Motivation is like a strong cup of coffee: Energizing us and altering the state of our brains long enough to get us moving. We feel more optimistic, open, and alert. But what happens when it wears off? How do we maintain focus, effort, and continuity throughout the day?
In this article, I will show you how to use motivation to build habits that automate highly productive thinking and action with less effort. Are you ready to optimize your life?
Table of Contents
Habits, Motivation, and Hybrid Vehicles
Have you ever been in the midst of a casual chat with a friend who owns a hybrid electric car, and as you’re riding along, car in motion, you hear and feel the combustion engine turn on? It’s a bit startling at first because, I’m sure that for most of those within the demographic reading my articles, we are accustomed to the sounds and vibrations of a standard, gas-only powered engine. What we hear (i.e. the engine turning over and the increase in RPMs) and what we feel (i.e. the rumblings of horsepower or the rattling of mufflers) has come to be fairly consistent. It’s what we know.
In hybrid vehicles, however, the propulsion power is split. On the one hand, the first source of power comes from electricity which carries a much lighter sound, if any at all. It’s only when the car reaches a certain speed that it switches from electric to the gas-powered combustion engine.
Recently, during a visit with some friends in Chicago, my friend and I were driving to the gym in his hybrid electric car, and as he increased his speed down one of the city’s busy streets, the gas-powered engine turned on. My body clenched as my brain sent signals to my extremities that the car should have already been turned on and something could be wrong. My frontal lobe caught on quickly, and I was fine because, of course, this is the sign of a properly functioning hybrid vehicle.
As I thought more about this, I realized we can draw many parallels between hybrid electric vehicles and the motivational and habit systems within our brains.
For the rest of the article, enjoy the ride…
- The reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way.
- The general desire or willingness of someone to do something.
- A settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.
- An automatic reaction to a specific situation.
- A type of hybrid vehicle that combines a conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) system with an electric propulsion system (hybrid vehicle drivetrain).
Much like a well-constructed hybrid electric vehicle, habits and motivation work very well together because they are dependent on one another for optimal performance. Let’s dig into why and how.
How Motivation and Habits Work Together
Habits are formed by one of the most ancient parts of the hindbrain – the basal ganglia. It is an incredibly fortified section of the brain that evolved to automate our behaviors, protect our brains from overload, and to allow space for our minds to do what it does best – think critically. To begin with the metaphor of brain and car, these automatic processes (habits) are the low-speed, cruising through the city parts of our “commute” where we can move with less effort and energy. It is during the times where we experience something new, challenging, or exciting that we experience motivation (our gas-powered engine) to get up to the necessary speed required to tackle it. It is, quite literally, our brain’s feedback response to stimuli, primarily drawing from the anterior cingulate cortex (attention area) and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (cognitive control area).
Here is where the parallel between these cars and the brain gets interesting. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a hybrid electric vehicle cannot be plugged in to charge the battery. Instead, the battery is charged through regenerative braking and by the internal combustion engine. In other words, you can’t just run on electric power alone. And you can’t charge it with a cord. The recharge comes from within the vehicle itself.
Within our minds, we can only automate so many things before we are drained of joy, inspiration, and fulfillment (“electric battery power”). It’s great to offload thought, stress, and willpower…but if all we are doing is living by habit, how do we experience the feeling of overcoming a challenge? How do we feel pride in accomplishing something rewarding? And what is all of that automated behavior for? Eventually, we will run out of motivation and power to keep moving so purposefully.
Conversely, if we’re simply riding the highs and lows of motivation, relying entirely upon the energy provided to us by an unpredictable source, how can we possibly build a foundation of stability in anything in our lives? Additionally, we would be ignoring the fact that the habit-forming part of our brain is millions of years old, and it will not be defeated. We are always forming habits, even if that habit is to decide to rely on fickle motivation for taking action. We are either taking active steps to build habits around the actions we want, or our brain is taking steps to build habits around the actions we do anyways (even unconscious habits are formed around inaction and deciding not to do something). In a phrase, it is happening whether we like it or not, so we may as well use that function to our advantage.
In Summation of the Metaphor
- Habits = Electric (Easy, Efficient, but not necessarily powerful)
- Motivation = Gas (Powerful, but inefficient, expensive, and dependent on an external source of fuel)
- Hybrid = Easy, efficient, and automatic when we want to be. Powerful and accelerated when we want to be.
How to Use Motivation to Create a New Habit
- Imagine that you are a mechanic with an old car that you want to fix up.
- The car runs, but it needs a lot of repairs in order to run better, and you have limited time and resources.
- Right now, it’s not so fun to drive the car around. It is mostly just a vehicle to get you from one place to another.
- Every so often, a friendly neighbor gives you a new part that would make the car run better, smoother, and stronger, but you have to swap out the old part and replace it with the new.
- It takes some time, planning, and consistent work on the car, but slowly and surely, you’re able to make tiny improvements in efficiency, power, and even the way it looks and feels.
