How to Overcome a Lack of Motivation: Part 3 - Dealing With the Absence of Tangible Progress
"Why is it not working?!"
You know the feeling--you put in a concert effort to meet your goals, yet when you examine the fruit of your labor you have little or nothing to show for it.
We've all been there.
A lack of tangible progress might well be the biggest de-motivator there is.
In today's post, I want to help you reclaim your sense of motivation from the jaws of perceived futility.
THE IMPORTANCE OF TANGIBLE PROGRESS
A lack of tangible progress might be more aptly named a "Lack of 'Immediate-Enough' Progress."
A major part of what drives us as humans is a palpable feeling that life is moving forward.
We simply need that feeling.
Take it away, and our motivation is gone.
THE GOAL-ACHIEVEMENT "MATH PROBLEM"
In the calculus of goal achieving, we like to think 10 units of effort always equals 10 units of results.
In reality, most worthwhile goals require a seemingly disproportionate amount of effort and discipline before there is any evidence of progress...
Hello savings accounts
Achieving sustainable weight loss
Surviving the entrepreneur rollercoaster
Becoming better at sports, music, or art
Wading through dating apps and bad first dates
And many more....
As far as I can tell, the answer to the riddle of how to regularly feel emotionally-satisfying, tangible progress during an arduously-long journey, is a two-part answer.
First, it's about...
GETTING YOUR MIND RIGHT
So much of the battle (to not be emotionally defeated) is won or lost before you take the first step toward any goal.
Said differently, an important way to buffer against lost motivation, is proper expectation management.
(Side note: Perhaps the best way to begin setting realistic expectations is to talk to people who have walked or coached people through the journey you want to take.)
If you're expecting challenges to come, then you're not surprised when they show up--thus, you're less likely to feel a crash of motivation.
Here's the important point...
Attempting something you've never achieved is partially a quest to find out "what you don't know, you don't know"--i.e. it's about figuring out the relevant and required variables, skills, and virtues you're currently clueless about.
Expectation management (among other things) is recognizing this:
When you set out to achieve something new, you're not just going to work on the actions that make sense, you're going to work looking for where you don't fully understand the problem.
In other words, a big part of expectation management is looking for where your mindset (the quality of ideas you have) is, or has been, your biggest hinderance.
Sometimes the simple act of doubling or tripling the amount of time you expect your goal to take is an easy way to mentally prepare for the inevitable setbacks and unknowns.
But before I jump ahead to the practical, let's dive deeper into the second, important but largely overlooked part of the equation.
The other half of maintaining your mojo involves looking for the occasional, or strategic...
"ILLOGICAL," EMOTIONAL WINS
Dave Ramsey, who runs Financial-Peace University, teaches an interesting concept when it comes to debt reduction.
The logical solution to paying off credit-card debt is to see which card has the highest interest rate, and pay that one off first.
The challenge he found was that often the card with the highest interest is also the card with the biggest balance.
When people worked to pay off what was logically creating the most wasted money in interest, people often lost motivation because the mountain of debt never seemed to shrink.
So, instead of having people pay off the highest interest card, Ramsey started having people pay off the smallest debts first.
While this didn't logically make sense, it did emotionally make sense.
Having one less debtor allowed people to enjoy the priceless feeling of progress, deepen their belief that they could win the long game, and as a result, that approach has helped free countless people from financial debt.
A TANGIBLE EXAMPLE FOR HEALTH GOALS
In our line of work as health coaches, new clients often (understandably) want to see weight-loss as an early indicator that what they're doing is working.
Here's an expectation lever we help clients adjust on the front end...
Weight loss is a side effect of becoming healthier.
We don't teach people the fastest ways to lose weight, we teach people the fastest way to sustainably lose weight--there is a big difference.
While you can lose weight faster by:
Aggressive calorie restriction
Not eating carbs
Going on a juice fast
Going on "The Biggest Loser"
ONE: Nothing on the above list is a ticket to sustainable weight loss.
To give you a parallel example: There's a reason 70% of people who win the lottery go broke and a third of them file bankruptcy.
Similar to people who opt for the fastest ways to lose weight--people who win the lottery get a desired outcome (lots of money), but never become the kind of person who can sustain those results, so eventually they end up back where they started...or in a worse situation.
I have literally seen every one of the above bullets lead people back to the weight they were before they started.
TWO: Is there anything in the above list you'd want to do indefinitely, as a lifestyle solution?
But wait! You protest..."What if the end (extreme measure) justifies the means (weight loss)?"
OK...let's chase that rabbit for a second...
Name for me ONE situation in life where that philosophy works out for the better?
Go for it...
Come up with anything?
Neither could I.
You know in your gut that extreme measures are not the answer, but it's often emotionally tempting to think there might be an exception somewhere.
