A good friend of mine once told me about a trip to the dentist. He has bad teeth and found himself scouring articles on the differences of a variety of toothpastes and toothbrushes. In a state, he spoke to his dentist about what he’d recommend as the right toothpaste and the right toothbrush. The dentist looked at him and said: “The right one is the one that gets you to brush your teeth.”
We start every year with a sense of hopefulness, exuberance, and wonder. What can I achieve this year? We set our resolutions and proceed to change our habits… for all of two or three weeks. By February we may have even forgotten what our resolutions were.
Are we this bad at goal setting? Not exactly. Setting the goals happens without incident. The trouble is usually in the follow-through. So we scour articles, books, and opinions for how to nudge, change a habit, create a positive feedback loop, get in the zone, etc. In essence, we are looking for the silver bullet that takes us from here to there. We’re typically as successful at finding the secrets of motivation in a book as we are at calming a crying baby by yelling “quiet!”. In other words, we rarely find ourselves with the intended outcome.
What if it isn’t true that we’re “lazy” for not meeting a goal? What if it isn’t a lucky few that are born motivated and the rest of us are destined to struggle? When you aren’t feeling driven, don’t let these judgments get the better of you. Telling that story is the first step towards dishonoring your resolution for self-improvement – exercise, diet, build a bigger business, spend more time with your family, etc.
What is motivation? At its basic level, motivation is a force. It is an explanatory feature of living things that links intention with action. Crucially, it is not the impetus for action but rather the byproduct of honoring a promise for action.
How do you keep a promise? You commit to yourself that the promise you made is something you are willing and able to keep, and the strength of that commitment comes entirely from your reason for making it. What has you want to hit that goal this year? What would getting there mean to you? What would it mean to others? Give each of your goals a clear purpose. One that matters deeply to you or to your relationship with others. When we set benchmarks for ourselves or our teams, if they aren’t tied to something meaningful they will easily fall down the priority list as soon as things get challenging or inconvenient.
Once you’re clear on your purpose, set a definite and specific point in the future when you will review and renew or modify that promise. Put the date in your calendar with a reminder and, as Ron Popeil once said, “set it and forget it.”
Along the way, leave room for a dialogue with yourself and with those connected to your goal. Keep that channel open. Just like making time to reflect and adjust, allow space for learning about what gets in the way. In the moments that you feel detached from your promise, or when more immediately attractive or aversive stimuli beg your attention away, enliven the spirit of integrity and see it as an opportunity to recommit. Circle back to that purpose – does my reason for keeping this promise still exist? Who do I impact by honoring it? Who gets affected if I break it? Bring yourself up a level and engage eye to eye with your values. By accessing these higher-order principles, you’ll find yourself once again connected to your promise and less influenced by the distractions and dips in confidence.
And that friend with the bad teeth? Turns out he doesn’t have that bad of teeth. His nuanced search for the best toothpaste and toothbrush he recognized as a flight away from holding himself accountable. He was avoiding the act of making a promise. He was telling a story that served only to resign himself to his situation. Once he made a promise and connected that promise to his health, something he values highly, he made a promise to brush twice a day and he’s been surprised by the outcome. He has been able to alter his life in a marked way all by making a simple promise and honoring it. That’s both as little and as much as it takes.