Habits vs. Motivation
People talk a lot about motivation these days and habits are getting a bad rap. Motivation is like the flashy trend that everyone gets behind briefly but is replaced by leg warmers the next week. Habits are the steady, ever cool leather jacket that gets better with age and wear. Do we need motivation? Absolutely! Will it save the day forever? No, not even a little bit. By now most everyone has heard Jim Ryun’s quote, “Motivation is what gets you started. Habits are what keep you there”. I think it’s important to break this down.
Studies have been done in the areas of addiction, academic performance, and social goals (just to name a few) that note the differences between motivation and habits. These studies also indicate the importance of how BOTH are important to achieving our goals in the long term, i.e. maintaining these goals once achieved and continuing to evolve once said goals are completed.
Motivation is what gets you started…
How does a person develop the motivation necessary to begin a more positive activity, lifestyle, etc? They’ll need a good reason, the desire to change something, the belief that they are capable of change, and a need for change to occur. So, lets apply this to an example:
Agatha wants to stop drinking. She has alienated herself from her family and husband because of poor choices she makes while drunk, she spends a significant amount of money on alcohol each week plus what she buys on the internet after drinking is excessive, and she’s noticed her health suffering (weight loss, exhaustion, frequent vomiting). She has stopped drinking in the past for periods of weeks or months and remembers these episodes fondly as times when she enjoyed her family, job, and pets as well as reengaging in swimming, a sport she always enjoyed.
Sounds to me that Agatha has a pretty serious set of great reasons, desires, belief she can change, and a need to change her drinking behavior! So how does she move this into actionable motivation? She will need to commit to the change, prepare herself for it, and plan how to do it then implement the plan.
Agatha tells her family and husband that she is going to stop drinking. She asks them to support her with this change by not drinking around her and by allowing her to be a bit cranky for a little while. She also calls a counselor and requests and intake so that they can help her sort through her underlying problems that bring her to alcohol. She makes a list of steps she can take in the next week and begins checking them off with some encouragement from her loved ones.
That is one motivated lady! Motivation takes a lot of energy. It is difficult to get going. It’s difficult to get an object moving, but once it is in motion… now we have to discuss habits.
Newton said an object in motion tends to stay in motion. Can this be said of behavioral changes? Yes and no. Once a person has fully embraced their motivation they will enjoy a period of great success and a feeling of great achievement. They deserve many kudos! Unfortunately, for many people, complacency sneaks in. It is easy to put off a part of a new routine occasionally once we see positive outcomes. To ignore the warning signs that we may be falling back into old, less desirable habits. Let’s check in with Agatha:
Agatha successfully stopped drinking for two months. She was swimming twice a week, having a big Sunday dinner with her family every week, and going on date nights with her husband. She had chosen seltzer with lime and cranberry at every social gathering and watched as her health improved, her relationship regained intimacy, and her family began to reach out to her to spend time together again. She was journaling, going to counseling every other week, and working in her gardens. Slowly, she started noticing that she was no longer looking forward to journaling every night. She started going to counseling ten to fifteen minutes late each session and told her family, friends, and husband not to worry about drinking in front of her or having alcohol in the house. Fall came and she let her gardens gather leaves without much regard. She noticed her desire to have a drink during date nights beginning to take over her thought process and found it harder and harder not to resent her husband for “being able to” drink in their home. Eventually, Agatha justified having ‘just one’ drink with her husband at their home after a particularly difficult work day. The next week she had two or three nights that she ‘just needed one’ drink, and so on and so on, until she was drinking at the same rate she had been prior to her seeking counseling.
Ok, what do you see happening with Agatha’s motivation? What about her habits? When she stopped placing importance on maintaining her healthful, helpful new habits she also lost that original motivation.
The good news for Agatha and for everyone else, is that we can learn from these experiences. We have the capacity to revisit and re engage in our healthful goals as often as necessary. Counseling can help us to hold ourselves accountable, to reflect on our desires, reasons, needs, action steps, capacity, and plan to see if we need to evolve or adjust any or all of these elements to help us maintain our healthful, helpful habits.
In counseling, Agatha can encounter how she fell back into her old drinking habits and remember all the reasons she chose to stop drinking in the first place. She can explore what led her to become complacent and how she can better prevent that in the future.
If you have some major or minor changes you wish to make and maintain but find yourself having trouble with motivation or building habits to do so, call a counselor today!
Corinne M. Sisti, LPC is the owner and operator of Sisti Counseling Services.