- Before you know it, all of the consistent effort to install the new parts have transformed this car into something that looks, feels, and performs like an entirely different vehicle.
- Your new car is something you are proud of, adds value to your life, and makes you want to use it more and more. People tell you how good it looks and how nice it must be to drive around in it.
Read it again, but let’s change the script a little…
- Imagine that you are a person with an unfulfilling system of habits that you want to change for the better.
- The system of habits functions, but it needs a lot of changes in order to build a better life, and you have limited time and motivation.
- Right now, it’s not so fun to be stuck in bad habits. They are mostly just a way to get through the day with as little aggravation as possible.
- Every so often, something or someone gives you inspiration or motivation to start a good habit that would make your life better, but you have to plan a way to break the bad habit and implement the good one.
- It takes some time, planning and consistent work on your habits, but slowly and surely, you’re able to make tiny improvements in consistency, action, and even the way you look and feel.
- Before you know it, all of the consistent effort to use times of motivation to build a plan and act on those plans have transformed your system of habits into something that looks, feels, and performs like an entirely different system and person.
- Your new system of habits is something you are proud of, adds value to your life, and makes you want to build on them everyday. People tell you how great you’ve done and how nice it must be to live, look, and feel so much better.
Use Motivation to Build Automation
True motivation is rare and fleeting. So, when motivation strikes you, I recommend that you sit down and work on building a plan as quickly as possible. It is one thing to act immediately and without much thought while motivated, and it is quite another thing to act immediately while motivated to build a system of beneficial habits that require less and less future motivation to do them as time goes on.
I understand that it’s tempting to use up the energy provided by your motivation before it fades. After all, you don’t know when it will come back again. But it is ineffective and inefficient. Don’t use times of motivation as your source of energy for single good behaviors. Motivation runs out as quickly as it arrives, which is why it makes all the more sense to use times of motivation as the resource needed to build a plan for sustainable good habits.
If you didn’t quite understand this last section, read it again. Use unpredictable sources of motivation to build predicatble systems of automated behavior.
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3 Steps to Building an Impenetrable Plan for Habit Change
Here it is. The plan you’ve all been waiting for:
- Make sure this is not just a “flash in the pan” type of motivation that comes and goes just as quickly. It is important to follow step #2 to be certain.
- Use the easy steps in my “Create Your Most Wanted List” guide.
I cannot stress enough how important it is to take this first step seriously and not to rush it. Pursuing something you didn’t actually want as much as you say you did is as pointless as investing your savings in a business pursuit that the market doesn’t want to buy. You can go in with the best of intentions, but if the desire isn’t ultimately there, it amounts to nearly nothing. As much as you can, be certain that you want this. If you don’t, that is OK. That just means you pivot to something else that you actually want.
The only exception to this rule is when it comes to concerns for your physical, financial, and emotional well-being, especially when others are dependent on you.
Find the time: Determine when is the easiest and most natural time for you to implement a regular routine that supports the outcome you seek. Leverage life hacks to help (Get Full access here > Open “Thank You” Email > Click the Free Resources link at the bottom). I know life can be busy, but the time is always there for those who want it. Sometimes you’ve got to learn to say no to other things first.
Use the Repeat Reminder function on your phone or calendar at the date(s) and time(s) you plan to establish this routine. Be as certain as possible that this works naturally with your schedule and mental peak in the day.
Put your phone on Do-Not-Disturb Mode (For a FREE GUIDE to limiting distractions, Subscribe here > Open “Thank You” Email > Click the Free Resources link at the bottom > Read “Designated Phone Times”)
Set expectations: Tell people who live with you that you would like uninterrupted time from TIME A to TIME B.
Deep Work: There are tremendous benefits to regular, highly-focused work. I write more here about how, of course, we are more productive, but there are neurological benefits including the rewiring of our neural pathways and strengthening of our ability to focus and work deeply. #Gamechanger
Align Your Strategy with Your Strengths:
It is significantly more beneficial to start by working with what you’ve got and what you care about rather than start by trying to be someone you’re not. For instance, I know that I could get into tremendous shape if I joined a CrossFit gym and went there as often as I do to my existing gym. The workouts are more intense, hugely impactful to one’s body, etc., but (and this is a huge but…teehee), I would be miserable. I hate everything about it – the social aspects, the intensity, the grunting, everything (no offense to those who enjoy it. More power to you). For me, my desires and abilities flow naturally with standard barbell training. I love the pace, the breaks in between, the focus on the lifts, the feeling it provides, everything.
That is me, and I had to experiment just a little bit in the gym to know that. Which brings me to my next point.
90% Routine/10% Experiments:
Google has an innovative policy for its employees to allocate 20% of their time to ideas/projects outside of their standard job duties (this policy led to the creation of AdWords and Gmail). James Clear has a similar recommendation in that he suggests we largely focus on establishing habits for most of our time spent and the most beneficial things in our life, but we also could benefit from allocating a small percentage (about 10%) to experimentation, especially in the beginning.
