Momentum is Greater than Motivation

Momentum is greater than motivation

I was going to write a very different post for this month – a post on the effectiveness of mindfulness on social anxiety – but then the heatwave struck. It was extremely hard to find the motivation to do anything these past two weeks, let alone research and writing. 

Many of my clients have been speaking about the difficulties of finding the motivation to do something, anything, even if it’s something we know we’re supposed to do or would even enjoy doing. I’m sure many of you can relate:

I know I should be writing my blog post, but I just can't.

It feels like I’m waiting for something. And as I’m waiting for whatever that is, now I’m suddenly feeling very stressed out. I feel the deadline approaching even faster, the stakes are getting higher, this blog post is starting to represent all of the failures in my life! I just want to distract myself. And nothing gets done.

Here is where I share with you the error in my thinking, and when I say “error”, I don’t mean that I was wrong in what I thought, it was just what happened. My waiting for motivation lead me down a path that made it far less likely for me to even start writing in the first place.

the error was in thinking that motivation is necessary to start

Let me try to explain by asking a question. Have you ever just started cleaning some part of your home? You didn’t even really mean to do it, it just sort of spontaneously happened. And then what happened after you finished cleaning that one spot? I’m willing to bet that most of you started cleaning something else. Or maybe organizing a shelf or tackling the clutter on your table. Or you began to do another activity you bad been putting off. The key here is that the sequence did not start with motivation – it started with momentum! 

Lately I have begun to incorporate this into my internal language. I no longer use the word motivation at all. I use the word momentum. What I have noticed with this very simple change in how I talk to myself is that I am getting more things done.

the "do something Principle"

Mark Manson (2016) refers to a phenomenon called the Do Something Principle in his book – the title of which I can’t reference here due to a certain four letter word (I’m happy to share with you if you ask!) – illuminates a fallacy that we often fall into: the belief that action is generated by inspiration, and that this sequence happens in a straight line. This isn’t actually true. The sequence is an endless cycle that feeds into itself. You can actually jump in at any point. 

It therefore makes sense that, rather than waiting for inspiration or motivation to move you towards action, you are more likely to do something by starting with action first. 

Momentum is greater than motivation

Now, this doesn’t mean “just do the thing”. This means: stand up and take a long breath. Now your circulation is going and you have some momentum, not a lot, but it’s enough. Enough to spring off of into something else that will generate more momentum.

One thing to remember here is that I’m not starting with everything I have to do today. I’m starting with just standing up.

Tricks you can play on your mind to start generating momentum

  • If the task seems too daunting, then break it up – some people call it “chunking”. Break the project/goal/activity into small parts and then start with the one that interests you the most. Remember, we’re trying to get the ball rolling, even if it’s just a little bit.
  • Try this: The 10 Minute Rule. If there’s something you want to do/need to do, but you just can’t seem to do it, then do some of it for only 10 minutes. That’s it. No more, no less. Trust me, you will be surprised when that 10 minutes is up. I’m fairly certain most of you will want to keep doing the thing. You might even find it challenging to stop doing the thing.
  • If you have a goal, set it, and then back it off. Seriously. If your goal is to do an hour of yoga a day, every day, do 30 minutes, or less than that. Remember: momentum is not generated from big, enormous motions. More often than not, it is generated from small or simple motions.
  • Scientifically speaking, in order to firmly establish a habit, the average time it takes for a habit to become automatic is 2 months (Lally et al, 2009). What does that mean? It means you should try to establish the habit first, not the goal. The goal might be to get 30 minutes of exercise every day. Well then, try 10 minutes a day. Make it far more likely you will actually do the thing in the first place (see point above). Once that habit is established, then maybe start to challenge yourself. If you try to challenge yourself immediately, before 2 months is up, you could be running the risk of giving up entirely.

I hope this helps you as it has helped me. And please get in touch if you’d like to hear more about self-improvement. Now I have to take a page from my own book and get to writing another article. First, I’m going to stand up and breathe. Then I’m going to start with 10 minutes.

I’ll see you in a month. Take care.

Cody Harper
Cody is a therapist and social worker working out of Calgary and Cochrane, Alberta, Canada. He believes that beyond the education, the training, or the credentials that a counsellor may have, the most effective means of growth and positive change is shared human connection and a strong alliance with the client.