But why do our ambitions of self-improvement rarely stick the way we hope they will?
In the northern hemisphere summer of 1830, Victor Hugo was in a difficult place with his writing. Twelve months earlier he had promised his publisher a new book. Instead of writing, though, Hugo spent that year on other projects like entertaining guests and delaying his work.
Frustrated, Hugo’s publisher responded by setting a deadline less than six months away. The book had to be finished by February 1831. Forced into action, Hugo collected all his clothes and asked an assistant to lock them in a large chest. He had nothing to wear except a large shawl, which meant he couldn’t even go outside. He remained in his study where he wrote through the autumn and winter of 1830. His book, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, was published two weeks early on January 14, 1831.
Hugo achieved what he set out to do after a season of procrastination, but with extreme measures. We all—most of us, at least—have what seems like an inbuilt desire to put things off, to do something more attractive rather than a task we’ve set ourselves.
James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, asks the obvious question: “Why would Victor Hugo commit to writing a book and then put it off for more than a year?” He has another question, “Why do we make plans, set deadlines and commit to goals, but then fail to follow through on them?”
He answers his question by noting that when we make plans such as to lose weight or write a book or learn a language, they are plans for our future self: “You are envisioning what you want your life to be like in the future and when you think about the future it is easy for your brain to see the value in taking actions with long-term benefits.”
That’s not the case when the time comes to make the decision. You aren’t making a decision about your future self, “You are in the moment and your brain is thinking about
the present self. Researchers have discovered that the present-self really likes instant gratification, not long-term payoff.
“This is one reason why you might go to bed feeling motivated to make a change in your life, but when you wake up you find yourself falling into old patterns. Your brain values long-term benefits when they are in the future, but it values immediate gratification when it comes to the present moment.”
Pulling yourself out of the swamp
Ayelet Fishbach and her team have been researching motivation for more than 20 years. She admits, “Trying to sustain your drive through a task, a project, or even a career can sometimes feel like pulling yourself out of a swamp by your own hair [to quote Baron Munchausen]. We seem to have a natural aversion to persistent effort that no amount of caffeine or inspirational posters can fix.”
At the same time, “effective self-motivation is one of the main things that distinguishes high-achieving professionals from everyone else.” So how do we achieve what we want to when we find it so hard to follow through on what we want to do?
Fishbach has four “sets of tactics” to help:
1. Design goals, not chores
Doing your best is an abstract concept when it comes to goal setting, and studies have shown that when salespeople have targets, they close more deals. Walking 10,000 steps a day is a specific and measurable goal many find achievable.
“We found that people who made resolutions at the start of January that were more pleasant to pursue—say, taking on a yoga class or phone-free Saturdays—were more likely to still be following through on them in March than people who chose more important but less enjoyable goals.”
2. Find effective rewards
Rewards could range from a vacation for completing a project or a gift for losing weight. Don’t choose incentives that undermine your desired goal, adds Fishbach. “If a dieter’s prize for losing weight is to eat pizza and cake, he’s likely to undo some of his hard work and reestablish bad habits.”
She warns that research has shown that “goal achievement sometimes licenses people to give into temptation which sets them back.” What we’re attempting to achieve needs to be taken seriously.
3. Sustain progress
What often happens when an individual is working toward a goal is that there’s strong motivation early and then there’s a slump. “Fortunately, research has uncovered several ways to fight this pattern. I refer to the first as ‘short middles.’” She refers to making sales targets weekly rather than quarterly, which allows less time to “succumb to that pesky slump.”
Another strategy is to remind yourself of the headway you’ve already made in the project. You can also focus on what you’ve done up to the mid-point of the task, then focus on what’s left to do: “My research has found that this shift in perspective can increase motivation.”
4. Harness the influence of others
“Listening to what your role models say about their goals can help you find inspiration and raise your own sights.” Research has found that offering your wisdom to others helps you lay out a concrete plan to follow, which can help lead to your success. People can also be motivated by others in various ways: “A woman may find drudgery at work rewarding if she feels she is providing an example for her daughter; a man may find it easier to stick to his fitness routine if it helps him feel more vibrant when he is with his friends.”
Fishbach finishes with this advice: “Self-motivation is one of the hardest skills to learn, but it’s critical to your success.”
That exercise we should do
We’ve known for a long time that exercise is good for us. Hippocrates (460-370 BC) wrote about the dangers of too little activity . . . and too much food. However, Harvard Health notes that “the benefits of physical activity are legion, [but] so are the reasons for avoiding it.”
There’s always something else to do, but we know exercise should have a priority in our lives. However, there’s that must-read book, that television series, that catch-up to organise. These are easier than the sweat and pain of a workout—or finding the time to do the 10,000 steps. In his book Live More Active, Darren Morton takes a “three beliefs approach” to help with motivation and follow through on the desire to exercise. They are:
1. I need to be active
“You will be unmotivated to activate your life unless you believe it is imperative that you do so. . . . You have to believe that you need it!” and to act on it.
2. I can be active
“Unless you believe change is possible and that you are capable of achieving it, you will clearly have no inclination to strive for it. . . . There is truth to the saying, ‘If you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.’”
3. I deserve to be active and enjoy the associated benefits
“For many people, credible sources—to them—and unfortunate life experiences have taught them that they do not deserve good things in life. Tragically, they form a belief that they are not valuable and important. I believe—I know—that every person has tremendous value and incredible worth and deserves a life of health and wholeness.” That includes you.
The results are worth the effort.
James Clear commented about the brain valuing and desiring instant gratification. The challenge is to look long term and to pursue the benefits for the long term. Research has found that the “ability to delay gratification” strongly predicts success in life. Clear adds: “Understanding how to resist the pull of instant gratification—at least occasionally, if not consistently—can help you bridge the gap between where you are and where you want to be.” And it will help us in the follow-through of our plans.