)
  • Meeting with a professional (a coach, personal trainer, nutritionist, mentor, therapist, etc.)
  • Blogging

The best feedback loop options are ones where someone or something will be waiting there for you to provide an update. If you participate in an online discussion group without promising to check in on a regular basis and without having online friends who are regularly checking on your progress, it’s easy to just not post when something goes wrong, as it inevitably will. Always try to find ways to box yourself in to delivering on your feedback. The minute that process becomes optional, a huge danger opens up of it going completely out the window.

Each time you work on feedback, start by making observations about your recent progress (or lack of progress), then move on to reflecting on what could go better, and finally decide whether there’s anything specific you should be doing differently–and if so, exactly what that is. These ideas for improvement, which can seem wonderfully clear and unforgettable when they come out, can easily be lost in the shuffle of a busy life, so I highly recommend writing them down. It can be very helpful to temporarily post them somewhere that you’ll see them regularly to help you keep them in mind.

There are two particular traps I hope you’ll avoid when working with feedback loops. One is beating yourself up: the past is absolutely unchangeable; all we can do is learn from it and find ways to make better choices in the future, which is exactly what you’re doing if you’re using a feedback loop. There is very rarely any need to take yourself to task other than to recognize how you feel about your choices and actions recently.

The second trap is the infamous phrase “I’ll just have to do better.” “Doing better” is not a plan for improvement: it’s a vague wish that gets us nowhere. Yes, we often want to improve how we’re working toward our goals, but if what we’ve been doing so far hasn’t been good enough, that’s an indication that we need to do something not just better, but differently. Perhaps you had planned to get two chapters written in the past week for a book you’re working on, and you actually only got about a quarter of a chapter down. Resolving to “just do better” in the coming week ignores the fact that some very real problems seem to have occurred and will need solutions. Perhaps you haven’t set aside specific times to write and need to do so now. Perhaps you have set aside times to write, but you’ve let yourself be distracted by e-mail and the Internet at those times, in which case you need to focus on ways to prevent distractions. Perhaps you’ve avoided working on your book because you’re worried that it’s gotten off to a very bad start, in which case you need to decide what it is you really want to do next. In all cases, a problem with motivation is not a moral failing or an indication that you’re a weak-willed person: it’s always some kind of specific complication (or more likely, a cluster of complications). Address the complication, and motivation will improve.

That’s a quick view of a large and important subject. I hope you’ll take away not only an understanding of what feedback loops are, but also a willingness to use them in parts of life that are important to you, anywhere that you want to improve or make progress. You’ll need something to keep motivation going, and while it’s ideal if you have something along the lines of a pretty French girl to inspire you, in a pinch, a feedback loop will do.

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