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The Myth of Emotional Motivation

Going Paleo

How many times have you heard this:

“My whole life I’ve been overweight and unhealthy. But this is it! [Fill in powerful experience here] made me realize that I need to take charge of my health. Starting today, I’m committed to [insert plan for getting healthy here].”

And then a week later:

“Well, I fell off the wagon again, but this time it’s really for good!”

We all know someone like this: someone who declares that “this is it!” or “This time, it’s for real” every other week, but can’t make long-term changes. Maybe we’ve even been that person.

Many of these people are falling into a very common trap: they overvalue the power of emotional motivation and undervalue the power of habit.

The emotional power of a transformational moment (like realizing that you’re too heavy to fit on your favorite roller-coaster, or suddenly getting utterly fed up with being sick all the time) is valuable. It provides an incredible burst of motivation and energy. But here’s the thing: that motivation is short-lived. If you think about those moments, often they involve crying, or shouting, or at least incredibly strong feelings. Most people can’t keep up that level of powerful emotion all day, every day (extreme zealots for any cause do, which is why they’re so incredibly exhausting for everyone else to be around).

If your entire plan for changing your life is to rely on the power of that one, emotionally charged moment to carry you through, chances are excellent that it won’t stick, because there’s an even stronger force waiting in the background to take over your brain at the first sign of flagging motivation: habit.

Habit is Powerful

Habit is how our brains prefer to operate, because it conserves energy. On any given day, huge chunks of our time are spent doing things with barely any higher-order brain input at all. When you drive to work along the same route that you’ve driven a million times before, you’re barely even seeing the road and the billboards and the cars around you. Unless there’s something startling and new, your brain actually fills most of it in for you from memory, sparing you the trouble of noticing it all over again.

Have you ever had some one-time errand that broke up a familiar commute? And have you ever carried right on with the exact same route Meal planyou always take, only to realize belatedly that oh wait, I was supposed to get off three exits ago? You knew you had to do something else, but your habit just took over. That’s the power of habits. If you don’t keep your special errand at the front of your mind, and keep reminding yourself of it all the time, chances are excellent that you’ll forget completely.

Most of us can manage to keep repeating “remember the dry cleaning” for the length of one commute. But how many of us could keep up that kind of mental effort every day for 20 years, with old habits just waiting in the background ready to take the reins if we get tired, or distracted, or lonely, or angry, or interested in something else?

That’s why the temporary motivational boost of one emotionally charged moment isn’t enough to carry you through an actual lifestyle change. Emotion is fickle; habits are dependable. The emotional high will fade – it has to fade, for your own sanity. And when it does, your habits will be there waiting to pick up the slack and get back into the same unhealthy routines that you were stuck in to begin with. You might be able to get the emotional power back by seeking out some kind of  other “motivation,” but that fades too.

That doesn’t mean emotional investment is bad, and it doesn’t make those transformational moments any less powerful. They are powerful – that’s why they feature so prominently in all the success stories. But to make a permanent change, you have to assume that power won’t be around day in and day out for the long term. At some point, you will revert to whatever kind of habitual behaviors you’ve learned. So instead of relying on dramatic motivation to always be around, use it to change your habits to make your “default setting” healthy.

That way, when (not if! When!) you inevitably default to habit, your habits will still take you in healthy directions. You won’t have to rely on an exhausting level of emotion to keep your new lifestyle going; you’ll be able to sit back and think about other things while letting your habits take over, and you’ll still come out healthier.

Changing habits takes long-term work and it doesn’t yield immediate dramatic results. But it’s the only way to actually make anything actually stick. That’s how people with successful “transformational moment” stories made it work: instead of assuming that the emotional power of that moment would always be available, they use it to kick-start new habits.

Resources for Habit Change

Actually changing a habit is a lot harder than reading about how you need to. But here are some resources:

And if you really want to read more about the psychological basis of habit formation, here’s the piece that inspired this article (warning: explicit discussion of domestic violence and spousal abuse; do not read if that will wreck your day).

Summing it Up

That dramatic revelation that something has to change is a powerful emotional moment – and there’s nothing wrong with that. But to make it stick, you have to translate that emotional investment into habits. You can’t rely on emotional motivation to always be turned on; the reality of human life is that most of us are on autopilot a lot of the time, and we just need to get over it and plan for that. Throwing that initial motivation into habit formation is the key to actually making the changes stick.

When something is a habit, you do it whether or not you’re “motivated.” You do it when you’re tired, when you’re sick, when you’ve had a bad day, and when you just don’t really care. To make healthy lifestyle changes in the long run, you have to be able to keep them up even when you’re not “motivated.” Creating new habits isn’t very glamorous or dramatic, but it gives you a solid base of healthy defaults, which is the only way to keep your positive changes going in the long run.