In a high-energy moment when you picture yourself doing amazing things in the future, the “Motivation Monkey” can trick you into setting unreasonable goals that you are unlikely to stick with after that initial glow wears off, according to director of the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University, B.J. Fogg, Ph.D.
A much more reliable approach to achieving goals, both big and small, than relying on motivation to carry the day, is using small prompts integrated into your existing daily routine. By linking desired behaviors to already existing behaviors, you can create a powerful chain reaction that results in big changes built on small steps.
In his book Tiny Habits, Fogg advocates for breaking goals down into their smallest parts. He advises against relying on motivation because it can feel incredibly empowering in the moment when you think about accomplishing something, but leave you high and dry when it’s time to actually do the things necessary to get there.
Motivation is a more effective ally for performing one-off tasks where you just need to rev yourself up in the moment. For example, it’s relatively easy to spend an afternoon cleaning out the garage to create a work-out space, and far more difficult to head in there day after day to actually exercise. Or, you might watch a highly motivational TED talk to inspire you to develop important mentoring relationships at work. That’s fine as a start, but your motivation may quickly disappear in the daily slog when its easier to avoid making those connections, sending an email, inviting someone to lunch or asking for 15 minutes on someone’s calendar.
That’s where the power of setting very small goals and experiencing a sense of success with those steps can create a virtuous circle that builds on itself. And when Fogg says tiny, he really means tiny. In his own life, he developed a new habit of flossing his teeth by starting with a commitment to literally floss one single tooth. He would then celebrate that small success and build on it over time. He says we change by feeling good, not bad.
Create a chain reaction
A highly effective method for progressing toward your goals is to link them to behaviors you already do consistently. When you pair two activities, or chain multiple activities together, doing one automatically prompts you to do the other.
The more specific you can make the connection, the better the chances of the pairing sticking. For example, if you always turn off your computer before leaving your office, the very act of toggling the switch can become a powerful prompt for another behavior, such as tidying your desk or even sitting quietly to take a deep breath, meditating for a few minutes or jotting down a few things that went well during the day.
Leisure and purpose
While building and growing your career is serious business, it turns out that getting serious about leisure activities may also create great spill over that helps energize and expand your larger sense of purpose. Research conducted at the University of Alberta explored how the way we spend leisure time impacts how much purpose we feel in life. It builds on a Japanese concept called ikigai that has to do with your overall sense of life purpose, but also what makes your daily life feel meaningful.
In the research, University students were asked to share photos of things they felt related to their ikigai and then interviewed about their choices, as well as how much they worked and studied. They found that, especially for those who were working extremely hard, leisure activities that provided deep enjoyment, and often even challenge, helped them have a stronger sense of purpose than those who focused on work alone.
A strong takeaway from the study is that, even if you cannot make your work life more enjoyable, purpose driven or tied to your most important goals in the short run, you have far greater control over how you spend your leisure time. Carefully constructing their leisure time helped people feel more purposeful and better able to focus on other, larger goals.
The research on goal setting is far more nuanced than simply memorizing the SMART acronym to set goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic/Relevant, and Time Bound. There’s data that shows really big goals are the most inspiring, but also research that shows you are far more likely to make progress when you break goals down into smaller chunks. Writing them down can help, as can sharing them with others.
But it is pretty clear that pumping yourself up and relying on an inspired sense of motivation is likely to lead to frustration and disappointment. Instead, focus on setting goals that are closely aligned with your values, break them down into small steps that allow for daily successes, give your goals a little breathing room to change with you over time, and celebrate the wins along the way.
Motivation may be a fickle friend on the road to new accomplishments, but feeling good (or what Fogg calls “shine”) can be a powerful, loyal companion for the journey.