I wrote before about sponsoring a professional body builder, and one of the profound things that he taught me being that the weights don’t care why you lift them. Another profound thing that he taught me was that it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been training: if you stop, you backslide.
This is a close cousin of an idea that I’ll write more about soon: it doesn’t matter what you know, it matters what you do. And, it usually doesn’t matter so much what you did last month or last year, it matters what you’re doing now.
As an example, I’ve been studying and practicing Japanese for over a decade now. I’ve gotten to the point where I can read most of the Japanese equivalent of CNN and discuss it with a native speaker; not always in natural-sounding Japanese, but almost always in something they can understand. I’m currently listening to a Japanese podcast about coaching, and on a typical day I have 70-80% comprehension; not even close to perfect, but enough to understand most of what’s going on.
But, I also know that over the past couple of years, my opportunities for practice have been less frequent than they were 4 years ago. As I’ve gotten busier, the amount of time I can spend studying and practicing has dropped, and I can tell that I’m losing proficiency; not a lot, but a bit. I know what I need to do to maintain that proficiency; I’ve done it before, I remember what it was, I can do it again. But, the fact that I know what to do and did it successfully before doesn’t matter; if I’m in that situation again now, I need to do it again now.
Now, I don’t want to suggest that the actions I took last month or last year have no value. Of course they do! But, the exercises I did last year won’t keep me in shape today. The meditation I did last year won’t keep me mindful today. The weight loss program I successfully executed last year won’t keep the weight off today. And, the Japanese studying I did last year won’t improve my performance from where it is today.
Of course, the work that I did last year makes it easier for me to restart those things today. Having the habits (or more precisely, the neural pathways) associated with those practices makes it easier to start them up again—because I’m not building new neural pathways, I’m just reusing old ones that I already built.
But, the neural pathways decay over time that they’re unused. The muscles atrophy if we don’t use them. Doesn’t matter if your training is physical or mental, if you stop, you start to backslide.
Now, I’m a recovering perfectionist, so I don’t want to suggest that any backsliding is a tragedy. And, both mental and physical muscles need periods of rest in order to fully develop and grow. But, if we stop practicing the things that help us, we stop getting the benefits.
Even knowing that, I still find myself sometimes in the position where I’ve stopped doing something that I know would benefit me, or that I know I would feel better if I was still doing. So, how can we find the motivation to keep going once we’ve stopped?
In my experience, there are a couple of exercises that can be really helpful in this regard. One of the classics in the motivation literature is to “Start with your Why.” In this case, it’s not about asking why things happened or why I am the way I am, but rather about my purpose. What’s the goal? What’s my endgame? What desirable change do I foresee in myself or the world around me if I continue to work hard down this path?
Once I’ve done that, another exercise that can really help is to ask myself about future regrets. If I imagine myself looking back on today from 5 years in the future, what action or inaction would I regret? What would I wish I had done instead?
In most cases, what I find is that when I have a well-defined purpose for the things that I’ve stopped doing, I would regret not continuing down the road towards that purpose.
With a renewed focus on my purpose, and clarity about how I would regret not taking action, then it’s time for a plan. When am I going to take this action? What barriers are there, internal or external, that might prevent me from taking action? How can I overcome those barriers? What targets do I have for how much I want to accomplish and by when? Answering all these questions (and making sure along the way that the goals are SMART goals) will set me up for success, and also increase my motivation by making it clear that the target is achievable.
Once I’ve done all those things, I almost always find that my motivation is way better than it was when I started. If you’re struggling with finding the motivation to start (or restart) a habit, maybe give the exercise a try yourself!