Many think that mastering motivation is the secret to creating a habit and making it stick. The problem is that motivation is unreliable, subject to the whims of unpredictable external and internal forces.
This makes it difficult for caregivers to create and maintain habits. With unpredictable stressors, along with demanding and rigorous schedules, motivation can be scarce and can wane quickly.
James Clear, the author of “Atomic Habits,” shares a couple of aces he keeps up his sleeve for when motivation begins to slump.
Motivation is a resource
By definition, a resource is limited in both quantity and quality; sometimes it’s abundantly available and other times scarcely available. It fluctuates according to a number of factors:
- Your circadian clock
- What you eat (i.e., blood sugar)
- How much sleep you get
- Your interactions with others (e.g., extroversion vs. introversion)
Habits are easy to adopt and stick with when motivation is high. But, as a resource, we know motivation is inevitably going to fluctuate.
Sometimes we don’t have the motivation to go through the motions needed to implement a habit. So, what do we do then? Clear has a couple of strategies that can be used to completely bypass the motivation/willpower dilemma.
Two ways to overcome the motivation and willpower slump
There’s a common error when it comes to behavior change and habit development: We assume the amount of input will equal the amount of output. In other words, we think our results will increase in direct proportion to the amount of effort we put in. This just isn’t the case. With habits, there’s not a linear relationship with achievement; rather there’s more of a compound growth curve—the greatest returns are delayed. Clear defines the gap between what we expect and what we experience as the “plateau of latent potential.”
With habits, there’s not a linear relationship with achievement; rather there’s more of a compound growth curve—the greatest returns are delayed.
“This plateau plays a role in any journey of improvement,” Clear writes. “You’re putting in work each day, but you feel stuck in this valley of death. You’re accumulating potential, but it hasn’t been released yet. It’s all effort and no reward. This can be a frustrating experience, and you need something to help you stick with it while you’re waiting for the long-term rewards to accumulate.”
Here are two strategies Clear recommends to help when you’re stuck in this “valley of death.”
Temptation bundling works by linking an action you want to do with an action you need to do. You’re more likely to find a behavior attractive if you get to do one of your favorite things at the same time.
For example, let’s say you notoriously avoid folding laundry, but you’re a huge fan of the newest Netflix series. Using temptation bundling, you could tempt yourself to fold the laundry by “bundling” it with watching Netflix.
Obviously, this method relies on self-discipline—maybe a little too much for some. After all, one could just skip the laundry and watch the Netflix series. If this is the case for you, and you find yourself skipping the “need to do” part and just watching the Netflix series, then the key to temptation bundling is to make the incentive (the Netflix series) more enjoyable than it would be without the new habit (folding the laundry).
For example, let’s say after you finish folding your laundry, you reward yourself with your favorite takeout delivery and you can finish your Netflix series munching on delicious Thai or sushi. But you have to do your laundry first.
This way you’ll become conditioned to do a new habit if it means you get to do something you really want to do along the way, even if the habit is undesirable.
A commitment device is a choice you make in the present that locks in your future actions. This tactic requires a little forethought and planning ahead, but it’s very effective.
The key? Make it harder to not do the habit than to do it.
When a yoga studio, for example, charges a fee if you cancel within 24 hours of the class, it’s, in essence, doing you a favor; it’s creating a commitment device on your behalf. Signing up for the class locks you in for future action: You have to follow through on your new habit of going to yoga class.
Harvard University has a few ideas of how to implement commitment devices in your own life:
New habit: Visit the gym three times a week.
- Solution: Schedule workouts with an exercise partner. You’ll disappoint a friend if you fail to follow through on your new habit to visit the gym.
New habit: Eat healthy “whole food diet” meals four times a week.
- Solution: Order groceries online, which will nix the temptation to purchase unhealthy foods on impulse.
Clear has several ideas of his own:
- A website blocker will lock you out of distracting websites, making your productivity stretches longer and more, well, productive.
- Always schedule your next appointment before leaving the doctor, dentist, hairdresser, etc. This means it’s already on your calendar.
- Leave your phone at home if you know it will distract you during an important meeting or coffee date with a friend or loved one.
In simple terms, a strategic and tailored commitment device makes it easier to do the habit than to not do the habit. In other words, it puts up barriers, or nudges, to make doing the habit easier.
As a caregiver, your motivation is often pulled in just about every direction possible. So, give yourself credit for your efforts to implement healthy habits into your busy routine! Temptation bundling and commitment devices are two more helpful strategies that may enable you to get over the hump and build a habit that lasts.