Finding the Motivation to Change

For many people, the desire to change inches up on you. You have this sense in the back of your head that you need to make a big change to your spending habits or to your dietary habits or to your exercise habits or to your work habits, but you push them aside and continue in your bad routines because, to put it simply, the desire to change isn’t strong enough to overcome the momentum of ingrained habits.

In my experience in terms of implementing significant changes in my life, there are really two big factors that are vital in making change happen. First, there’s the desire and motivation to change, that feeling in the back of your head and sometimes in your active thoughts that you need to change at least some of your routines. Second, there’s the resistance to change, which is the ingrained habits in your life that make you want to stick with what you’re doing now because it’s convenient or easy or safe.

The key to making change happen in your life is to find a way to raise that motivation high enough so that it overcomes the resistance. That also comes in two parts – lifting up the motivation and lowering the resistance.

Once your motivation is high enough to overcome the resistance, it’s often like water over the top of a levee – it just starts flooding in and you find yourself really diving deep into change.

Over the years, I’ve tried to make many major changes to my life. Some have been incredibly successful, like our financial turnaround. Others perhaps not so successful, like my continued attempts to get in great physical shape. What I’ve learned along the way is that a big part of getting started is simply pushing that desire to change over the top of the levee of resistance. (After that, it’s a matter of figuring out how to channel that flood into a new permanent direction in life, which is a completely different bag of tricks – today, we’re just focusing on bringing about the flood of change.)

There are five steps I’ve found that really help in terms of raising the desire to change and lowering the resistance to change. Combining them together usually results in that initial flood of action rather than merely daydreaming about change.

First, make detailed pictures of your future both with and without the changes you have in mind. What will your life be like five years or ten years from now if you commit to this change that you are considering? What will your life be like in the future if I don’t change? I try to make this picture as detailed as possible.

Almost always, the future with the change in it is a better future, and I find that the more details I add to that future picture, the stronger my desire to chase that better future becomes. I don’t want the bad future – I want the good one.

So, let’s take debt repayment as an example, and roll back the clock to the day when I had six figures in debt. If I stayed where I was at, I likely would still be living in a small apartment or a rented house in a neighborhood less conducive to families. I would likely still be at my old job and dealing with the stress it was pouring on my plate at the time. I’d be in worse physical shape – even without trying, I weigh about 40 pounds less than I did the day I left that job, mostly thanks to stress. On the other hand, my life today involves home ownership without a mortgage in a family-friendly neighborhood, a career path with relatively low stress, and better physical shape and health – I simply feel better these days.

The more details I add to those pictures, the more I prefer the better one. In fact, after a while, that desire for the better picture becomes fairly urgent – I really don’t want the “bad” future compared to the “good” future.

Second, intentionally create some open space in your life. Even if you’re not committed to change just yet, make the effort to clear out the time in your life you would need to make this change. The fact that change is barking to you in the back of your head likely means that something is out of balance in your life, and freeing up time to take on some kind of change is really worthwhile.

Figure out some of the ways that you commit time and energy in your life and de-commit from those things. It might be as simple as cutting out an hour of your routine three hours of television / web surfing each night. It might be a decision to not run for a committee seat when re-election comes around. It might be a choice to drop a time-sucking hobby, or at least cut back on it.

When you find yourself in a situation where you know you have time and energy free to commit to a change, it becomes much easier to make that commitment.

Third, surround yourself with change. If you’re reading this article, there’s probably some sort of change that you want to make that’s lurking in the back of your head. That’s good, particularly if it’s a financial change!

“Surrounding yourself with change” means that you’re seeking out lots of input in many areas of your life that are nudging you toward change. That means doing things like reading blogs about the topic, joining message boards about the topic, and finding friends or offline communities centered around the topic. The goal is to fill the inputs of your internal life (reading, media consumption) and the inputs of your external life (communities and people) with those who are nudging you to change.

Become a daily reader of The Simple Dollar (Yay for self promotion! But, you can honestly choose any personal finance site that’s updated daily for this, assuming your change is related to finances.) and/or other financial sites. Listen to podcasts about the change you want to make while you’re commuting. Check out a book or two from the library about this change you want to make and make those books into your bedtime reading. Join a message board or other online community related to the topic and read what others are saying and sharing. Feel out your friends and see if any of them are on the cusp of change or actually on that journey. Look for groups in your offline city that are engaged in the change you’re trying to achieve.

Surround yourself with the change you want and it becomes much easier and more natural. Doing this not only raises your desire, but also lowers the resistance at the same time.

Fourth, find a partner or two or three. A partner is simply someone you’re accountable for for the change. Don’t broadcast it to your entire social circle on social media; instead, choose a very small number of people who you think will actively help you make the change.

Talk this change over with that person. Talk about the benefits you perceive and the challenges you see. Sincerely ask for their help, both as a sounding board and as a cheerleader.

If they say yes, they’re probably going to start pushing you toward that change, providing a new kind of motivation. It can be frustrating at times, especially if your own internal motivation is starting to slip, but a caring friend can sometimes help you keep going when it becomes really hard. They can be a voice in the night when you’re struggling and someone to really celebrate with you when you achieve a big win.

Finally, take a real first action. Commit to doing one thing today that’s oriented toward the change you want to see. Maybe it’s simply choosing to spend very little today by eating a brown bag lunch and preparing your dinner at home. Maybe you’re going to walk up the stairs to work and park on the far side of the parking lot to get some more walking steps in.

Whatever the change is, take action. Do something. Choose something that isn’t insanely intense, but something that requires a change in your routine.

What you’ll find is that it feels good to do something positive for yourself that moves you in the direction of the change that you want. When you go to bed tonight, reflect on that step you took. It wasn’t hard, was it? It didn’t leave you miserable. Also, repeating that step on most days, and adding other steps, will lead you to that better life you envisioned.

Go to bed with that thought in your head and you may just wake up in the morning with more motivation than ever.

Whatever change you’re considering in your life, think about these five steps. Use them to help you set the foundation for change and push yourself over the levee of resistance.

Good luck!

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Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.