I hate sitting in traffic. I’ll often opt to drive further out of my way, possibly not even saving time, because I don’t like the stop-and-go nature of traffic. It’s just more satisfying when I’m going somewhere to just keep moving forward! And I know I’m not alone in this; people like to see progress, and are frustrated by setbacks. This is true for behavior change as well, where unfettered progress is even less likely.

There are two major strains associated with setbacks to behavior change. The first are setbacks that are caused by something outside of our control… you are trying to exercise more by running and the weather keeps throwing rain your way. This type of setback can be frustrating, as it can throw you off of your routine, making it more difficult to get back up and get going again. While this type of external setback can be annoying, most people would say that they expect a certain amount of “natural setbacks” like these to pop up.

The second kind of setback is that which occurs when your own internal motivation to engage in the new behavior is low. This can be a result of a natural setback, like the weather getting in the way of running, or it can be a normal lull in motivation. Either way, when motivation is low, it presents a unique challenge: how do you keep going when you don’t really want to?

Self Compassion

Self compassion is not really about giving yourself a “break” or relieving yourself of responsibility, rather it is about understanding that everyone struggles to progress on a straight line, and bumps in the road are normal! Motivation is also not a steady force, it comes and goes like the tides. Understanding that your motivation isn’t going to be steady all the time can allow you to show yourself a little compassion when it’s harder to get going, and perhaps that will help you maintain your changes moving forward.

Accountability

It’s hard to change when you’re doing all by yourself. If you’re the only person who’s tracking your actions, and you’re only accountable to yourself, how are you supposed to handle a difficult time that happens to coincide with a period of low motivation? Seems like a recipe for disaster! However, if you have someone you’re accountable to, sometimes, even when motivation is low, you can “borrow” their motivation and still follow through.

It’s important to note here what we mean by accountability. It can range from person to person and behavior to behavior, but for the most part accountability is just having another person who is aware of your goals and helps you track your progress on a regular basis. That could be by regular check ins, or someone who you’re supposed to do the behavior/activity with (like a running buddy, or a friend who goes to self-help groups with you). What you want to avoid is having the accountability turn punitive. You’ll get farther with the carrot than the stick!

Rewards

Human behavior is guided by a main functioning principle: if we get rewarded for doing something, then we tend to do it again. If we don’t get rewarded, we stop doing it. Not every behavior change that is “good” for us is going to be naturally rewarding (or rewarding in the moment, or as rewarding as the “bad” behaviors were). Sometimes, it’s important for us to set our own rewards! For example, changing your eating requires you to pass up a lot of food options that are naturally rewarding (mmm, doughnuts!), so it can feel like a real bummer to make that shift. If you create a reward for yourself, like allowing yourself a “cheat day” if you have met your food goals for 5 days in a row makes it more likely that you’ll actually meet your goals. And, it makes it more likely that you’ll stick to those goals even when you really don’t feel like it (“ooh, I get a cheat day if I can do 2 more days … I can keep going!”).

Set Realistic Goals for Yourself

“I’m gonna run a marathon.”
“I’m gonna buy a house.”
“I’m gonna start a business.”

All of these are admirable goals and goals that are possible for most people. And, if you have been struggling to even get off the couch, a marathon might not actually be all that reasonable in this moment. Setting unrealistic goals for yourself increases the odds that you will, for one reason or another, hit a setback and can result in you feeling as though you “failed” your goal. This can be a huge motivation killer! If you can set smaller goals that help move you towards your bigger goal (like going for a run on the weekends, or saving $50 a week towards a house), it makes it easier to achieve your goals and feels better as you see more achievement.

Motivation is going to go up and down, and may sometimes even seem to have left you all together. This isn’t a sign that you need to give up, rather it’s part of the normal process of change. Keeping these tips in mind and putting them into action now can help you navigate those tricky times when your motivation is low.