Motivation is a finite resource. It’s not unlimited.
You can say no to anything—until suddenly you can’t—and then you become unable to say no to things that normally wouldn’t be an issue for you.
I see this principle illustrated in the way people have handled this pandemic—particularly those who started strong and decided to social distance completely. I’ve seen people who have friends who invite them to stuff every day and at some point, they just give in. You say no enough times, you run out of discipline—and when there’s nothing left and you can’t say no.
When you use it up it’s gone.
Let’s use the example of a new habit. Let’s say I decide I want to be a kinder person. If I say “I’m going to be a kinder person from now on”, then anything I do, I have to ask myself: “Is this what a kind person would do?” This rarely works long term because we use up our self-control very quickly. Since creating a new habit is far more energy consuming than using an established one, we fall back into the behavior we were trying to shake. If instead, I say, “when someone interrupts me at work and I am tempted to snap at them, I will do x behavior.” This only requires me to change a behavior in one specific context, which means it requires less self-control to maintain.
It’s much easier to say “when they pass cookies around at work, I will refuse,” than to say “I will eat healthier from now on.”
It isn’t so much about who has the most discipline, (though it is a skill, and you should practice it) but it’s more about creating systems that make you act a certain way. I know many successful people who if you ask them they would describe themselves as naturally lazy, but they made systems to manage themselves. If you have good systems and habits, it doesn’t matter how motivated you are, stuff gets done.
How do you build those systems?
If you have spent any amount of time in the self-improvement/habit world you have probably heard of micro-resolutions. If you haven’t, a micro resolution is a change in behavior so small and specific that you can’t help but stick with it. I find that this is a very effective way to get started.
The next step is to do what I call “chaining behaviors”. This is where you only require yourself to do one behavior but that one behavior is the cue for more habits that you build. This way the initial behavior takes the most motivation and the following habits happen naturally when you do the initial behavior. For example, each new habit you build around working out is cued when you show up at the gym, you don’t have to decide if you are going to work out after you enter the gym, it just happens.
This happens all the time with bad habits, choosing to stay up a few minutes later than normal might make you do a bunch of other negative habits without thinking about it—next thing you know you watch YouTube for an hour, and then you have a midnight ice cream Sunday. Or an example from when I was younger, when I was a young teen I would bring a book to bed at 9:30, and then I would read until 12:30 or later. I discovered that bringing a book to bed cued my brain for several hours of reading instead of using my brain for sleep—because of this, I made a rule to never take a book to bed. When I did this I suddenly was going to bed at 9:30 and falling asleep before 10:00 every night.
The guiding principle is that we want to do the right thing—whatever that is—to be lower friction than doing the wrong thing.
Anytime we notice that the right thing is more work to do than the wrong thing, we have to change our system. Since motivation is a finite resource we need to create systems that don’t rely on our limited motivation. Better that our systems are designed for when our motivation runs out.
Take some time to think about habits or behaviors you want to start, ask yourself this question: is it easier to do the right thing or the wrong thing here? Why is that? What factors contribute to that?
Increase friction for the behaviors you don’t want and decrease friction for the behaviors you do.