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Commitment Beats Motivation

26 April 2021

Being motivated for things is great. Motivation for a job, for sobriety, for fitness, for budgeting – gets you started and helps establish a baseline. But motivation always wanes over time. Sometimes in a cycle, sometimes in a slow decay. But like New Year’s Resolutions, we are often highly motivated in the beginning to begin a journey, but when it becomes difficult or boring, we almost always relent, and dramatically reduce or abandon our efforts entirely. I’ve stopped thinking about motivation as a driving factor.

Instead I think about commitment. Discipline. Motivation is about something I want to do. Commitment and discipline are about someone I want to be. I’ve struggled with laziness my entire life. I’ve found that’s common to alcoholics. I don’t want to do the work I have to do to get to where I want to be. I want a shortcut. An easier, softer way. But for many things, there just is no shortcut.

Take wealth. It’s relatively easy in concept to build wealth if you have a job that covers anything more than your absolute basic needs. Take a small amount of your paycheck. Put it in a separate account and don’t spend it. Ideally, invest it in something relatively safe that will grow at a steady rate. Repeat every single paycheck. Even if you don’t have much you can afford to put in there, after a few years, the amount will feel pretty large in comparison to your income.

But it’s VERY easy to give up on that. Progress is slow. Needs are many. Desires are many more. It’s easy to look at that pot of money after a while and say, “Hey I can afford to go on a vacation now!” We all deserve vacations. But take it now, and it might wipe out a year of progress or more. While staying the course for a few more years might result in an account that produces enough income to take an annual vacation. I’m not judging the choice a persona makes, but I am pointing out that the choices we make have long-term consequences. All of us, myself absolutely included, frequently make short-term choices that have long-term consequences at odds with our stated goals.

This is the millennial “avocado toast” problem. It’s fun to mock those who say that “young people spending too much on avocado toast is why they can’t buy houses”. But it is absolutely true for people with limited means (almost all of us) that making routine small-but-unnecessary purchases undermines our ability to make occasional large purchases like cars and homes. And the people who are so offended, often indignantly proclaiming, “we deserve little luxuries too!”, are often failing to see the power of long-term budgetary discipline, even at the low levels that they can command.

I am currently on a journey of weightloss. I’ve heard from many people in many places that “diet and exercise don’t work”. This is nonsense of course, diet and exercise are the only things that do work. When people say “diet and exercise don’t work” what they usually mean is, “most people gain the weight back over time, and so dieting and exercising aren’t an effective long-term strategy.” And I’ll agree with that.

But the reason that people gain the weight back is not that somehow, dieting and exercising magically stop obeying the laws of thermodynamics. It’s that people stop doing them. Either because they are demoralized that they are not seeing big enough and fast enough gains, or because they do see those gains, reach a goal, and then rationalize changing their behavior back to a prior baseline. And that’s hard. I’ve done that several times. But it wasn’t dieting and exercising that failed. It was ME.

No one likes to think of themselves as a failure, so it’s easy to externalize the deficiency. “Diet and exercise don’t work,” is more comfortable than, “I fail, or I am dishonest with myself about what I’m actually doing.” But that’s how motivation isn’t effective. No matter how motivated I am to achieve something, demoralization and rationalization can erode my efforts.

Commitment is different. I have decided to become someone who measures my food, accounts for my nutrients, and exercises daily. It’s often not fun, sometimes doesn’t provide the results I want immediately. But I’m not quitting despite my frequent demoralization. Because I’m not doing this for the purposes of reaching a specific weight or completing a specific race. I’m doing it because I want to be a person who exerts control over what I eat and how I move. Rather than being controlled by my laziness and appetites.

So I do the same things every day, in a disciplined and consistent way. And so far, slowly, messily, two steps forward for every step back, I am achieving my goals. Sometimes I’m not finding much motivation. But I am committed.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Rob permalink
    27 April 2021 09:14

    Good to see you back and posting, I’ve followed your blog for some years. You write well and as you talk about cutting through your bullshit, my identification cuts through my own.
    I’m with you on the weight loss and commitment. I got sober nearly 30 years ago and have stayed the course by discipline and commitment and by ignoring my desires. I go to meetings, work the steps, help others, do service. I do them, I don’t debate if I want to do them. Quite often I don’t want to, but I ignore that and do it anyway. It works if you work it.
    Of course losing weight is the same process, but until I read your blog I didn’t make the connection. Clearly I’m a slow learner.
    Thanks – great stuff.

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