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A Google search of ‘motivation’ spits forth a sea of hand designed inspirational quotes, ladder loaded infographics, hands stretching out towards the sky, images that make it seem as though motivation is so much about striving beyond your current capabilities that it takes all of your effort, the kind of effort reserved for the very first day of a new resolution or a new year, but an effort unlikely to be sustained over a long period of time. 

These images encapsulate the impetus, the powerful feeling of euphoria upon deciding to start something new, to live in a new way, to change something, but as anybody who has spent any time actually trying to maintain a new habit in their lives will know, that euphoric feeling may remain for a few days or even the first few weeks, but the novelty and drive that the initial power of resolving to do something gives dwindles away dramatically quickly. 

It is in these moments when we have lost the forward pushing drive that we felt in those first moments of change that we often say we have lost our ‘motivation’. 

So what can we do about this? How can we repair our relationship with motivation and stick to the habits and resolutions that we so desperately want to change our lives? 

The key is all in how we look at it. 

In this article, I will take you through what is happening in those moments of euphoria and its dwindling supply and how changing your mindset can help you stick to your trajectory of success. 

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What is motivation?

Motivation is most commonly defined as the ‘reason for which humans or other animals initiate, continue or terminate a behaviour at a given time’, this is why most websites or self help guides will tell you that staying motivated is all about finding an important enough reason to do something, finding your ‘why’. 

But somewhere in us we know it isn’t that simple, after all, we know that smoking is linked to hundreds of fatal diseases and we also probably know smokers. Anecdotally we are all aware that the most emotional, logical, even honourable reasons for doing or not doing something may be enough to start us off on the path of change, but are often not enough to keep us motivated on a path towards change. 

So what is happening here? 

The truth is that the word ‘motivation’ has become a sort of umbrella term for a number of different driving forces needed to sustain habit change or creation and eventually maintenance long enough to turn them into lifestyle habits.

Motivation is the sum of: 

  1. The intensity of your drive to action; the power of your reason ‘why’.
  2.  The extrinsic sustainability of the activity; the means at your disposal by way of circumstance and time to be able to carry out the activity. 
  3. The intrinsic sustainability of the activity; instead of ‘willpower’ it is simpler to look at this as the physical toll of the activity coupled with the chemical reactions caused in the brain by your chosen activity and what effect they have on your mental wellbeing.

This means that in order to ‘stay motivated’ what you really need is to find a compelling reason for action, to realistically plan and adjust your conditions so that they are geared optimally towards the success of your action and then to perform the action in such a way that it feels easy both physically and mentally. 

This is how habits are created! 

So, how do you build a base for motivation? 

1. Visualise the impact of small changes over a long period

Real change happens incrementally, which is why consistency is key. 

Visualise your goal and try to boil it down into its core aspects, perhaps you want to learn to play the chaconne by the end of this year - what would it take you to get there? 

Perhaps you feel you need to improve on your scales, in which case maybe you need to develop more left hand or right hand finger independence. 

In that case a small but impactful habit could be making ten minute sessions each day to practice exercises that promote finger independence, eventually building in patterns from the Chaconne and in time practicing passages from the Chaconne with attention to finger independence technical detail. 

Or perhaps you can already play the chaconne, but you would like to memorise it within 6 months, then your increments might look like memorising two bars a day, or 12 bars a week with a day per week for review of the previous week’s memory task. 

The creative possibilities with this are endless, the most important takeaway is that breaking a large goal up into bitesized chunks that actually fit into your current life will have a bigger impact than throwing yourself at a huge amount of changes and only being able to sustain them for a week.

2. Understand that habit creation starts with tiny things

Once we understand that change is most effective when it is done consistently and incrementally, we must work out how to fit these changes into our life in its current state. 

It is all well and good imagining yourself on January 1st springing out of bed at 6am and practising for 2 hours every day, but if your normal schedule has you waking up at 8am barely functioning until you have had three coffees then this resolution is unlikely to be sustainable. 

Even if you are determined to make this adjustment to your life and your will power is watertight, you must think of the imbalance that this new habit will create. 

In this case it would be that if you do manage to wake up and start work at 6am as opposed to your usual sluggish 8am wakeup this will mean either two hours less sleep a night, or that you must be in bed 2 hours earlier to compensate for the earlier shift. 

Is this something that you will be able to maintain over a long period of time? 

Start with the tiny things, for instance in this case, waking up ten minutes earlier than usual and going and sitting in your practice space. 

Doing this every day creates a powerful habit that you can then build on, either by getting the guitar out, playing for ten minutes, or incrementally waking up earlier and compensating at the other end by going to bed slightly earlier too!

3. Work towards a goal - even if your real goal is open-ended 

Maybe the reason you are reading this is because you feel that you are currently lacking the motivation to play the guitar each day, and your real goal is just to play guitar more, or get better at playing the guitar but with no specific piece or event to work towards. 

These goals are open ended, a manifestation of the desire to be part of a process and that is completely fine if it intrinsically gives you enough motivation to keep it up, but if you find yourself wishing you had the desire to play more, shifting your focus to a more concrete goal could help you with stimulating the impetus to put the time in each day. 

This means your open ended goal will be a byproduct of your arbitrary fixed goal, for instance learning to play the chaconne, which takes the pressure off of wondering why you just aren’t playing as much as you wish you were.

4. Review your progress often 

In order to sustain the willpower to uphold our desired habits, there has to be some payoff by way of feeling better physically, mentally or through intrinsic or extrinsic reward. 

Be it reviewing how much happier you have felt, how much you have improved in a measurable way by watching videos or yourself when you first started out on this journey and comparing them to videos of you playing now, or by being able to acquire financial reward for your efforts. 

It is important to look at your progress from the bigger picture often so that you can evidence to yourself in the more difficult moments why this habit is worth maintaining, working for and putting that extra effort into.

Conclusion 

Mustering up the motivation to do anything is an honourable enterprise and you’re not alone in finding it occasionally difficult to maintain the habits that your past self set out to create, but the fact that you’re here, reading this, is already evidence enough that you’ve got what it takes to achieve everything you want to. 

Hopefully these notes can help you, even in the smallest way, on your journey to where you want to be. 

Did you learn something new?

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Happy playing!

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Dave McLellan

Concert & Chamber Guitarist

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