This is a general thing I’ve been observing, but it was sparked by a comment from my friend Marcus on my previous post:
I think you missed off the most important thing for me – be happy. I find it way easier to do the things I should do, like exercise, when I’m already cheerful. I tend to exist in the moment more than most people, so maybe it’s just me.
I’ve already replied to the comment:
Yeah, I don’t trust this strategy.
The problem is that happiness is transitory, and too much at the whim of external factors, which means that behaviour changes that rely on it tend to lead to relapses. I agree that it’s much easier to achieve your goals when you’re already in a great mood, but you need to be able to achieve your goals when you’re having a shitty day and really don’t want to as well.
But I think this deserves elaborating on further (and not just because I’m desperately trying to prevent a beeminder goal that requires me to spend more time blogging today from derailing *cough*).
A similar theme I’ve heard a lot recently is the idea that the solution to my exercise problem is that I should find things that are fun to do and I will then want to do them.
I think these are good ideas. Happiness is great, and it makes everything easier, and if you have fun things to do that are good exercise you should definitely do them because they’re fun and you’ll get more exercise.
But as strategies I fundamentally don’t trust them, and believe that following them would actively sabotage my attempts to achieve my goals.
The problem is that they all are ways of making you want to achieve things.
Wanting to achieve the things you’re trying to achieve is also great, and you should do as much of that as you can, but there are going to be times when you don’t want to achieve things, and you’re still going to have to anyway.
I don’t know about you, but my energy levels (both physical and mental) are incredibly variable. I’m aware I’m somewhat atypical on this front, but only in the sense of maybe like a standard deviation worse than average. This means that I will often go for periods of a week or maybe even two where I just can’t be bothered with things because everything seems like hard work. It’s not that I’m unable to function, it just means that my motivation is at a distinct low.
What this means is that on a regular basis I have to assume I will have very little motivation to achieve anything, and that the things that I learned how to get done by being happy about it, or by enjoying them, no longer seem like they’re worth the effort because the effort seems so much greater. Eventually this will pass, but by that time the habit will be broken and I will have lost a lot of ground and have to restart from a much earlier phase.
And what that means is that I have to regard any approach which is built purely on motivation as doomed to failure. This is why I need strategies, and I need to design systems where the response to “I can’t be bothered” is that I go and do it anyway.
This may sound overly specific to me, and your experience of personal experience of energy levels might be different, but there are other things that can cause this too – external variation in circumstances can cause life to get a bit overwhelming, and then suddenly you too can find that you don’t have as much motivation as you once did because you’re spending it all on the current crisis, and then like me all the things that you were relying on motivation for will start to fall by the wayside.
This is of course not to say that you shouldn’t use motivation when you have it. You can always rely on the times where you have motivation to do more of it. I’m certainly planning to try to find some more fun exercise to do (I’m already doing swimming as part of that) for when the motivation strikes me, but you need that baseline habit that carries you through for the rest of the times when you don’t.
I definitely do not trust motivation alone. As you mention, it is variability in our lives that throws everything off. To avoid losing momentum, we have to create mechanisms to keep going despite friction and bumps. It would be interesting to create a mathematical model and simulations of how we humans can easily get derailed.