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9 Reasons You Need a Personal Motto

There's nothing like a good motto to keep you directed toward your goals.

Key points

  • While our immediate problems tend to distract us in everyday life, having a mantra can help us stay in touch with our deepest goals.
  • Mottos ultimately can do many things, such as increase your productivity, inspire you, or help you change a habit.
  • A motto can be more impactful if it is short, emotionally intelligent, and includes a rhyme or alliteration.
Diego Cervo/Shutterstock
Source: Diego Cervo/Shutterstock

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 nine ways that 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:

  • "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good."
  • “I’ve done it before and I can do it again.”
  • “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

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:

  • “Health first.”
  • “Exercise—stay stronger longer.”
  • “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
  • “He who has a why can endure any how.”
  • “Make the right thing to do the easy thing to do.”
  • “Smoke-free—a healthy me.”

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 purpose that day.

Other mottos that can remind you of your values:

  • “That which is hateful to you, do not do to others.”
  • “First things first.”
  • “Live and let live.”
  • “Think before you speak.”
  • “Justice delayed is justice denied.”
  • "If the problem can be solved with money, it's not that important."
  • "Time and tide wait for no man." (Some things you can't control.)

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.

  • "We may encounter many defeats but we must not be defeated." (Maya Angelou)
  • "Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken."
  • “One person can make a difference.”
  • "Keep your eyes on the prize."
  • “Every day is a second chance.”
  • "Tomorrow is another day."

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:"

  • “One day at a time.”
  • “Keep calm and carry on.”
  • “This too shall pass.”
  • "Just this.”
  • "Easy does it."
  • "How important is it?"

7. A motto can increase your productivity.

Reminders like the mottos below can help you think right and do right in a work situation:

  • “Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.”
  • "Slow and steady wins the race."
  • "Keep on keeping on."
  • "No pain, no gain."
  • "If at first, you don't succeed, try, try again."
  • "Take a break, take a breath."

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:

  • "There's always tomorrow."
  • “Every cloud has a silver lining.”
  • “There’s no failure, only feedback.”

9. A motto adds some pleasure, fun, and humor to life.

Even frivolous, commercial, and politically incorrect mottos can provide some joy:

  • "The bigger they are, the harder they fall."
  • "There's no fool like an old fool."
  • “Klement’s…the sausage that links people together.”

Making Mottos More Magnificent

You can create your own mottos or adapt existing ones. It doesn’t need to be witty, just a good reminder of your value or goal:

  1. Keep it short and easy to remember.
    It can even be one word: Compassion. Calm. Listen.
  2. Make it emotionally intelligent.
    This simply means it will strike the right chord within you.
  3. Boost your motto’s power with a rhyme or alliteration.
    If you use a rhyme, it will stick every time. Or, to be scientific about it, rhymes boost “processing fluency."

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 people want to wage war, take drugs, have affairs, or deny their own best interests. You always have to watch what gets inside your head.

Finally, while many mottos are clichés, that does not make them less true.

© Meg Selig, 2015

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