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Motivation Hacks

12 tactics to help you accomplish your goals and build healthy habits.

Motivation hacks
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You could have every reason for losing weight, going back to school, having that difficult conversation, consuming less social media, reading more, eating less sugar, and yet, remain unmoved. Why? What is the missing ingredient needed for change? Many answer this question by saying:

"It's a knowledge gap. If the person only knew how harmful smoking is, they'd quit!"

Unfortunately, knowledge about the benefits of change does not produce change. Certainly, reasons for change play a role, but you aren't going to get off the couch if you don't want to. The internal dialogue of an unmotivated person could go like this:

"I know that I will be healthier if I exercise more often, but do I want to exercise? Do I want to be healthier? Meh."

So, how does one build motivation when they have none? There are many ways to answer this question, but one way is to access your brain's motivational system with these 12 hacks.

  1. Bundling: Pair something you don't like with something you do like. For example, you can only watch your favorite TV show while working out at the gym. Or, for example, you can only listen to your favorite podcast while doing laundry.
  2. Reward Scheme: You give yourself a small reward after completing a task. For example, complete a chore or homework assignment (if you are a student) and then give yourself 10 minutes on social media, or eat a tasty snack.
  3. Artificial Problem: Create an unavoidable, artificial problem that forces you to solve it. For example, if you have dirty clothes strewn about your room, but you have no motivation to do laundry, then put all your dirty clothes on your bed. This prevents you from having a comfortable night's sleep until you complete the laundry.
  4. Chunking: Take a big, overwhelming project or task, and chunk it into smaller, doable tasks. For example, if you have a big presentation at work, chunk the big task down to five small tasks; start small and go big.
  5. Buddy System: Don't lone-wolf it! Pursue a goal with a buddy. For example, if you sign up for a gym, join up with a friend and go together. If you don't show, you are letting your buddy down and you don't wanna do that. Additionally, having a buddy lowers the discomfort of going alone and making it more likely you'll go.
  6. Mindless/Mindful: Make the desired behavior as mindless as possible. Make the undesired behavior as mindful as possible. For example, eating healthy meals ought to be mindless, so prepare the meals in advance, so all you have to do is warm it up instead of making it from scratch. On the other hand, be as mindful as possible when eating an unhealthy meal. Some examples of this are: eat ice cream with your non-dominant hand, look in the mirror when eating potato chips, chew each bite of a cookie 10 times.
  7. Negative Reinforcement: If you don't complete your goal, you have to do something unpleasant to yourself (e.g. eat your least favorite vegetable), or take away something you like (e.g. no pizza for a week). For example, if you don't meet a goal, you are restricted from indulging in your favorite pastime.
  8. Unearned Leisure: Develop a healthy distaste for unearned leisure. For example, if you enjoy crashing on the couch and binging your favorite show, well, that's all well and good if you've earned it. If you haven't completed your goals for the day, that unearned leisure should elicit disgust and guilt. In this case, guilt is good. Only grant yourself permission to indulge in leisure if you've earned it.
  9. Weird Rules, But OK: Put some weird rules around distractions or pleasures. For example, if you lose big chunks of time to social media, disallow personal access to social media during the hours of the day when you should be productive. Or, for example, you can't leave the office until you've responded to 10 emails.
  10. Lists: Write your goals out. Prioritize them from most to least important. Only do goal 2 when goal 1 is completed. Only do goal 3 when goal 2 is completed. A mental list of your goals puts a serious drag on your mental bandwidth. Unburden your mental bandwidth by writing your goals down and checking the list off one by one.
  11. The Snowball Effect: Accomplishing one task creates motivational momentum to accomplish another task, and then another, and another. For example, taking out the trash makes taking out the recycling seem less burdensome. You might as well do one if you are already doing the other. For example, doing the dishes leads to cleaning the counter leads to going through mail leads to paying a bill and so on.
  12. Your Future Self: Imagine you in the future judging the decisions and actions of the present you. Will your future self be happy with the decisions of the present self, or will the future you be unhappy? For example, not going to school makes the present you happy, but the future you will be unhappy because your bad grades will hamper entrance into your dream college program. Do what makes your future self happy!

These hacks are designed to get the ball rolling. But once it's rolling, you've got to maintain motivational momentum and the best way to do that is to create habits. Habits are patterns of behavior that you act out without the internal battle of "I want to, but I don't want to." A habit makes change obligatory—there is no do or don't when it comes to going to the gym, or eating more vegetables, or spending less time on social media. You are obligated to act in your best interest regardless of your mood. Therefore, use these motivational hacks as a launchpad for building healthy habits that sustain change over time.

More from Dan Bates, PhD, LMHC, LPCC, NCC
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