Self-Awareness: Are you having trouble starting or sticking with something?

    Kara McDuffee June 28, 2021

    I know that I’m not alone in my failure to make a change. After all, there’s a reason that most New Year’s Eve resolutions don’t even last until the end of January. Have you ever set a goal that you didn’t accomplish? Or tried to start something but didn’t stick with it? 

    Maybe there’s something you’re struggling to change now, and that’s why you clicked on this post. 

    The problem with these goals is that we believe our motivation is the only thing we need to change. Therefore, when we don’t follow through, we assume we lack the willpower to stick with it. (Which inevitably leads to a shame cycle that further hurts our chance for success.)

    If you reflect on your failed goals, what do you say about the reason? I imagine many of us would answer something along the lines of, “I really wanted to, but I just didn’t have enough motivation to do it.”

    Not only is this faulty thinking, but it prevents us from developing our self-awareness for future growth. It’s the equivalent of a teacher handing back a graded test and saying, “You failed, but I’m not going to tell you what you did wrong.”

    A lack of motivation is just one factor in your struggles. Fortunately, by learning about the other factors, you can set yourself up for more success in the future.

    Self-Awareness Crash Course: Our Emotions and Brains Drive our Behaviors

    In last month’s Self Matters post, I talked about how much our bodies affect our choices. This is because emotions run the most primal, controlling part of our brain. Our evolutionary desire for pleasure and avoidance of pain dictates pretty much everything we do.

    What does this have to do with motivation and goal-setting?

    Pursuing delayed gratification - a.k.a. chasing goals - goes against our human nature. Our emotionally-driven brains don’t like to suffer in the short term for long-term benefits. Suffer might seem like a strong word, but that’s what our brains think when we experience any pain or negativity - even if it’s just caused by breaking a routine.

    If you think about your goals, I imagine most of them will require some sort of short-term suffering to achieve the changes you want. If they didn’t, then you’d be able to change in an instant.

    The other internal obstacle working against you is our brain’s desire for certainty. Every time you perform an action, you create a neural connection in your brain. The more times you do something, the stronger that neural pathway becomes. Eventually, your brain doesn’t have to think about doing something; it acts based on default. 

    While these automatic behaviors save precious mental bandwidth, they can contribute to our lack of self-awareness about what we’re doing. They also make it more challenging to create new habits because our brains need to create brand new neural pathways. Our survival instincts make us avoid uncertainty.

    So, when we rely on motivation alone to make a change, we’re trying to work against our brain and body’s default mode. This, coupled with our powerful emotional desire to avoid suffering and uncertainty, makes it difficult to change.

    How to Overcome These Obstacles: Three Elements of Motivation

    If you’re feeling bleak about your ability to make a change, don’t. Yes, some elements of our human nature are working against your motivation. However, the more educated you are, the more you can work smarter, not harder.

    Part of this education includes expanding your definition of motivation.

    Psychologist Benjamin Hardy explains that our motivation relies on three components:

    1. The value you put on your goal. How much do you believe in your goal? How important is it to you?
    2. Your belief that specific behaviors will facilitate the outcome you want. How much do you believe in the process? Are you convinced by the methods?
    3. Your belief in your own ability to execute these behaviors to achieve your goals. How confident are you that you can carry out these behaviors? How likely is it that you will stick with them?

    We need all three components to ensure our motivation is effective and produces actual results. 

    Then, we’ve got to utilize our human nature to get there.

    Tips to Turn Your Motivation into Results

    No one magic trick will help you turn your motivation into results. There are, however, tips and strategies you can implement into your life that will help you get around some of those pesky brain defaults working against you.

    1. Be clear about your motivation

    If you look back to the three components of motivation, the first one is what we conventionally think of when we think of motivation. What do you want, and why do you want it? The problem is that many of us are quick to say things we want without giving it much thought. Therefore, you must spend time thinking through your motivations. Make sure you’re clear with what you want and why you want it. This is also a great step to pull out your journal. You can write about what the change would give you or list out all the reasons behind your motivation.

    • What do you want?
    • What would the change give you?
    • What reasons do you have behind the motivation?
    • How does your motivation align with your life purpose?
    1. Consider habits rather than goals

    Setting and pursuing goals is important for growth, but it’s not the only thing you should focus on. Goals are one-time standards that you try to achieve. As such, once you achieve them (or fall short of them), your motivation comes to a screeching halt. This is why you must consider the role that habits can play in the change you want to make. Rather than work toward a fixed goal, you can implement tiny habits that will have exponential results in the long term. Make sure you adhere to the second component of motivation: you must believe that the steps you’re taking will help you get where you want to go.

    • What habits would support the change you want
    • How can habits fit into your motivation?
    • How can you shift your motivation from large-scale goals to tiny, everyday habits?
    1. Utilize friction with your behaviors

    Remember how our human nature makes us avoid pain and seek pleasure? Once you’ve established the value of your motivation, you still must tackle the third level: your belief in your ability to accomplish it. Removing “friction,” or obstacles that make your change more difficult, will help eliminate some of the “pain” along the way. It’s kind of like the difference between running on a smooth track versus running on a track littered with rocks, cones, and debris (oh, and your shoes are untied). The more you can remove friction in your desired path, the more you can set yourself up for success. (And conversely, the more friction you can add to an undesirable thing, the easier it’ll be to avoid.) Designing your environment for success will help you fully utilize your motivation.

    • What obstacles stand in your way?
    • How can you eliminate some of these obstacles?
    • How can you make it easier to do what you want to do?
    • How can you set yourself up for success?
    1. Stack your habits in a routine

    We covered in the Self-Awareness Crash Course how our brains like routines and how repeated behaviors eventually become the default. You can use this to your advantage when trying to turn your motivation into results. If you want to start a new habit, attaching it to an existing habit can do wonders. For example, if you want to begin journaling, you could start journaling while you have your daily cup of coffee. By building the new habit into your established routine, you remove the hurdle of figuring out when to do something or how to remember it. 

    • How will your new habit fit into your routine?
    • What existing habits can you attach your new habit to?
    • How can you combine different motivators?
    1. Reflect on your growth and motivation 

    Finally, the most important piece; make sure you reflect on your growth and motivation frequently. If you’re going to be successful, you’ve got to develop your self-awareness in the process. It’s helpful to tap into your body as a source of insight. Remember, motivation is far more complicated than simply “wanting something.” You’ll get a lot further if you can identify and evaluate the entire process, from start to finish. Journaling is an excellent outlet for building your self-awareness.

    • How has your motivation evolved?
    • What worked for you in achieving the results you wanted? What got in your way?
    • How can you improve your process?
    • What components of motivation are you missing? How can you add them?

    Conclusion: Turning Motivation into Results

    If you want to change, motivation alone won’t be enough to achieve the results you want. Your human nature will get in your way when it comes to delayed gratification, breaking routines, and creating new neural pathways. Fortunately, you can utilize this knowledge of our tendencies to set yourself up for more success.

    1. Be clear about your motivation
    2. Consider habits rather than goals
    3. Utilize friction with your behaviors
    4. Stack your habits in a routine
    5. Reflect on your growth and motivation 

    As you do, always have a journal in hand to reflect on the process!


    Kara McDuffee-1

    Author bio:Self Aware

    Kara McDuffee is the writer and founder of My Question Life, a community dedicated to helping you discover yourself and find the answers you’re searching for.  She gives you the questions you need to become more self-aware and vulnerable in your everyday life. To read her posts or download her free eBook The Art of Being Self-Aware, check out her blog.