For Lent This Year, Build a Habit (and Why I Think “Motivation” is a 4-Letter Word)

Every year for lent, my grandpa would tell us he was giving up 7-layer cake…Of course, he would wryly confide to us that he had never had 7-layer cake in his whole life, which meant that he was very successful at his lenten goal!

But isn’t that what we all do most lents? Actually, for me, I’ve often given up coffee, which turns out to be my wife’s sacrifice—putting up with me when I have not had caffeine—but I swear I’m not addicted! We give up something (usually food) that we do a bit too much of, and forty days later we usually go back to the same old habits we’ve always had. Fasting, of course, is an essential part of Lent; making a temporary sacrifice to put us in the mindset of Christ’s sacrifice is obviously a good thing. But what if it didn’t have to be the same pattern we repeat multiple times a year? (You know the usual cycle: we fail our New Year’s resolutions, and then pick them up with a new determination during Lent, only to forget about the whole thing by the time Summer hits). Wouldn’t it be better if you changed something about yourself—even something very small—for good?

Now, we all battle concupiscence and human frailty every day. The battle against our weaknesses, especially sin, is more like managing diabetes than it is like taking an antibiotic for a germ that you’ll never have to deal with again. But we have free will, and we can change. God calls us to “be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48), and He is not trying to set us up for failure. The creation of our character is one way that we share in being God’s image and likeness—personal growth is built into our brains the same way physical growth is built into our bodies. 

So why do we fail so often? I’m not saying we can get rid of the struggle. It appears that God has ordained “the struggle” (whatever it is for you) to be part of the very recipe that makes us grow. But stopping there is the easy way out. God calls us to be holy, to be “set apart.” He tells us to repent, which means that we can do it—so long as we have His grace.

“One part of the definition of virtue is a strength we habitually practice to the point we internalize it as part of ourselves.”

But here’s the thing: I think we often do have God’s grace, but we just fail to cooperate with it. One part of the definition of virtue is a strength we habitually practice to the point we internalize it as part of ourselves…And, one of the primary reasons why we fail to build virtue is that we rely on motivation. Motivation itself is a feeling, and feelings in this regard are sort of the opposites of virtue. This is because virtue drives us to strive to do the right thing even when we don’t feel like it, while feelings tell us to do the right thing–until something good comes up on Netflix.

Motivational speakers have a booming business. Now, don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with motivational speakers. I think there are a lot of good ones that really have helped people permanently improve their lives. They are good at exciting us about making real changes. Yet therein lies the problem: we rely too much on motivation being driven by the feeling of excitement. Excitement is awesome. God gave us that feeling, and I myself can get extremely excitable (just ask my wife). But there are two problems with excitement. The first, which we all know, is that it can’t last forever. No matter how pumped up we get on a retreat or after reading an amazing book—that feeling won’t last. The second problem is that excitement can drive us in many different directions at once, which can make focusing on one goal difficult.

Even though we are the ones to feel “motivation,” it is actually an emotion that is very externally driven (in the sense we are talking about it here). We hear an exciting talk, which pumps us up, or when motivation fails we have something to blame when we can’t get out of bed to go exercise like we said we would. Our feelings ebb and flow in a way that is often outside our control, which means that motivation based on emotion is bound to fail.

The truth is that we greatly exaggerate the importance of motivation. While we certainly need an initial spark of it to inspire us, once we have that spark, it is not strictly necessary anymore. I typically wake up at around 5:30 every morning to pray, exercise, and then form the mindset for my day. I am a morning person, so this is natural for me to do in some ways, but to tell you the truth, I almost never feel like waking up. I would rather sleep than wake up, I would rather sip coffee and stare into space than pray, I’d rather fold laundry than work out (which in fact I have done). But I do it anyway. And guess what? It’s not all that hard actually. Most mornings, it does not take any heroic effort to make me do this routine, even if my feelings are complaining. It has nothing to do with heroism—in fact, a good habit will beat heroism any day of the week. Habits are easy, and an ingrained habit is almost automatic. For instance, I brush my teeth two times a day, every day. Sometimes I want to, and sometimes I don’t, but it doesn’t matter, because that’s what I do. On the other hand, I am awful at flossing. I hate it. Imagine Rocky Balboa taking on Ivan Drago. It feels like that. Why? Because flossing is not a habit of mine.

From Motivation to Vision

“Motivation is not all bad. The only thing that is bad about it is our over-reliance on it.”

Let me correct myself.  Motivation is not all bad. The only thing that is bad about it is our over-reliance on it.  What we love about motivation is that it sparks our excitement, and when we are excited, harder tasks suddenly become much easier. While we can’t rely on this type of rush to drive us, we can turn the emotional high of motivation into a habit of vision for our lives. Think about almost any saint. One marker of their sanctity is often the drive they have for their mission. Picture St. Francis setting out to “rebuild the Church,” literally trying to rebuild the physical church until God revealed his deeper vocation. Or, imagine St. Faustina and the Image of Divine Mercy. Even though she couldn’t paint, even though she was told no, she doggedly pursued her mission. Perhaps the best example is St. Mother Teresa, and her constant service of the very poorest, in spite (and perhaps because of) a deep spiritual emptiness that lasted not just years, but decades. We have a hard-enough time mustering the effort to stay up late and finish up the dishes; imagine a feeling of complete abandonment that lasted most of your life—and still fulfilling your vocation regardless.

