The Slump: A Crucial Factor to Building New Habits

Published September 18, 2009 in Psychology and Mind Hacks - 3 Comments
Exhausted dog

Photo by emarquetti

Building habits is key to personal progress and success. If you manage to continually build new, positive habits that increase your productivity, your skills or your happiness, then you are obviously on a fast track to a wonderful life. But, as you probably know, it can be very challenging to build a new habit up to the point where it is truly integrated into your life. Think “Motivation” – a theme absolutely pivotal to almost every book, blog, seminar and system concerned with self-improvement. After all, it’s not that we don’t know what’s good for us. We know perfectly well that we should get our asses off the couch and do that workout, finally clean out that messy drawer and finish that project that’s been at the back of our minds for so long.

But somehow, we can’t get ourselves to get up and do it. Somehow, there is just too much inertia and it can seem impossible to overcome. And so, we make an exception and don’t do the workout today. Soon, the exception becomes the norm, the guilt diminishes and what once was an exciting new part of our lives somehow fades and disappears.

Presentism

Have a quick look around the producto-blogosphere on the subject of motivation. You can find countless posts on how to make motivation a breeze – if there’s one thing there isn’t a shortage of on the internet, it’s X-point lists on how to take all the effort out of self-motivation. I am not going to contribute to that collection in this post, because while I have one piece of very valuable advice when it comes to motivation, I can’t say it’s easy to follow.

The root of the motivational problem lies in psychological presentism. Presentism is caused by the fact that whatever we think about, we always use our present situation as a starting point. All our thoughts, be they of the future or the past, of things close or far away, are always distinctly influenced by what’s here, now. This is why it’s difficult to think of what you would like to eat when you are full. How does presentism apply to motivation? Let’s take exercise as an example. Let’s say you read an inspiring article or a book about all the benefits of exercise and you decide to get started with a regular workout routine. In the beginning, you’ll no doubt be very excited and enthusiastic about it, reading up on tips for your workout, perhaps buying new running shoes, some dumbbells or a heart rate monitor. The first few workouts go very well and you feel fantastic afterwards. You picture how much better your life will be from now on and how great it will be to lose some weight, become more athletic and attractive etc, etc. In this state of enthusiasm, it’s very difficult to imagine that you’ll ever be unmotivated.

But then it happens: One morning, you wake up feeling pretty squashed and you just can’t get yourself to go for that run or to lift those weights. You’re having a terrible day and there’s just too much work to do to squeeze in a visit to the gym. Your muscles are sore, there’s that weird pain in your shoulder and your motivation reaches an all-time low. In this new emotional state, it’s difficult to imagine why you would be excited or enthusiastic about the prospect of working out several times a week. Isn’t it all just futile effort? After all, you’ve hardly lost any weight and looking in the mirror, you still don’t resemble anything you’d expect to see on the cover of a glossy magazine.
This is the point where many conclude that they have somehow “lost it”, that they have failed or that the whole thing was a bad idea to begin with. Sometime later you come to regret that you stopped, you see regular exercise in a positive light again and, perhaps, the whole process starts over.

Know The Slump

Here’s the thing: This will always happen. You will always lose your initial momentum, you will always find yourself unmotivated, you will always experience this slump, when you start something new. Whether it’s exercising regularly, launching a community project, writing a blog or starting a new business, the slump is all but unavoidable. No matter what you do, there will always be a tendency for everything to return to the way it was before (this is known as homeostasis).

So, what can you do about this? As I have already stated, I can’t offer you an easy solution. Here are two things that can help anyway (they help me immensely):

1. Anticipate it.
Know that there will be times when you won’t feel like sticking to your plan at all. Expect to be unmotivated at some point in the future. This way, it will not take you by surprise and you will not feel like this is the end of everything. Instead it’s just part of building the new habit and you knew it would happen. This can be likened to knowing that you’ll get a jab when you visit your doctor. It will still hurt, it will be just as unpleasant, but you knew it would happen and you realize it’s part of the process of getting healthy again.

2. Grit your teeth.
This is where discipline comes in. Sometimes, it’s not about getting yourself motivated, sometimes it’s just about gritting your teeth and doing it, despite not being motivated. Find a personal mantra that helps you override your emotional response and reminds you of your discipline. My mantra for such situations is “my discipline is my freedom”, but I guess I’ll have to explain the background to this in another post. Remind yourself that you made the decision to stick with this new habit when you were feeling good and had thought clearly about it. Now, in your negative emotional state, it is not the time to make new decisions because those decisions would be greatly compromised by your mood.

Good News

As you have probably guessed by now, I myself have gone through the cycle of starting a new habit, experiencing the slump, quitting, regretting it and starting again, many, many times. I’ve also seen my friends go through this cycle countless times and from my work as a martial arts instructor, I know that virtually every new student experiences the slump within the first six months after they start.

The good news is that the slump is very predictable and that it’s usually nonrecurring. It’s predictable because it almost always strikes within a few months of beginning something new. Depending on factors such as social and monetary commitment (if you pay for it, and told all your friends, you’ll last a bit longer) and frequency (something you do daily will lead to the slump more quickly than something you do once a week), the slump can occur sooner or later, but if I had to narrow it down, I’d say you’ll experience the slump at some point between the 10th and 20th time you repeat the new behaviour. And if you get through it, sticking to your new habit, that will have been the worst of it. I’ve never experienced a second slump as bad as the first one and the longer I continue with a new habit, the further apart the following “mini-slumps” are.

Getting back to the example of regular exercise, you can rest assured that if you keep going and drag yourself through that slump, then after just a few workouts fuelled by discipline alone, you’ll see a light at the end of the tunnel, your motivation will return and you will be much, much closer to having acquired a new habit.

By all means, learn about all the possibilities you have to get yourself more motivated, but never forget to anticipate the inevitable slump and when all self-motivation fails, remember: This is part of the progress, you can fight this thing with your willpower and you will come out the other side a stronger and happier person.

  • I haven’t heard it described in this way before but I know what you mean. I think lasting motivation comes from seeing things in the big picture context. If you want to live a long life so that you can make a difference, see your grandkids grow up etc then it pays to keep fit, eat well and soon on. If you keep the idea of long life as your goal then it might be more likely to last. Whereas if rock hard abs are your goal then at the end of summer you’ll probably lose enthusiasm.

  • Good point. In a big picture context, a loss of motivation won’t seem like so much of a deal, perhaps.
    Thanks for your comment!

  • Shane,

    Saw your comment about my new book, The Leap, on Tim Ferriss’s blog. Love your site. Hey, you talk about presentism – i get into that in the book as well. Happy to send you a copy. Just email me an address.

    Rick

    http://www.ricksmith.me