In other words, let’s say you’re trying to figure out an exercise routine that hits the sweet spot of enjoyment, time, and outcome. Start with your intuition, and honestly review your thoughts and emotions as time goes by (i.e. “Could I keep doing this and enjoy it 2 years from now? Am I resisting exercise altogether, or is it just this routine in particular? Is it the time of day I don’t like, or the facility?). Start with what you know, and leave a little room for experimentation.
Make it Enjoyable:
- Play your favorite playlist while doing it (Makes it fun, and triggers a similar brain response each time).
- Make a tasty coffee or tea while planning (caffeine + dopamine = productive and positive associations).
- Bring a friend along.
- Reward yourself for completing the habit.
The important things to remember here are:
- Moments of motivation are ideal moments to build plans for automation/habit creation.
- Be honest with yourself about what you want, what you like, and what you’re good at. Start there, and leave just a little room for experimentation.
- Remember that you are absolutely worth the things you are pursuing. Nothing and no one gets to hold you back from what you want.
The time you spend on this is sacred. Your friends and family should know that this is a non-negotiable priority for you. Sit them down and tell them “This is very important to me, and I would really appreciate it if you supported me and allowed me to stay focused on this.” Keep your messaging the same.
It will take time for yourself and others to implement this discipline, but stick with it, and it will become normal. No one will take you seriously until you take yourself seriously.
Accountability (Social vs Individual):
- Individual: Everyone is motivated differently by accountability. Personally, I am very individually motivated while leaning on trusted coaches and partners to help keep me in line when I ask them to. If this describes you, make sure you remain open to at least asking for help. No one makes it to the top without help of some kind.
- Social: People like my girlfriend know that she needs someone there to push her everyday, even when she doesn’t want them to. While some people grow out of this, the key is to be honest with yourself. If you establish a plan that doesn’t align with how you naturally think and function, it is going to be very difficult for you to establish a flow. Don’t try to fool your own brain. It will win.
- Know thyself: Like everything else, just be honest with yourself. Leave your ego at the door, and focus on who you are seeking to become.
Find Your Tribe:
For even the most individually driven people, there is a law of nature that none of us can escape – we are social creatures, and we tend to behave like those we are closest with.
With that said, make sure that you are spending time with the people (family, friends, and colleagues), places (bars, gyms, coffee shops), and things (ideas, books, TV, social media pages) that feed who you wish to become. Birds of a feather flock together, and there are far more birds focused on a life of mediocrity, poverty, bitterness, and the like than those seeking steady growth. Find the tribe that lives how you want to live.
For our more serious commitments, consider establishing a legally binding contract that commits you to some sort of payment or action if you don’t stick to it. Example: You must pay your trainer or spouse $200 every time you skip a workout. Seems extreme, but some people do it because they know they wouldn’t commit otherwise. How badly do you want it?
Make a Financial Commitment/Investment:
I have been working on building a meaningful business and platform for years, and I have only recently been convinced of the value of a Business Coach. The best ones cost a pretty penny, but the proof is in the pudding, and since I can afford to invest in one who is going to take my success as seriously as me, I am preparing to do so.
Binding yourself to a commitment through financial payments could be a really effective way to get your butt moving once and for all.
Those who journal about their food and exercise habits have been proven to do better than those who do not. It has something to do with the reflection and preparation for temptations that gives them an edge over their non-journaling colleagues. Think about that. By simply mentally preparing on how one is going to deal with a temptation, they are more likely to resist that temptation than someone who relies on willpower alone.
In addition to the general mental health benefits of journaling, I would highly recommend utilizing this activity as a means to prepare for the challenges ahead as well.
Don’t let me or anyone else be the only voice in your head regarding how to go about establishing a habit. Aside from the massive network of thought and guidance found within seconds of a Google Search, leverage the most powerful and important tool you’ve got – your mind. Not only will you be surprised at what you come up with, you will find that your habits can stick all the more when you are the one who has intellectual ownership of them. We tend to follow through more on things that are original ideas.
Build Your Car
Motivation comes and goes. In some ways it can be manufactured, but it is also subject to the field of psychology’s law of diminishing returns which dictates that, over time, external sources of motivation lose their potency in our brains. After all, there are only so many “Morning Motivation” YouTube videos you can watch without seeing that they’re all pretty much the same.
The goal here is not to dismiss external sources of motivation, nor to only rely on habits to carry you through life. It is to leverage both as gifts – both phenomenal and naturally occurring – to build sustainable, yet compounding growth in the areas of life we value most.
If you answer “YES” to the question: Is my desire for change stronger than my fear to do so?, then build a plan that sustains you.
If you are tired of riding the unpredictable waves of emotion that come with relying on motivation as your source for strength, then build a plan that sustains you.
If you feel motivated right now, try to avoid the temptation to simply act without thinking. Use that fuel to build a plan for sustainable action that keeps you going for years to come.