Focus on a few main principles for lasting motivation. These include not waiting for a right time, taking baby steps, working from intrinsic motivation, avoid temptation outright, cutting distractions, monitoring impulses with mindfulness, visualizing in detail our goal, getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, and allowing our future selves to advise and guide our present selves.
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The world is made of it. Every supermarket is bursting with addictive, unhealthy food. You carry around a mobile phone expressly designed to capture and hold your attention no matter what. There is constant distraction and the invitation to indulge in seemingly endless desires. Friends and family might lure you away from your best laid plans, or you may succumb to an extra episode of whatever addictive show is on Netflix, or you simply bounce from one compulsive habit to the next, your willpower slackening all the while.
It’s a fact of life. Temptation is not going away. So, we need to learn to deal with it. Willpower is a limited quantity and needs to be budgeted wisely. You can bravely resist in the face of temptation, but only for so long. A far better strategy is to position yourself so that you’re exposed to as little temptation as possible from the outset. In other words, avoid it.
Make it easier to stick to your commitments than to give in to temptation. The classic example is to simply not keep unhealthy snacks at home to stop yourself guzzling them. In effect, you’re allowing yourself to have unhealthy snacks—but only if you get in your car and go out and buy them there and then. So, it’s too hard to act without discipline, and acting with discipline is the default. Set up as much of your life in this was as possible.
• Cut your credit card in half, give it to someone else to keep, or freeze it (yes, in a block of ice in the freezer!) so you can’t access it easily ad overspend. • Put your alarm on the other side of the room so you need to physically get up to turn it off and avoid the temptation to lay in bed hitting snooze a dozen times. • If you’re tempted to be unfaithful, avoid that person entirely. (Not the nicest topic, but you get the idea—why give yourself the chance to creep closer and closer to what you know is a bad idea?)
An important final tip: if you do give in to temptation? No big deal. Forgive yourself, quickly, and get right back on the wagon. Whatever you do, don’t beat yourself up with guilt and shame . . . and then say something like, “Well, I’ve already ruined everything, might as well give up!” Don’t let a small temptation turn into a bigger one.
You already know not to multitask, and to put your focus into ideally just one project at a time. Light beams, when focused onto a single point, act like a laser, which can cut through metal. When unfocused, those same light beams are weak and diffuse, barely even illuminating what they fall on.
In a way, being focused and being self-disciplined are one and the same thing. Discipline is the constant effort required to pull all the light beams into one place, in essence saying no to countless distractions so you can say yes to the single goal you’ve identified as more valuable.
Here’s a hard-to-swallow truth: many of us don’t even realize a) that our attention is being derailed and b) what exactly is derailing it.
The first step is to simply recognize that your mind is being pulled away from its task, and the next is to identify what is the cause. Only when you’ve done both of these things can you do anything to reclaim your attention again. Sadly, the modern world is designed to distract, numb, and pacify you—exactly the opposite state of mind required to reach your goals.
Common distractions include phones and devices (turn them to silent, put them in another room, or disable notifications), TV (turn it off immediately once your show is finished, or avoid it completely), or an environment that is uncomfortable and cluttered (use noise canceling earphones, put up a Do Not Disturb sign, or clear your desk so it only contains materials for the task at hand). Slow down and become hyperconscious of where your attention is going. Get into the habit of asking yourself, “Is this what I want to be focusing on right now?”
Monitor Impulses with Mindfulness
To extend the idea about distraction, use the power of mindfulness to watch your fleeting attention, and see where it goes and why. Meditation and mindfulness practice are great for whatever ails you, but they’re especially useful if you feel that your mind is buys, fractured, uncontrolled, or overrun with impulses it can’t resist.
Try this. Set a timer for yourself, let’s say ten minutes, where you logically know that the only thing you need to worry about is the project in front of you, whatever it is. Now, watch your attention. Notice if any impulses arise to switch focus to something else (check your phone, open a new browser to look at YouTube, go look for a snack . . .). Tell yourself that during these ten minutes, you don’t have to work on your project, but you absolutely cannot do anything else.
If your mind wanders, notice it, and bring it back to task again. It’s just for ten minutes (actually, this will seem like eternity if you’re used to getting distracted!). Try to notice that impulses are just that—brief moments of desire that die away again pretty quickly. Also notice that you’re not compelled to follow each and every one of them. The more you can practice looking at an urge objectively and calmly deciding not to pursue, the less of a hold distractions will have on you. You can simply shrug and say, “Oh, hello, distraction. Are you well? Great. Now go away.”
Practicing formal meditation will help strengthen this muscle even further. Keep bringing awareness to temptations and distractions and then consistently decide where you want to put your awareness. There’s no need for judgment or interpretation, however (“You’re such a distractable idiot. Focus for heaven’s sake!”); simply notice and adjust. Your focused attention is like any muscle—it strengthens with consistent use.
Make Friends with Discomfort
Let’s say you make a plan to lose weight and fill your head with the lovely end result: you feeling slim and trim and pleased with yourself. You start a diet and exercise plan, and you feel great, but at the first hurdle, you stumble and go back to your old ways. Why? It’s because of the clash between that great feeling (“Hooray, I lost weight!”) and the cold hard reality of obstacles, challenge, and discomfort getting in your way (“Hm, this gym membership is more expensive than I thought . . .”).
In other words, you didn’t expect discomfort, so you were thrown off course when it appeared. But the thing is, it always does appear! By definition, leaving our comfort zone is uncomfortable. Yes, you’re going to feel great when you achieve your goal . . . but in the meantime, you’re probably going to feel worse than if you’d done nothing at all.
Read that last sentence again: improving yourself or seeking out a goal is going to be more uncomfortable than the status quo. This is not a flaw, but a feature. If you don’t anticipate and plan for it, it will undermine you every time. What can you do to get around this?
Do the opposite: don’t just anticipate discomfort, but relish it. Seek it out. When you go on a diet, don’t fill your head with images of how great it’ll be to be thinner; instead, dwell on the fact that you will sometimes feel hungry, lazy, or tempted to give up. You release the hold these feelings have on you when you can accept them and prepare for them.
See discomfort as evidence of change. If you feel stupid, good—it’s a sign you’re in the perfect environment to learn. Those pangs and aches and worries and doubts? Welcome them—they are the price you are paying for striving for better. See what happens if you take a cold shower on purpose. See what it feels like to delay gratification for a while. Laugh at yourself if you feel scared or lazy. After all, it’s only discomfort—it won’t kill you!
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Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition.
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