Build a Habit: Motivation is a Fickle Mistress, Habit Is Not

The harder you work and the bigger the challenge you take on, the more likely you are to encounter the voice of “reason” inside your head that tells you to take it easy, to slow down, to take a break for a while, maybe even: to quit. This voice comes when the fire (that originally made you dream) fades. Motivation is a fickle mistress. She is there when you’re starting and the world of possibility seems infinite. She’s there when you’re improving dramatically. She’s there when you’re succeeding. But she comes and goes when the going gets tough: when you’re failing, when you hit a plateau, when you have to change and take steps back before you ever can move forward again.

If I learned anything from my work and my training, it’s that I can never count on motivation to always be there. It may be a natural flaw of an overly-introspective brain, but I’ve come to expect that motivation comes and goes. When I’m working at the edge or outside my comfort zone, tension builds, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed. There are days and weeks when the answer to: “why am I doing this?” seems to escape my best attempts to find it. So, instead of searching for motivation, I find zen-like contentment in ritual. I build a habit and stick to it every day, no exceptions. I recommend you read Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. This book describes the rituals of some brilliant and productive people throughout history.

Motivation-is-what-gets-you-started-habit-is-what-keeps-you-goingThere are plenty of books and blogs dedicated to building habits. It’s an industry that actually boils down to the trivially simple advice of: you know what to do, just do it, every day. I prefer to do everything I’m passionate about according to a strict schedule. I make this schedule not based on a dreamy optimism but based on reasonable expectations grounded in my prior experiences. For example, if I can only train 4 days a week in the next 6 months, I pick the days on which I’m going to train and go in to the gym on those same days every week no matter how I’m feeling. If I didn’t sleep the night, am swamped with work, etc, etc, I still come in to train. It will probably be a bad training session, but that’s not the point of coming in on those rough days. The very fact that I came in teaches my mind to stick to the regular schedule I planned on. Habit is built not when you’re motivated, energetic, happy, etc. Habit is built when the last thing you want to do is the thing that you’re supposed to do according to your schedule, but you DO IT ANYWAY.

The main point of building a habit is so that you don’t have to ask the question “why am I doing this?” often, and can ask it only when your motivation is high. If you decide to quit, it should be only when you’re feeling great, because then the decision to quit will much more likely be grounded in a rational evaluation of your life circumstance and goals.

My girlfriend sent me a text awhile ago that I saved and think about often. Among many other things, she is a runner. She’ll regularly do 7+ mile runs in 90 degree heat and make it look easy. But even for her, doing the thing she loves, motivation is a fickle mistress:

“Some days I love running. I relish it. Some days are like: ‘I’m okay, I can do this’. But there are still days, when my mind is like ‘no no noooo.'”

Motivation is the light at the end of the tunnel. Forget the light. Everyone is good at following the light. Success is found by the few who thrive in darkness.


4 thoughts on “Build a Habit: Motivation is a Fickle Mistress, Habit Is Not

  1. Jim Caruso

    Timely advice for me, Lex. I am slumping badly in my BJJ, and, as you wrote, motivation is not going to save me when I’m feeling negatively about my abilities. It is only habit that will: just keep showing up. I cannot commit to training specific nights like you, due to constantly varying business and family commitments. Some weeks I can only train once or twice, and probably the most I can hope for is three sessions. But I do make sure I get there the nights that I can and try to never skip class just because I “don’t feel like” going.

    A couple weeks ago I really wanted to skip open mat, but I knew that I wouldn’t work out of my slump by not going. I decided I was going to show up, even if I only did three or four rounds instead of committing to a full hour or hour and a half of rolling. There were only a couple of guys there that evening, and I did only go a few rounds, in which I did not perform particularly well. But I left feeling good that I had won a battle with myself just by showing up.

    1. Lex Post author

      Awesome. One battle at a time! Of course, the easiest way to win the battle is to ignore the battle and just continue in autopilot. Whenever the thought “I don’t feel like going” comes in, don’t try to reason with it, just let pass over you and ignore it. It’s basically meditation. At least that’s what works for me.


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