You’ve decided today is going to be different. You’re finally going to make that change: you’re going to lose the weight, get that new job, or find that new girlfriend. Whatever your goal is, you’re going to accomplish it, no matter what it takes.
You feel motivated, you feel ready to take on the world.
Motivation is a great feeling. But that’s exactly the problem, motivation is a feeling. Yes, one day you might feel ready to take on the world, but how are you going to feel three weeks from now? Feelings are fleeting by nature, they come and go in waves. No matter funny that joke you heard was, you’re going to stop laughing eventually (I hope).
We often think motivation is the key to success. Sure, if we could feel motivated 100% of the time, we would be able to accomplish anything–we would be unstoppable. However, as great as motivation is in concept, it’s overrated–because in reality, it isn’t reliable.
Why Emotions Lead Us Astray
Psychologists have proven our emotional state effects our thoughts. If you’re in a negative mood, your thoughts become self-defeating (e.g. “Why bother trying, I’ll never be good enough”). If you’re in a positive mood, your thoughts become self-reinforcing (e.g. I’m going to run a marathon in three weeks!”)
We tend to set goals when we feel motivated. That’s when we’re ready to make a change, and so that’s when we plan out our strategy. This rarely works, though, because we base our plan on how we’re feeling in the moment. When we’re feeling unstoppable, we create a plan that we could only accomplish if we always felt that way.
This is why we so often fail to follow through on our goals. For example, when I started writing, I told myself I would publish a new 50-page book every two weeks. I set that goal when I felt motivated, but it wasn’t realistic, and so I didn’t keep up with my overly ambitious goal.
If you’ve ever set a goal for yourself, only to give up on that goal a few weeks in, you know what I’m talking about. I’ve done that probably hundreds of times. I wanted to go from an average student one semester, to a straight-A student the next semester. I wanted to lose 30 pounds in three months. I wanted to post 30 YouTube videos in one month.
I set these goals when I felt motivated, I imagined that I would be able to maintain my motivation at a level that just wasn’t realistic.
We project our current emotions into the future, but emotions are chaotic, they change in ways that we can’t predict or control.
No matter how many affirmations you do, no matter how much you visualize accomplishing your goals, no matter how much time you spend power-posing, you still won’t always feel motivated.
Relying too much on motivation to make progress towards your goals is a losing battle.
So, what’s the alternative to motivation? Creating systems: rules for yourself that you will follow not just on days when you feel energized, but even when you feel low.
How To Create Systems
In the self-improvement world, people often say that we should ignore our emotions. The idea is that you don’t need to feel a certain way to take action.
And yes, it’s true that you should push yourself and get out of your comfort zone.
But we also must respect our emotions. If we push ourselves too much by having unrealistic expectations of ourselves, we end up burning out and giving up – it’s a balancing act.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that when a task is too easy, we fall into boredom. When a task is too difficult, we become distressed.
When a task is challenging, but not too difficult, we enter what’s known as a flow state, defined as, “A state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.”
If you set goals that are too difficult, you set yourself up for making that task stressful. For example, if you’re new to reading, and you set a goal to read an hour per day, that would be a mammoth task. You’d end up feeling stressed every time you sat down to read, and eventually you would dislike reading so much that you’d probably give up on your goal.
The key to creating an effective goal is accounting for the fact that motivation cannot be relied on. Instead of setting a goal to work out every single day for an hour, set a goal to work out twice a week for 30 minutes. Instead of setting a goal to publish a new video every day, set a goal to publish at least one video a week.
The best goals are challenging enough to push you forward, but not so challenging that they’re overwhelming. Finding the sweet spot might take some experimentation. The best way to know if your goals are effective is to keep track of whether you’re sticking to them. If you notice that you’re procrastinating a lot, your goal is too difficult, if you’re not making forward progress, your goal is too easy.
I keep track of my goals using a simple word document like this:
I set weekly goals, like to publish three articles, to go to the gym three times a week, or to write 50 pages of a book. When I finish the tasks, I cross them off. If I don’t complete a task, I write what I actually did and adjust my goal for the next week accordingly. If I notice I’m exceeding one of my goals regularly, I increase the goal.
This way, I am setting goals that push me, but that I also follow through on consistently–even on weeks when I don’t feel motivated. You don’t have to use a word document to keep track of your progress, you can use Evernote, Excel, Todoist, or even an app like Habitica.
Keeping track of your goals is extremely valuable because it allows you base your progress on your actual performance, as opposed to setting goals that are based on what you think you should be able to do.
Motivation is great in theory, but unreliable in practice. If you feel motivated, don’t hesitate to use that feeling to push yourself. However, when it comes to making long-term progress towards your goals, motivation can lead us astray.
Instead of relying on motivation, use a system based on quantifiable data to discover what kind of goals are substantial, but also sustainable. Counterintuitively, relying on motivation can hold us back more than it helps us. And by dropping your reliance on motivation, you can dramatically improve your productivity.