How long must one work on a task until the desire to see that task finished becomes weightier than the desire to quit? When does the intrinsic motivation behind developing certain habits and characteristics become meaningful?
These questions are at the heart of the study of habits and behavior. When we seek to change ourselves for the better, we do so with the hope that it isn’t always painful for us to do our day to day activities. If you never got used to getting up early and had to fight the urge to sleep in everyday for the rest of your life, you would question what the point of an attempt to do so would even be.
No, there comes a point where a goal begins to show itself and the scales tip in the favor of your better self, but where is it?
The Numbers Game
I’ve been lifting weights seriously since I was 14 years old. Given that I am now 29, I have 15 years of habits built up when it comes to working out. I’ve been involved in different sports through the years and have tried many different workout programs, but one thing remains clear: I always pay attention to the numbers.
While personal development is more than just upping your numbers, I firmly believe you should have at least a few hobbies where progression can be traced using simple math.
Fitness is one of those areas where the numbers can be your unending ally. You can track the weight you lift, the time you’re on the treadmill, the weight you’ve lost, the calories you’ve consumed, or the miles you’ve ran.
Your progression could, with a little effort, be put onto a graph showing the general trend of your development.
For a guy like me, this is awesome.
Progression you can see is extremely motivating. However, in my experience it isn’t the numbers that push you over that tipping point of motivation.
Dropping a few pounds on the scale is amazing and awesome, but something else must happen to really make those numbers meaningful.
They have to impact your life positively.
The Mirror, Not the Scale
Weight loss is a tricky, sensitive, and messy topic. There is a reason it is usually the centerpiece of discussions revolving around motivation. Our body is extremely efficient at storing energy and reversing years of bad habits can be downright excruciating.
Keeping yourself motivated throughout a typically months long endeavor can be tough. We need to have those goals be meaningful. Numbers are part of the process, but they are more like mile markers on the trail. They guide, but the thing we really went on this long hike for is the view. That point when we look in the mirror and go, “Damnnnnn, this is actually paying off.”
The point at which we move from wanting to be better to craving to be better comes when the changes we are making begin to positively impact the way we live.
Whether it’s weight loss, trying to be a better parent, or making more money, the numbers are there to help us out with the details, but the real meaningful impact hits when the improvement becomes practical.
It is at this point where the uphill push of the boulder we are lugging around levels out. It may not quite be a downhill, easy path from here on out, but things do start to get better, not because the actions you are doing are necessarily getting easier, but because your conduct is now more meaningful. You have a bit more emotion driving the change, instead of just a “Hey, maybe I should do something about my health.”
The First Goal Lies Beyond Numbers
So how should we begin to tackle new projects of personal development?
1) Understand the first steps are going to be rough.
You won’t know what you are doing. You’ll be awkward. You’ll have to constantly reference the guide. You’re going to get off to a rocky start, but as long you follow the next steps you’ll reach your destination.
2) Use the numbers to your advantage.
Find the experts. Those that have done it before. Get on a program of some sort. Even if it seems completely wrong, if it’s worked for many people, it will initially work for you. Numbers aren’t always available for every type of goal, but you can still be as accurate as you can to try and track progress.
3) Seek number goals.
Hit those numbers. Commit to losing 10 pounds, writing 1000 words a night, or spending 30 minutes reading to your child before bed. Set the numbers and do everything you can to keep those up. Things will be tough, and you may even hit those numbers for a while, but please, please keep it up until the next step occurs.
4) Something meaningful will happen.
Someone asks if you’ve lost weight because you look good. Your book you wanted to write starts coming together beautifully. Your child has a noticeable increase in their reading comprehension and test scores. The changes you’ve been making now cause something to happen which makes you realize they are working to make your life better.
This is the initial moment you should strive for when it comes to personal development.
It doesn’t even have to be a big thing. You start budgeting better and realize you aren’t so stressed when you see the car repair bill because you have an emergency fund built up. All it takes is that initial realization that the daily grind is paying off in a good way.
Keep It Up
This is just a starting point, though; the point where our motivation is driven through meaningful reasoning and not poking and prodding from external influences anymore.
From here it is important to keep the ball rolling and continue on to your final goal, or to reevaluate your goals and maybe choose a different path (if you find your reasons have changed).
Numbers are important to tip the scales, but it is a meaningful experience that ultimately weighs heavy against the opposing force.
If we work and work and work and never get that meaningful experience, we will continue to dread each day, as the work is not showing any positive impact in our lives. If you are currently living like this, it’s time to inspect the work you are doing. Is it just keeping you busy? Or is it leading to something better?