To beat the pandemic blues, I’m ditching “motivation”


“What if it’s not about motivation, but discipline?”

You know that feeling when truth just slaps you in the face? Yeah. I needed that slap. I had been focusing on “how can I feel motivated?” instead of “how can I grow the muscle of discipline?” And once I remembered that self-control is a fruit of the Spirit, and therefore something I have access to according to my faith, I became eager to grow that muscle, knowing that God promised to help me.

For most of 2020, I felt like life was just happening to me. I don’t want to feel like that anymore. Taking control of the small, but powerful choices that I have in my grasp has been empowering. I’ve felt a heaviness lifting, and that’s what I wish for each of you.

So after all that background context (now you know what my husband has to deal with every time I tell him a story, lol) — here are the 6 biggest lessons from The Willpower Instinct that have changed the game for me:

#1: Find your REAL “why”

Sometimes what we think we want is not actually our biggest motivation. Parents — how often have you told yourself “I want to be a better parent”? How often does that actually help you in your day-to-day decisions? Close your eyes and actually envision what you want your life to look like. Who do you want to be? How do you want to feel? A mom who took the author’s course on willpower did this, and realized she needed a more intrinsic motivation than simply being “good” — that alone wasn’t stopping her from yelling at her kids. What worked? Realizing that at the end of the day, her bigger-picture motivation was that she wanted to enjoy parenting — and it’s clearly not enjoyable to yell all the time.

#2: Understand dopamine

This one blew my mind, y’all. I’ve always associated dopamine with happiness (the “feel-good” hormone, right?) Come to find out, dopamine doesn’t activate an actual sensation of happiness, but of wanting: it’s the PROMISE of happiness we’re feeling. Unfortunately, we easily confuse the two, and thus sabotage finding true satisfaction.

#3: Who’s the “real” you?

This one is simple, but powerful. Who do you believe is the “real” you? Is it the you who sets goals, or the you who can’t help but to lose control? This question is so important because it has the power to combat “moral licensing” — the name McGonigal gives for our tendency to reward ourselves for good behavior in self-sabotaging ways. She writes:

#4: Self-forgiveness over guilt and defeat

While guilt is not how I’d describe my own feelings when I don’t live up to my goals, I definitely get frustrated and tend to give up easily. But there’s good news for all of us: beating ourselves up doesn’t push us toward our goals, so we can stop doing it!

#5: Break out of autopilot

As we discussed in point #2 (Understand dopamine), instant gratification is a beast. One way to resist it: try the 10 minute rule.

#6: Remember, your future self is YOU! Show yourself some love!

This is another fact that amazed me: when we envision our future selves (like when we optimistically say “I’ll feel like doing that tomorrow”), we’re literally using the part of the brain that thinks about other people — not ourselves. We completely dissociate from whatever actual emotions we have about the task at hand in the present, assuming that this mysterious Future Me will somehow feel differently.

  1. Create a vivid “future memory” of any kind — close your eyes and experience a day in the life of your future self, whether it’s next week or next decade.
  2. Write a letter to your future self — this website is one easy way to do it! In your letter, describe what you’re doing now, or jot down that visualization you just did of what your life might be like.
  3. Pose this question to yourself: What would your future self thank you for if you were able to commit to it today?



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Ellie Hunja

Ellie Hunja

I write about parenting, social justice, faith, mental health, embracing autism, and more on I love cheesecake, Motown, and good conversation.