Motivation expert and Stanford researcher BJ Fogg has found that motivation has a natural cycle, which he calls the Motivation Wave. It’s the natural ebb and flow of high and low motivation to do the “hard things” in our life.
Motivation can easily be affected by our mood, stress, and available time, making it unreliable. Knowing that motivation and willpower rises and falls throughout the day or week, what do top performers do instead to ensure they stay on top even when motivation is at it’s lowest? SYSTEMS!
Systems and habits take the emotion and decision making out of a process so you just do it. For example, before you go to bed at night you likely brush your teeth without question. Imagine you had the same type of automatic reaction to creating new marketing material for your firm every month?
In several different studies, the participants that had a plan on when and where they were going to complete a task were much more likely to accomplish their goals compared to those who didn’t have a plan.
Habit researcher James Clear found three great examples…
- Women who stated when and where they would perform a breast self–examination, did it 100% of the time. Meanwhile, those who didn’t state when and where only performed the exam 53% of the time.1
- Dieters who formulated a plan for when and how they would eat healthier were significantly more likely to eat healthy than those who did not.2
- People who wrote down when and where they would take their vitamins each day were less likely to miss a day over a five week span than those who did not.3
Using Systems in My Own Life
Since starting my research on motivation and systems, I’ve implemented a few very successfully in the last year. One that’s had amazing results is a system around eating healthier. To ensure that I don’t reach for the takeout menu every week, I have an agreement in place with my spouse to cook 3 days a week (Monday, Tuesday and Friday), while he cooks 3 other days (Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday). Without question, I prep meals on my days and get to relax on the other 3. Once and awhile our plans change but this accounts for eating healthy 95% of the time (I’ll get to small hiccups or changes to the system in a moment.)
Motivation Comes and Goes
Systems are great because they exist outside of us, our thoughts, and our motivation. They’re automatic and take the thinking and planning out of the equation. You don’t have to spend any energy deciding what to do next or require motivation to make the right choice.
How to Build Systems That Work
Rule #1 Start Small
The key here is simple, start by doing less than you think you can. Start building your system with a single action so small you can’t say no to it.
In a moment of high motivation we all feel like we can take on the world. This week is finally going to be the week you build that new website for the firm or do your first seminar to bring in new clients. What happens when the motivation wears off and you’ve built a system that requires a 70+ hour work week? You’re going to feel like failure for the umpteenth time but remember… it’s not because you can’t achieve your goal. It’s because you’ve set unrealistic timeframes for your goals.
New habits should feel easy, especially in the beginning. If you stay consistent and continue increasing your habit it will get hard enough, fast enough. It always does.
Never Miss Twice
Top performers make mistakes and get sidetracked occasionally too. The difference between average and top performers is that top performers never miss a habit/action on their system twice. Don’t concern yourself with performing perfectly, instead focus on consistency. One missed workout occasionally isn’t going to set you back. It’s when you repeatedly throw out the whole week because of an all-or-nothing mentality.
Build Up Systems as a Sustainable Pace
This one’s simple – add small actions into the system one at a time. Focus on consistency and patience throughout the process. Don’t worry about big wins or changes. Want to build a system around marketing your practice? Start by dedicating 30 min/week to reading about marketing. Over the course of 6 months, work your way up to a half day of marketing activities a week by adding in just 30 minutes extra a month.
Build in Regular Breaks
There are many different theories of how long we can focus for but generally the maximum most people can agree on is 90 minutes straight. At the very least we need a 10 minute break every 90 minutes to produce high quality work. You can work longer if you like but it’s not going to be with the same sharp focus and productivity as you would with regular breaks. Many people, like myself, prefer 10 minutes every 60 minutes.
Plan regular 10 minute breaks throughout your day to get up, stretch, take a bathroom break, get a glass of water, anything that rejuvenates you. Note that active tasks, which require you to do something physical, are often much better for refreshing focus than passive tasks like reading.
Remove any obvious problems in the system
This may seem intuitive but it’s easy to let little problems or inconsistencies stay in the system because we tell ourselves they’ll just work themselves out. If you see any red flags in your systems, even teeny tiny one’s, don’t just let them slide. By requiring your brain to do extra work and problem solve you risk the chance that your brain will just decide to scrap the task altogether.
For instance, if I see an overlap in my calendar with writing and talking to a client, I’m forcing my brain to have to rearrange things at the last minute and decide what to do. In this instance I might talk to the client and cancel the writing altogether because I can’t immediately find another time for it. I’m also much more likely to feel stressed to have to make the decision at the last minute, whereas if the schedule was setup properly I would be working on autopilot and there would be no emotion required.
Whenever you’re building a new system, ask yourself:
- What are some problems that are likely going to get in the way of completing this action or system?
- What are some daily emergencies that are likely going to distract me?
- How can I account for these in the system?
Consider your scheduled time sacred
All the most productive people I’ve ever met keep their scheduled time with themselves sacred, meaning they don’t let other people infringe on this time with their requests or needs. This means putting your sacred time in your calendar and preventing anyone from scheduling something else during that time, including yourself!
Let us know!
Where can you use a ritual or system in your life? What behaviors do you want to do more consistently and automatically?
Laura Berthiaume is the cofounder of Email Stopwatch, (http://emailstopwatch.com), an email management tool allowing managers and users to passively track all the time spent in Outlook. You can reach her with questions at email@example.com