Part of the reason there continues to be a market for extreme solutions (or the oversimplified "calories-in, calories-out" myth) is because of our need to achieve early, "illogical" emotional wins to keep us engaged in the process.
I'd argue, like the Ramsey example, there's a better way to create positive, emotional wins when it comes to your health.
So how might it look to do that in the context of health goals?
LEVERAGING THE POWER OF EMOTIONS WITH WELL-CURATED WINS
Depending on the underlying state of overall health, sometimes weight loss happens quickly for our clients.
Other times, a client's body (and schedule, and emotional baggage) have other (more important) priorities for healing, repair, and stress reduction...and thus, weight loss is further down the biological task-list.
For example, a client's body might be holding on to weight because she...
Has joint pain during exercise and we need to get her out of pain first.
Has terrible digestion and thus can't absorb the nutrients she's eating.
Has highly-unstable blood sugar and thus can't regulate her hormones.
Is having a hard time sleeping and we need to address why she can't sleep.
Is dealing with emotional upheaval and the body needs to process that emotion.
One of the reasons we do such a thorough, 360-degree intake of a new client's health and life situation is because it gives us a large bank of other emotional wins we can celebrate along the way.
The trick is to always be able to see the "through line" of how the new habits we are working to build and protect are part and parcel to the overall goal of a sustainable, healthy lifestyle--i.e. are we building habits (and annual rhythms) we know are part of the overall solution?
A very common challenge clients have as their health incrementally improves is this: It is very easy to fixate on the scale and forget how crummy they used to feel, how much progress they have actually made, or how much more chaotic life used to be.
If a client has a stated goal of weight loss and her only metric for success was what the scale says, then all other markers of improved well-being won't emotionally matter.
If however, we have countless, tangible, important, needle-moving wins to celebrate along the way, we can always see the through-line of real progress--and weight loss will come.
Accounting for these "illogical" wins requires conscious awareness to look for them.
In our weekly group-coaching call, one thing we do is ask our clients to report on their wins.
Common examples of wins are things like:
More instances of gratitude
More consistency with exercise
Consuming less TV or social media
Improved volume or quality of sleep
Setting an important personal boundary
Higher percentage of meals prepared at home
Having a difficult conversation that needed to happen
Lower volume of known bad habits (i.e. junk food, alcohol, etc)
Sometimes it's hard to see (and be affirmed for) the "rising-tide wins" when you don't take a moment to look for them, or when you're left to observe them all by yourself.
If you don't have others who can speak into your life to help you see and celebrate the successes you are having, consider where you might find people who can do that.
It could make all the difference!
Conscious awareness of the overall through-line of your journey not only helps you course correct, it keeps motivation strong and helps cultivate deeper virtues like patience and introspection.
In other words, it helps you become a new person.
A THOUGHT EXPERIMENT
When you think about the goals that are important to you, be that building your health, achieving a professional accomplishment, improving your marriage, managing your finances, practicing your art, etc...consider this question:
"What habits would I have to build to achieve sustainable results?" Or, said another way "What kind of person would I have to become to sustain my desired outcome?"
A few sad statistics are...
The average American goes on a diet 55 times.
50+% of marriages end in divorce.
9 our of 10 businesses fail.
I'd argue part of the reason those number are so high is because we don't seriously wrestle with the above questions for long enough.
It's easier to just move on and look for a different emotional win that requires less of us.
Yet, if you really sit with those questions for a minute, you'll see the difference in tangible actions that come to mind when you think of who we need to become.
With both proper framing (expectation management) on the front end, and finding other emotionally-satisfying wins you can celebrate, you'll be able to keep motivation strong.
If you're feeling a lack of tangible progress as a major source of lost motivation, here are four questions you can ask yourself:
Did I not stick with it long enough?
Did I not have realistic expectations?
Did I not prepare for unknown variables?
Did I pick the wrong metric(s) to focus on?
Real change, the (often slower) kind that makes life better across the board, isn't something that typically makes for good marketing (i.e. lighting-fast weight-loss results), but it goes a long way to forge unshakable character and a life worth writing a story about.
So dear reader, who are you becoming?
May you be inspired by the identity you are stepping into, and may you have the wisdom and patience to look for the through-line of all aspects of your story.
You do those two things, and, if I were a betting man, I'd wager you'll have much less fluctuations in your motivation levels.
Go put those simple questions to the test and see what you learn.
A great life is ahead.
Let's go get it,
PS. In the next post, I'll tackle the big motivation thief called "overwhelm" and show you how to kick his butt. In the meantime, if you've got some health goals that could use a whole-new strategy, let's chat.
PPS. Have you taken our Health-Transformation-Type Quiz yet? It's a free resource to help you identify how your personality informs the areas of personal growth you'll likely need to address in order to accomplish your health and fitness goals. I think you'll find it insightful.