Everyone has heard the advice that motivation, willpower, and self-discipline are essential to accomplishing goals. But, what if they’re actually sabotaging them? What if the most widely believed and embraced goal approaches aren’t just incorrect but are actually setting you up for failure? I know it might be difficult to imagine, but in my life and the lives of countless others I’ve worked with this has been proven true time and time again and the science even backs this up! Find out how motivation, willpower, and self-discipline are sabotaging your goals and the approach that actually works!
When we talk about motivation we are usually referring to the drive or internal energy to take action. It’s that feeling of commitment or passion that keeps you going. And when we feel motivated it feels SO amazing. Getting our goal work done is easy and exciting. We feel fired up and it’s almost like we have a super human ability to get it all done. The only problem with motivation… it’s fleeting. Creating and maintaining motivation becomes a consistent challenges that feels almost as impossible as getting your toddler to pick up all their toys without wandering off, whining, or playing with any. (It really is this hard… it’s not just you).
How We Think Motivation Works
We often imagine motivation to be a consistent stream of energy and attentiveness toward action. This means we think that each day we will “feel like” working on our goals or doing what needs to be done and then we will do it. You may even imagine that you enthusiastically feel like doing it (as in, you’re fired up about it). Many people believe that once you feel motivated taking action is easy and will continue to be but are surprised to find that this isn’t true.
How Motivation Really Works
The feeling of motivation is caused by a chemical reaction in the body, specifically dopamine release. Dopamine is a super powerful feel good neurotransmitter and allows you to feel satisfaction, pleasure, and motivation. It is released when we are excited about a new goal. Or when we eat certain foods like sugar, or even get adequate rest, exercise, and time in the sun.
When we get started on a new goal we often get so excited we experience a flood of dopamine. This causes us to feel super fired up and motivated (or “hyper-motivated). Unfortunately this also causes our bodies react to the excessive dopamine exposure. That means a drastic decrease in dopamine release and increase in absorption. We tend to feel the effects of the spike and crash in about 2 weeks. This is when motivation hits rock bottom and most people quit.
In addition, while most people think that if they can get motivated they can take action it’s actually the other way around. Because of the link between dopamine release and satisfaction action comes before motivation.
For many people these 2 factors in motivation create a never ending cycle… start with hyper-motivation, crash, try to create motivation to take action, fail to do so, quit. So, what can you do to break the motivation cycle that’s sabotaging your goals?
What to do Instead
Rather than relying on motivation, create momentum. When we are mindful of our actions (ie progress) we stimulate a consistent stream of dopamine. This consistent stream of dopamine in turn provides us with the energy and commitment we need to continue working on our goals.
If you’re looking for a daily journal page to help you build momentum and stay on track with your goals, grab it here.
When we push or will ourselves to do something we refer to this as willpower. There is a ton of support for the use of this technique in goal work but for most it simply doesn’t work and worse yet, sabotages our goals instead.
How We Think Willpower Works
Most of us honestly think that if we just push ourselves hard enough we’ll get it done. We can almost imagine that we are taking the role of our own parents or supervisors applying pressure and “making it happen”. Sometime we may rely on reminders or other strategies like making rules or deals for ourselves to create this push. Once we have it though we believe we will be able to accomplish whatever we set out to do.
How Willpower Really Works
There are 3 big reasons why will-power doesn’t work and actually sabotages our goals. Firstly, humans tend to have a rebellious streak and often aren’t responsive to authoritarian pushing (even from within). Secondly, when we are responsive to that internal push we tend to push too hard and hold ourselves to too high of a standard. And thirdly, real life happens and willpower rarely leaves room for it.
Pushing yourself doesn’t often work because most people don’t see themselves as authority figures and many adults struggle with the idea of being forced to do something they don’t want to do. And, here’s the tricky part… if you are forcing yourself you likely aren’t listening to yourself to know when enough is enough. Willpower is one of the biggest causes of injury in athletic training and exercise because of this. Oftentimes it’s most important to tune into ourselves and follow our intuition and needs rather than pushing (especially when it comes to big goals). And… there are some things you just can’t push yourself through. If you are leaning into willpower to keep you on track and you or one of your kids gets sick and you have to lay off for a day or 2 it’s easy to fall off track and feel badly about yourself.
What to do Instead
Rather than leaning into willpower consider creating a goal plan made up of small, simple steps. Give yourself grace and focus on long term improvement that fits into your real life. Then it will become permanent change rather than pushing yourself (often beyond your limits). When you make goal work part of your every day life and create habits and routines around it it becomes so automatic you don’t have to apply willpower and you’ll reap longer term rewards as well.
Self-discipline is likely the most insidious of all the approaches to goals. This is because it often undermines our mindset and perpetuates a never ending shame cycle. This shame keeps us isolated, dissatisfied, unhappy, and often hopeless. Let’s take a closer look at self-discipline.
How We Think Self-Discipline Works
Most of us believe that the avoidance of punishment or negative consequences is highly motivating. This is where self-discipline comes in. Throughout the process of working on goals we often make mental deals with ourselves that involve punishment or withholding. And even if we’re not withholding something tangible we are withholding praise, pride, and self-love. When utilizing self-discipline we frequently find that negative self-talk is greatly increased when we miss it. And even when we’re on track our self-talk is often rife with undermining statements. That’s the point… you know, no pain no gain, don’t be lazy, get it done, do extra cardio to make up for that cookie!
How Self-Discipline Really Works
Self-discipline erodes our confidence and mindset. This creates insurmountable barriers to accomplishing goals. Multiple studies have shown that negative reinforcement as in punishments and dressing down (negative self-talk) undermine our goals. We are not moved to action or inaction by the threat or knowledge of a negative outcome nearly as much as we are by the promise or possibility of a positive one. This means that self-discipline sabotages our goals.
What to do Instead
Rather than leaning into a strategy that involves negative consequence or punishment create rewards. And rather than only rewarding yourself when you’ve achieved a particular milestone, reward yourself as you feel you need to. Being mindful of praising yourself, sharing your accomplishments with others, and supporting yourself through your goal journey are far better approaches. This will bolster your confidence and make you much more resilient and able to face challenges along your goal path and in other areas of your life.
If you’d like to learn more about how to accomplish and maintain your goals without motivation, willpower, or self-discipline and you’re ready to feel well supported and proud of yourself every day, be sure to check out my FREE video series Secrets Revealed: How to Accomplish Your Goals.