I run every other day.
However, only about a quarter of the time do I feel motivated to run before I begin. Even less so in the winter. It’s cold outside, and I’m quite comfortable inside. Most of the time, I’d rather stay put than put on my running clothes and push my body. But I do it anyway.
At the beginning of every single run, no matter how I’m feeling, my body is resistant. It feels like I’m running through quicksand, and everything hurts. Within thirty seconds, I want to stop. In fact, before I became a more consistent runner, I would stop.
I thought that resistance was a sign I just wasn’t a good candidate for running. Fortunately, a friend told me that everyone feels resistance at the beginning of a run. You just have to push through it until your body warms up. I finally tried it, and she was right. After about a mile, sometimes less, I get in the running groove. My joints loosen up, my breathing is less labored, and I pick up my pace.
I’ve learned to be patient and wait for it. Even when I don’t have the power of motivation inspiring me, I still know to keep going just a bit farther and the pain will let up. As my body and my mind are screaming, “Stop! Stop running right now!” — my higher self reminds me that I can do it. I’ve done it before, and I know I’ll feel better in just a few minutes.
I also know how I feel after a run — how a run gives me energy, helps my creativity, and makes me feel physically and mentally better in general. I also use this information when my body and mind are screaming at me.
So why am I sharing this with you?
I’m sharing it because I want you to know that there’s far more to accomplishment and learning than just motivation.
In fact, motivation has very little to do with creating new habits, acquiring skills, or reaching your goals.
Motivation is certainly the cherry on the cake when it happens to show up — but we can never predict when it will appear. We must be able to get things done even when motivation is a no-show.
What is self-motivation?
I believe self-motivation isn’t some elusive feeling of power and excitement. Instead, self-motivation involves knowledge and momentum. You must have thorough knowledge about the behavior or skill you want to undertake.
When I first began running, I didn’t do any research or ask any questions. I just slapped on a pair of old running shoes and started running. No wonder I kept failing at it. I wasn’t fitted properly for shoes. I didn’t know how to prevent injury. I didn’t know proper technique. And of course, I didn’t know about the resistance I’d encounter.
Momentum comes in by simply taking the first action. Once you take the first step, the subsequent steps aren’t nearly as daunting. With knowledge and momentum, you have just about everything you need to accomplish a goal.
But there’s one other skill set you need in order to be successful. You need to understand the specific skills involved in creating new habits.
The power of habits
Yes, there are some very specific skills involved in forming new habits, and without knowing these skills, you will likely fail at achieving your goal. Even with knowledge and momentum, you still need sustainability. You need a way to stick to the program after momentum fails you and motivation disappears.
Eventually, just like my body resists running, your mind will get tired of a new behavior, and you’ll drop it. So how do you keep momentum going and push through the challenging times when you want to give up? You have to retrain your brain. You have to build new neural pathways to reinforce this new behavior until your mind accepts it as automatic. And scientists have found a very specific way to do that.
Ann Graybiel is a neuroscientist at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, as well as an Institute Professor and a faculty member in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. She’s an expert on the basal ganglia and how it functions to support new habits.
According to MIT’s McGovern Institute website, “Graybiel believes that the core function of the basal ganglia is the type of learning that leads to the formation of habits.” Her team “uses electrical recordings, behavioral tests, and gene-based approaches to study these issues. They recently demonstrated dramatic changes in neural activity in the striatum as animals learned new habits.”
As we practice habits, the brain literally changes, and the main component of fostering this change is early, consistent repetition. It is through repetition that we create new neural pathways, making our behaviors more and more automatic. But as you know, when repetition gets boring or difficult, staying the course is nearly impossible. You need some strategies to help you perform your habit every single day until it becomes easier.
Here are 4 science-based secrets to be self-motivated and stay the course:
1. Start small
You might be able to run for thirty minutes right out of the gate or write several pages of your novel in one sitting at the beginning. But within a few days or weeks, you’ll feel overwhelmed as your enthusiasm wanes and resistance sets in. So begin with just five minutes for the first week or so of a new activity.
This may seem like a ridiculously short amount of time, but the goal is to establish a pattern of repetition and create a “no excuses” system. Anyone can do something for five minutes a day. You can slowly increase your time in subsequent weeks.
2. Trigger your habit
You’ll need a reminder to perform your habit, and the reminder needs to be the same every single day. So choose a trigger that’s a previously established habit you do daily, like brushing your teeth or putting on your shoes.
Then perform your habit immediately following the trigger. When you attach a new habit to a trigger, it affords a mental cue that it’s time to work on this new activity.
3. Reward yourself
As soon as you finish your new habit, immediately reward yourself with something you already crave or enjoy. It could be checking your email, having a cup of coffee, or even putting a gold star on your calendar.
The reward is most effective when it’s something you look forward to but you know you can’t have until you perform your new habit.
4. Create accountability
Be sure others know you’re committed to your daily new behavior. Create self-motivation by going public. Think about how much better you do at anything when you know someone else is paying attention.
Announce your goal publicly on social media, or share it with friends and family. As soon as you perform your habit and reward yourself, report to your accountability group about your success or failure.
Once you learn these skills of habit creation, you can apply the skills to bigger goals and more challenging accomplishments. Any big undertaking is comprised of dozens of small habits.
When you start small, creating manageable actions that you repeat daily, you’ll find in time the actions become automatic, making it easier to begin the next piece of your goal. You won’t necessarily need motivation to begin. You just need to practice and have patience as you wait for your brain to take over.
When you feel bored, challenged, or discouraged, use your new knowledge and remind yourself that in time, the work will be far easier and you will become more skilled — just as I remind myself at the beginning of every run.
Use the science of habit creation to serve as your self-motivation tool, and you’ll be amazed at all you can achieve.
Want to learn more about the skills of creating new habits for life?
Learn the scientifically-tested methods for incorporating positive new behaviors and replacing old, negative habits with The Sticky Habits Course.