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Motivation Is Overrated

The great part about New Year’s resolutions: You feel wonderful when you’re making them. The not-so-great part: Odds are you’ll fail before the end of the year.

According to 2017 data collected by the University of Scranton, only 9 percent of people stick to their resolutions for a full year. Most experience a slow decline: 73 percent of people maintain their resolution through one week, 68 percent through two weeks, 58 percent through one month, 45 percent through six months, and then eventually all but 9 percent of people peter out by the end of the year. Despite the best intentions, it seems that motivation melts away with winter.

But what if motivation wasn’t always the key to sticking with your New Year’s resolutions or habit change in general? What if the opposite was true? What if the best thing you can do to feel good and accomplish your goals is ignore your motivation altogether?

Conventional wisdom holds that motivation leads to action: The better you feel and the more energized you are, the more likely you are to take your desired step. Though this can certainly be true, what about when motivation dwindles or when you simply aren’t feeling motivated at all? In those instances, the best thing you can do to change your mental state is to change your physical state. In the words of ultra-endurance athlete and self-improvement guru Rich Roll, “Mood follows action.”

“If I’m down or in a rut, I force myself to move my body, even if only a little bit,” says Roll. “This helps shift my perspective and reset my operating system—and more often than not, the sun starts shining again.”

It’s not always easy, so sometimes you’ve got to force yourself to take action. Cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps individuals through a range of mental health issues, including anxiety and depression, places an immense focus on the “behavior” part of the equation. That’s because it’s hard, if not impossible, to control your thoughts and the subsequent feelings they generate. Longstanding research, first published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in the 1980’shas found that the more you try to suppress a certain thought (for example, “I really don’t want to exercise today”), the stronger that thought becomes. Another study, published in the journal Cognition and Emotion in 2010, found that the same thing holds true for emotions: The more you try to change the way you feel, the more stuck in your current mood you’re liable to be.

What you can control, however, is your behavior—that is, your actions.

Consider, for example, a period during which you find yourself in a rut. Your thoughts and feelings are pummeling you with some flavor of “you suck, you’re going to fail, it’s cold outside, stay in bed.” It’s really hard to talk or think your way out of that jam. But if you force yourself to ignore your thoughts and feelings and simply take action, you give yourself the best chance of changing your thoughts and feelings. This is one reason exercise has been proven so effective at diminishing or even reversing mild depression.

The transformative power of action is equally important when it comes to sticking with challenging long-term pursuits. Motivation tends to be quite high at the outset of taking on a big goal, which is why the vast majority of folks make it through their first week of a New Year’s resolution.

But then, when the first rough patch inevitably hits, motivation dwindles. This is when you decide to sleep in on winter mornings instead of go for a run (failed exercise plan), eat carrot cake at 11 p.m. (failed diet), or ignore your romantic partner when they tell you about their day (failed relationship goals). Even though you still want to accomplish your objectives, you may stop caring as much about them. And yet if you force yourself to show up, to take action—do the run, skip the cake, be present for your partner—and if you do this consistently, a strange thing starts to happen: Your motivation increases.

A consistent practice may take some motivation to get going, but over time the equation is reversed. Dedicating yourself to the practice, no matter how you feel, is what builds motivation.

“The plateau can be a form of purgatory,” a time when motivation steeply declines, writes the late George Leonard, master aikido teacher, in his book Mastery. “To practice regularly, even when you seem to be getting nowhere, might at first seem onerous. But the day eventually comes when practice becomes a treasured part of your life. You settle into it as if into your favorite easy chair. It will be there for you tomorrow. It will never go away.”

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