The Cycle of Motivation: Repetition + Feedback = Success

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Motivation Myth" by Jeff Haden. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How do you create a cycle of motivation? Why is repetition helpful for encouragement?

According to Jeff Haden’s book The Motivation Myth, motivation is the momentum that keeps your program of improvement moving forward through a repeating, self-energizing cycle. He further talks about how that cycle works and how it provides you with steady feedback.

Let’s look at how to create a cycle of motivation to keep the momentum going.

Repetition Is the Key to Achievement

The path to achievement is a slow and steady process that requires putting your nose to the grindstone and doing the work, day after day. That’s disheartening if you’re focused on your goal, such as getting a million YouTube subscribers or growing the prettiest garden on your street, because especially in the early days, your goal will seem a million miles away. Instead, you should focus on individual steps, celebrating each bit of incremental progress. Haden writes that every small victory triggers a response in your brain’s reward center that sets up a positive cycle of motivation, which will push you to take the next step, and the next. There’s the motivation you’ve been lacking—not at the start of the process, but in the middle.

(Shortform note: Haden’s advice works because your brain’s reward system is triggered by positive progress, but what if your goal requires not taking an action, such as avoiding snacks to lose weight? In Atomic Habits, James Clear addresses this problem by stating that if your goals require a program of avoidance, you have to create an associated reward for when you successfully fight the urge to crack open a bag of potato chips, for example. Clear writes that whatever reward you give yourself must be associated with the goal you’re trying to reach. In the snacking example, your reward might be a healthy, five-minute walk around the block.)

And now a word of caution: Hard work and repetition don’t guarantee success, but they do improve your probability of success. More than that, Haden explains that if you stick with your program long enough, you’ll be able to calculate the odds of your efforts paying off in a way that will tell you how much work you have left to do. For example, if you’ve been job-hunting for some time, you may find that one in every ten applications results in a call-back from a potential employer. Therefore, if you’d like a call-back every day, that tells you how many jobs to apply for. Random chance is still a factor, but if you act as if your success is completely under your control, you can minimize your reliance on luck just through simple mathematics.

(Shortform note: One way to put yourself in the mindset Haden advises is to model your thoughts and behavior as if you’ve already achieved your goal. In The Success Principles, Jack Canfield suggests you imagine how your life will be different once you achieve your ambitions. Perhaps you’d be more self-confident and comfortable with taking risks. Canfield argues that envisioning or even role-playing your future success can influence your behavior in ways that can bring your goals to fruition. Though this goes against Haden’s cautionary advice not to celebrate your end goal too soon, Canfield presents anecdotal evidence of people who shaped their future success by acting as if they’d achieved it in the present.)

The Feedback Cycle

Repetition is also important for providing you with quick and accurate feedback. For one thing, you’ll certainly make mistakes, each of which is a learning experience. The more you repeatedly push toward your goal, the more mistakes you’ll make and the more you’ll improve. Of course, this requires keeping the proper attitude—view mistakes as training, not a sign of failure. They’ll also teach you how to adjust your efforts. Perhaps you set your daily goals too high or too low and your program needs refinement. Just make sure to evaluate your progress and setbacks in relation to your daily objectives and not your end goal, which may still be months or years away.

(Shortform note: If anything, Haden understates the value of making mistakes on the way to your goal. In Limitless Mind, educator Jo Boaler explains that making and correcting errors is a vital part of the process of cognitive growth. Neurological research has shown that students who struggle to master a skill engage and build more neural connections than students for whom the skill comes naturally. As a result, people who make mistakes and struggle through the learning process create stronger and longer-lasting neural pathways in their brains than those who don’t, and they end up outperforming the “quick learners” in the long run.)

You should also be mindful that whatever program you devise won’t be perfect, and the feedback you get from your mistakes will tell you how. For example, you might try to work out every morning before discovering that certain muscle groups need more recovery time between sessions. Nevertheless, Haden advises not to make changes to your program too soon. Instead, wait until the program you’ve devised has the chance to provide you with actual feedback as to whether your efforts are producing results. If not, then feel free to try a new approach. There are always different paths to achieving your target.

(Shortform note: In Ultralearning, Scott Young gives more information than Haden about how to differentiate good feedback from bad. Some forms of feedback are like grades on a report card—they tell you how well or poorly you performed without providing guidance on how to improve. Corrective feedback—such as a colleague’s review of your grant proposal—includes both information on where you stand as well as directions for growth. Young lists pitfalls to avoid, such as overreacting to feedback, not applying it properly, or giving too much weight to feedback that pumps up your ego.)

Over time, as you move toward your goal, you’ll inevitably reach a point where it feels as if your progress is slowing, and it may seem like you’ve hit your limit. However, Haden insists that this feeling of diminishing returns is an illusion created by comparing yourself to your past self. This may seem counterintuitive, but it’s just math—if your goal is to do five more pushups every time you work out, then the percentage increase in your number of pushups will steadily diminish even if your actual rate of progress never slows. 

This is another reason why having a professional example to strive toward comes in handy: If you compare yourself to your professional exemplar, you’ll see what is actually possible to achieve and not merely the distance you’ve covered to date. Such comparisons can be useful to recalibrate your inner limitations.

The Downside of Comparison

Not everyone agrees with Haden’s advice about comparison. In The Gap and the Gain, Benjamin Hardy and Dan Sullivan define “gap-thinking” as self-comparison against your ideal, whereas “gain-thinking” is when you compare your progress against your previous self. Unlike Haden, Harden and Sullivan argue that forward-looking gap comparisons are unhealthy because the ideal you compare yourself to will always leave you wanting just a little bit more. Backward-looking gain comparisons, however, are based on concrete measurements and thus provide an objective assessment unclouded by emotional thinking.

Many wellness experts, however, argue that you should eschew comparison altogether. In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz says that comparing your experiences and choices to those of others can lead to poor decision-making and overall unhappiness. Likewise, in The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown says that comparing yourself to others is emotionally damaging and prevents you from being your full, authentic self.
The Cycle of Motivation: Repetition + Feedback = Success

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  • Why you should stop waiting for motivation to hit and instead, make your own
  • How to create a cycle of positive reinforcement to boost your motivation
  • How to develop resilience to get through times of struggle

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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