Motivation to Change Isn’t the Same as Change

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Tiny Habits" by BJ Fogg. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why isn’t having motivation strong enough to prompt a change in behavior? Why is motivation so unreliable?

If someone offered you a million dollars to lose ten pounds right now, could you? Of course not, it’s literally impossible. That’s because motivation is only one of the three factors required to make a change. Having the motivation to change is important, but it’s not enough to carry you to your goal.

Keep reading to learn why you can’t rely on motivation to change a behavior.

Motivation to Change Isn’t Enough

Do you have aspirations but lack the motivation to change your behavior? Motivation is your desire to execute a specific action (such as “go for a jog”) or category of actions (such as “do exercise”).

You can think about motivation as a force that draws you toward certain actions and pushes you away from others. A desire for love, for example, pulls you toward a relationship. An aversion to physical exertion pushes you away from strenuous exercise.

We can sort different motivations according to the PAC (Person, Action, Context) dimensions.

  • Person: What does the person want to do?
  • Action: What external benefit or reward is available? Are there any punishments for doing or not doing the behavior?
  • Context: Is the environment (physical and social) helping or hindering?

Motivation can be powerful in helping us with difficult or one-time actions but we shouldn’t rely on it for long-term behavior change. Here’s why.

Motivation Is Complicated

Motivation to change is unreliable. Motivation is like that one friend you have who’s the life of the party. She’s terrific to have a few drinks with, but would you rely on her to pick you up from the airport?

Motivation comes in waves. It ebbs and flows on large and small timescales. Something that feels like no big deal when you’re surfing the motivation wave can become insurmountable when you’re wallowing in the trough. Motivation can vary:

  • Daily—Willpower is known to be highest in the morning.
  • Seasonally—Weight Watchers has consistent peaks and troughs in their signups throughout the year (peaks in January and after Labor Day; troughs in November and December in the lead-up to food-saturated holidays).
  • Depending on the circumstances—If you eat lunch at 1 pm, you’ll be more tempted by a pizza at 12:30 than at 1:30.

Some motivations are more consistent, but these are much less common. Examples of these might be wanting to spend more time with your pet or wanting your child to succeed.

Competing motivations can pull us in opposite directions. You may want to reduce the sugar in your diet, but you may also really want that chocolate chip cookie.

Motivation can be opaque. Often we don’t have a clear understanding of our own motivations. This means that subconscious motivations can rise up out of nowhere and sabotage our efforts.

Working With Motivation

To work intelligently with motivation to change a behavior, we need to do the following.

Avoid Abstractions

Often we try to motivate ourselves with abstract aspirations: “eat healthier,” “save more money,” “reduce stress.” But these are not specific behaviors. Dreams and aspirations are not bad things. We need them as human beings. But to turn them into habits, we need the extra “How?” step.

Aiming to motivate specific behaviors is the key. We can substitute the above aspirations with “eat an apple after lunch every day,” “set up an automatic direct debit of $50 per month to a savings account,” and “meditate for ten minutes every day.”

Understand That Motivation Is Not the Key to Long-Term Change

Motivation is only one of three “ways in” to a new habit (the others are Ability and Prompt), and it’s usually the most difficult. Think about the following three ways to enter a building. Ability is like opening the door and walking in. Prompt is like driving into the parking lot. And Motivation is like parachuting down, landing on the roof, and picking the lock on the rooftop door.

Motivation alone is not enough. Suppose someone offers you a million dollars to lose ten pounds right now. There’s no way you can do this, even if your motivation is off the charts. Focus on A and P first.

Motivation to Change Isn’t the Same as Change

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  • How you can successfully create new habits that stick
  • Why you don't need motivation, just science
  • Why even flossing one tooth should be considered a victory

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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