Why is it so easy to forget our noble goals—exercising for health, meditating for peace of mind, or eating healthier? Distraction, temptation, and coping with the immediate problems of the day tend to knock what we'd really like to remember right out of our heads. When this happens to you, what can you do?
One answer: Have a motto or mantra on hand—or rather, in mind—to link you to your deepest values and goals. Like a quick jolt of caffeine, a motto can get you out of your mental doldrums and spur you on. (For simplicity’s sake, I’ll use the term “motto” as a stand-in for maxim, proverb, adage, and slogan, although the shades of meaning are slightly different.)
I’m fascinated by the power of a good motto. By definition, it's a brief statement "used to express a principle, a goal, or an idea” or a statement “adopted as a guide to one’s conduct.” Complicated ideas get lost in space; simple mottos can help you remember what’s really important in an instant. This is why nations, religious orders, 12-step groups, schools, the Boy Scouts, and nearly every major organization all have mottos.
A motto is usually longer than a mantra but if you repeat a short motto over and over, it can serve as a mantra—a repeated word or phrase that can soothe or motivate you.
Here are 9 ways a good motto can help you:
1. It can replace destructive thinking with healthy self-talk.
If you are telling yourself, “I’ll never get this done,” replace that thought with a motto like:
If you tell yourself, “I should always take care of others before myself,” your motto could be: "Put your own oxygen mask on first.”
2. A motto can help you change a habit.
An essential aspect of willpower is the ability to remember your long-term goal. A motto can succinctly summarize why you want to change a habit and therefore increase your willpower. Mottos like these (and these) can keep your desired habit change on track:
3. A personal motto can remind you of who you are and what you stand for.
At a memorial service, a son described his mother’s personal motto as, "Be kind. Tell the truth. Do your best.” I can’t think of better—or briefer—words to live by. And many of us could well adopt the motto attributed to Gandhi, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
I've decided to adopt the motto, "Take in the good," to remind me to focus on the beauty around me, the positives in my own life, and what I'm grateful for. (I first saw this wonderful motto in Rick Hanson's book, Just One Thing.)
What is your personal motto? If you don't have one, consider creating one or adopting one that fits your mission in life. After all, as Aldous Huxley said, "There is only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that's your own self."
4. A motto can jog your conscience, remind you of your values, and even teach character strengths.
I recently spent three hours in a hospital waiting room, as a driver for a friend who was having a procedure. The TV was set annoyingly loud, and the security guard refused to change it. I was tempted to give him a piece of my mind—and not the nicest piece. But suddenly this phrase came to me: "It's not about you right now." I took a walk, repeating the phrase, "It's not about you," over and over. That mantra helped me refocus on my higher goal.
Other mottos that can remind you of your values:
5. A motto can provide a bracing shot of inspiration.
Everyone has a different muse, but here are some universal phrases of hope and inspiration.
6. A motto can calm your mind.
Everyone can use a few healthy self-soothing techniques. Instead of turning to overeating or overdrinking, take a walk and put one of these mottos in your "thought bubble:"
7. A motto can increase your productivity.
Reminders like the mottos below can help you think right and do right in a work situation:
8. A motto can give you the encouragement that will help you persist.
In hard times, keep your chin up with a motto like one of these:
9. A motto adds some pleasure, fun, and humor to life.
Even frivolous, commercial, and politically incorrect mottos can provide some joy:
Making Mottos More Magnificent
You can create your own mottos or adopt existing ones. It doesn’t need to be witty, just a good reminder of your value or goal:
Choose a motto or two to put in your "thought bubble" today. Repeat them at intervals and see if they motivate or soothe you. If not, try, try again with different mottos.
Of course there are bad mottos, too. There are mottos that make you want to wage war, take drugs, have affairs, or deny your own best interests. You always have to watch what gets inside your head. And, yes, many are clichés, but that does not make them less true.
Do you have a motto that you love? Please share in "Comments."
© Meg Selig, 2015