Motivation, Gold Stars, and Knowing Yourself

This week I’m talking about how to find the motivation to keep going with good habits… or maybe to get started in the first place.

Confession Time

I was surprised (and a bit embarrassed) to find that my meditation practice improved enormously after I started to use an app that gives me stars. There’s no other reward; you can’t use them to get something else. Just stars. You get one if you use the app to time your meditation 10 days in a row, or any time you get to 50 sessions (even if they aren’t in a row).

If you had told me ten years ago that that was what it was going to take to start meditating daily, I wouldn’t have believed you.

I am absolutely convinced of the benefits of meditation. I’ve spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars on retreats. It should not be a problem for me to get to the cushion on its own merits.

Yet. Here we are.

What is more, the practice of daily meditation has rippled out into other parts of my life. I’m going to the gym regularly, updating my blog, making progress on my business, and my house is tidier than it has ever been. That’s a lot of benefit flowing out from some silly digital stars!

Choose Your Own Best Motivation

One of the most important questions is: what actually motivates you? What do you value? What is both small enough to use as a reward and large enough that you will work for it?

I’ve tried a bunch of things in the past.

I’ve tried the Pomodoro method, for example, where you give yourself a 5-minute break after working 25 minutes straight. I just didn’t know what to do with the break.

It’s too short for a cup of tea, and I didn’t want to getinvolved in something else, and just sitting for five minutes didn’t feel much like a reward. So that didn’t work for me. It might be all you need, though. And I have to admit that you can get an astonishing amount done in a dedicated 25 minute segment.

Considering the Meditation App

I’ve been thinking more about the stars in the meditation app (Insight timer, if you are curious). This app is designed for motivation as much as anything. You don’t just wait and have the stars show up at random; there are several different trackers to remind you of your “progress”. There are bar graphs and notifications, and all the various means that apps have to get you to come back, so there is immediate gratification as well as the longer term reward.

I’m thinking that what you need is probably constant small positive feedback, and regular doses of something more substantial. If you have any great suggestions that have worked for you, chuck ’em at us in the comments!

Don’t Undermine Yourself

AKA: You can’t buy yourself a new car to reward yourself for making your own coffee three days a week.

Even though I’m advocating for (temporary) external motivation, you don’t want to actively work at cross purposes with yourself. That is to say, your reward should not be the “two steps back” after your one step forward.

Now, I want to expand on (and revise) what I said in the video… I said something about not using ice cream sundaes to reward yourself for going to the gym. I want to clarify: calories burned are (by far) not the only measure of success of an exercise program. I, myself, refuse to count calories or measure my food.

Also, ice cream sundaes are a perfectly valid choice. I had one last night, and I loved it. I have no regrets.

What I am saying is that you don’t want to accidentally form an ice cream sundae habit that goes with your exercise habit.

Plan to Wean Yourself

Habits are self-sustaining. What we want is for our default behaviours to be ones that support our broader and deeper goals.

Eventually you want to be sufficiently motivated by the activity itself that you don’t need the external motivation.

You want to meditate because you enjoy meditation, or at least because your day doesn’t feel complete without it. At the end of exercise, you feel good (and not just because you stopped). The best benefit of tidying your house is… a tidy house!

So you need a plan to reduce your reliance on the outside reminders. In my case, I started grouping together several evening activities and checking them off as a single item instead of doing each of them separately. Several weeks later, I can see that two of them have stuck, but the third has fallen off my activities – it has not attained the status of “Habit,” but I want to do it, so I will add it back into my daily checklist for a while longer.

Daily yoga and meditation, however, have become pretty well established, so that I don’t feel too much concern if I skip a day or two. They are habits, not compulsions. When my day is upside down and we have a party and need to drop the kids off at two extra activities and don’t get home until 1 in the morning… I know that they will still be there tomorrow.

To Sum Up <tl;dr>

1. If you need external motivation to start doing something, find something that works for you, specifically, not just a general “person”
2. Try not to use a reward that directly undermines the habit you are working with
3. Have a plan in place to wean yourself from the external motivation as you start to appreciate the intrinsic benefits of the habit.

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