Truly, these saints go beyond “drive” and border on obsession, don’t they? Imagine somebody who you know personally who has been successful. You’ll notice that they are constantly thinking about their goals, and this habitual focus becomes an internalized drive that overcomes any of those “lazy” feelings we all have. I think sometimes “ambition” and setting goals for yourself can get a bad rap in our Catholic world because it hovers too closely to pride and anxiety about our future. But God wants us to have vision for our lives. He wants us to have a mission, and be convicted about completing it! The gospels tell us: “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Mt. 6:21). Believe it or not, we tend to obtain the things we focus on. Yet, there is a big difference between wishing for something and planning on something. I “wish” I was a billionaire, but the idea is something so abstract to me that it is rather meaningless. If we can’t clearly picture that desire and we can’t articulate goals or execute actions steps to get there, it should not come as a surprise when we fail to reach it.

On the other hand, if we constantly think about our mission and act to make it real; fleeting, abstract motivation is transformed into the habit of vision. It is made meaningful, and so we are driven to act—not because we wish it, but because we realize its value, and value drives all behavior.

From Motivation to Habit

“We also need habits. A habit automates behavior, which means we don’t need to think about it, and it greatly cuts down on the effort necessary to accomplish a goal.”

But not even vision itself is enough. Even if we have a mission and are obsessed with it, we will inevitably run into obstacles, and when things get hard, vision on its own will let us down. We also need habits. A habit automates behavior, which means we don’t need to think about it, and it greatly cuts down on the effort necessary to accomplish a goal. In fact, I believe that forming good habits is the ultimate antidote to the problems caused by ADHD (I should know, I have a bad case of it!). In some ways, you might imagine a habit as the boss of your brain (the prefrontal cortex) delegating a behavior to a different part of the brain, freeing up the boss for other things. So, in order to form a new habit, try taking the following principles into account:

1. Make the new habit as easy as possible by making it realistic and removing any hidden obstacles. For example, I realized that one mental obstacle to waking up early for me was that I mentally complained about having to make coffee when I woke up, which was often a good enough excuse to keep me in bed. So, I started prepping the coffee the night before, including setting the auto-brew function to kick on at 5:20. With the excuse gone, it was suddenly much easier to get up.

2. Pick something that is relatively small, but still ties in with your mission. For example, one man whom I work with is trying to set extra time aside to start a business. He “makes himself” work on the business only five minutes a day. We can do anything for five minutes, right? But the psychological trick is that once we’ve been working on something for five minutes, we usually can work another five minutes without too much trouble, and my client is now well on his way to getting this dream of his off the ground.

3. Integrate the habit into your daily routine. We want your new habit to become automatic as soon as possible. If you want to pray more, find a regular time in your schedule to do it. Try and pick a time that won’t allow for excuses. For instance, I’ll often tell myself that I’d like to pray more in between my fifty-minute sessions with clients. The trouble is that I often go over my time, need to use the restroom, and have to respond to a voicemail…all of a sudden, my time to pray is gone, and there are too many built-in excuses that prevent this from becoming a habit.

4. Don’t let one failure deter you. Most of us struggle with perfectionism at times, and so when we fail to reach our goal or form a habit, we quit. Perfectionism is all about fear, and fear is the enemy of excellence. You will fail, and so fearing this inevitability will not help you. Instead, accept yourself, turn your weaknesses over to God, and begin again!

You need a clear definition of your goal that you can work toward.

Now the only thing remaining is to pick a new habit. What I want you to do is take a look at the vision you have for your life, and pick one area wherein you’d like improvement. It can be a particular virtue you’re not good at, your health, or some other goal you feel called to tackle. Now, picture that area of your life…imagine how good improving this part of your life would feel. Pretty good, right? But if we’re going to get away from feeling, and into the habit of forming habits, you need to take the easiest possible thing to do and focus on that. I actually don’t think “being healthy” is a great goal. You know why? Because you can’t measure it. What does being healthy mean? You can bench press four hundred pounds? Run ten miles? Lose fifty pounds? You need a clear definition of your goal that you can work toward. So, what does it mean for you, in your life? You need to narrow it down. You need to make it concrete. Something upon you can take action. What is the smallest possible way you could prove to yourself that you are healthier? Spiritually, mentally, psychologically, physically? It might be having vegetables at every meal, or being active three days a week, improving prayer time, or adding silence. And remember, this is not just for Lent, it’s for good.

I’ll bet you could take something relatively big and do it for the forty days of Lent…It would be more impactful if you picked something very small and did it forever. That is the start of real change, and it is one small step to letting God form us into saints.

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