How to be habitually motivated

If only the intensity of our desire and motivations could create the reality we yearn for. Sadly, we can’t go the gym, work out for 8 hours, and get into shape. We can’t study diligently for a week to become accomplished photographers.

Author Simon Sinek has a wonderful 3-minute video that explains why we can’t reach most goals through intensity alone. What it takes to attain the things that are really important to us, he notes, is consistency. Bit by bit and over and over we just have to keep on. The difference between intensity and consistency is the difference between going to the dentist twice a year and brushing our teeth twice a day. Both methods clean our teeth, but if the goal is to keep our teeth for the rest of our lives, then we have to brush consistently.

© Eddie Tapp

Consistency isn’t easy. In fact, it can be grueling. Developing it requires motivation and keeping it requires habit. I’ve been going to the gym week after week, month after month for at least 25 years. I’m not always motivated, and that’s why I’ve made it an iron-clad habit. It’s much the same as my commitment to turn off the alarm and get myself to work five days a week: I don’t ask myself if I feel like doing it; it’s just one of the things I do, like brushing my teeth. Wish I could say I had that same perseverance with all my goals.

A favorite podcast of mine is NPR’s Hidden Brain, in which science journalist Shankar Vedantam uncovers unconscious patterns that drive human behavior. In the episode “Creatures of Habit,” he interviews psychologist Wendy Wood. According to Wood, who’s spent 30 years researching how habits work, habits are simply mental associations. When we repeat an action over and over in a given context and get an immediate reward for doing so, our brains associate the context with the behavior. An immediate reward might be as seemingly inconsequential as feeling pride in ourselves or listening to our favorite music. I love her insights into how we can use friction and associative cues to help us develop good habits, and I’ve already started implementing them. (Wish me luck.)

In this issue, psychotherapist and author Jonathan Robinson says that what brings down most businesses is a lack of consistency in pursuing the big goals. “People don’t know how to stay motivated, long term, to do the things that make sense for their business,” he says. Who wants to consistently do things we don’t enjoy? But if you’re a small business owner, there are plenty of tasks that have to be done all the time that are less than enjoyable. This is where science can help us: We know that if we can turn those tasks into habits, we’ll dread them less and do them more.

I don’t always greet the treadmill with a smile (sometimes it’s more of a sneer), but I do look forward to listening to a good podcast while I’m pounding the conveyor belt. And I love the feeling of having finished a good workout. We can all use some new habits to keep us tip-top over the long-term, whether that’s for physical health or business well-being. Let’s start now.  

Jane Gaboury is director of publications for Professional Photographer.