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Why Motivation Doesn’t Last (and what to do about it)

Updated: Oct 20, 2023

Dragonfly Transformation & Wellness

December 2021


If you've tried to get healthier, chances are you've faced this dilemma… You commit to going to the gym or starting a new diet. In the beginning, you’re doing great and very motivated to reach a goal or build a new habit into your routine. Often you are succeeding, then your motivation fizzles, and you quit. This is why the gyms are packed in January, but by mid-February, they are empty again.

WHY does this happen?! To understand why this happens, we must look at the science behind how the brain works. So let’s talk for a minute about habits, motivation, and why it all seems so hard to change our habits.

Why Motivation Doesn’t Last
Why Motivation Doesn’t Last

Why are habits so hard to change?

Whether it’s overindulging, being a couch potato, or not making time for self-care, many of us find that it’s all too easy to slip back into these habits, even when we are succeeding at making new, healthier ones. I’m sure you’ve wondered why reverting to our old habits seems like the easier thing to do.

The thing is, the part of your brain that regulates habits (the subconscious) LOVES bad habits. “Bad” habits are low-effort behaviors that offer a significant, immediate reward. Your subconscious covets a big, easy reward above all things. It’s the little red dude on your shoulder whispering to eat the cookie even when you're on a diet. The subconscious brain doesn’t care what the long-term effect of a behavior is. It only cares about the immediate reward. It will always choose the quickest, easiest, thing to do with the least amount of thought needed.

Good habits on the other hand provide the highest reward but often require a great deal of work upfront (to create the new habit) and the reward comes much later down the road. Without that immediate reward, your subconscious mind has little interest in encouraging or enforcing those good habits. Waaay too much work. So how can we override our subconscious mind and not only create more good habits, but act on them?

Your Brain and Habits

Clearly, your subconscious mind will be of no use to you when it comes to creating new, healthier habits.

Creating a new habit feels hard because it actually requires you to override your subconscious mind with your conscious mind. Your conscious mind is where your value-based decision-making happens. This is where motivation lives and where you can tap into willpower too. Creating change means creating consistent action and repeating that, over and over, until it becomes automatic (and the new habit moves downstairs becoming part of your subconscious brain to regulate). This takes time, consistent action, and a LOT of energy. Your conscious brain (in very simplistic terms) is like the supercomputer that can rewrite your own software but requires a LOT more processing power to run.

Conscious Mind (awareness, focus, thinking brain) = HIGH ENERGY REQUIREMENTS

Where we are working from while creating a new habit. This area of the brain requires focus and awareness to act. This requires a high cognitive load.

Subconscious Mind (the mental activities just below the threshold of consciousness) = LOW ENERGY REQUIREMENTS

Where our already created habits live and run from. The routines and habits here are automatic and are things we do without much thought or effort.

Creating a new habit is literally mentally exhausting. When we feel the mental strain of creating a new habit becomes too much, guess what we do? We hand the steering wheel over to our subconscious mind because it takes less effort. In turn, our subconscious chooses our old, immediate reward habits because they are so ingrained in us that they use almost no energy to give in to. 🤦‍♀️

To create a new habit you need consistent action. There are only two ways to keep acting consistently and override the subconscious mind:


(want to do it badly enough)


(force ourselves to do it)

Which one do you think works best? Do we need both? Let’s explore that question.


What is Motivation & How Does it Work?

Motivation comes from two places:

A. Your reason for wanting to make a change or your “why” (based on values and desires)

“I want to live a longer, healthier life.”

A strong "why" is typically stable and unchanging.


B. Your willingness to do things in the moment (based on how you feel in that moment)

“My house is a mess but I don’t feel like cleaning it right now.”

"I will go to the gym after work if I'm not too tired."

This form of motivation is driven by emotions and, as a result, is unpredictable and unreliable.

If you’re motivated to do something, you’ll do it. If you’re not motivated to do something, chances of creating action are low if you're relying solely on motivation. Unfortunately, it’s the latter definition above that affects our day-to-day behavior.

Why do we Lose Motivation?

When making changes to create a new habit we're often highly motivated when we begin. Why then do we seem to lose motivation after a period of time? Why can’t we just “get motivated” again?

If motivation is coming from A. above and your “why” is strong, why isn’t it enough to keep you motivated long term? And if that desire doesn’t change or fade, why does the motivation to create action from it fade?

Several scientific studies explored this question and came up with an interesting discovery. We know that creating habits requires repetition over a period of time. The studies found that the more you repeat an action, the less focused on it you become and the less emotional you’ll feel about it. Somewhere between the 2-6 week mark of consistent action, your new habit starts to move into the subconscious part of your brain. Remember the subconscious excels at doing things without thinking much about it. That's its job. Your new habit suddenly seems boring, you lose interest and motivation before you’ve even fully created the new habit. What happens next? You QUIT, right when you’re about to succeed at what you set out to do. Ironic, right?

Conversely, when motivation stems from B. above, if you are only working on your new habit when you “feel like it”, you will not create CONSISTENT action and will never move that habit downstairs into the automated section of your brain at all.

This can lead to a personal spiral of apathy which means you will wait until the idea of starting again excites you enough to “be motivated”. This is why “getting motivated” is a very unreliable tool.

When you rely solely on motivation, the first “feelings bomb” (stress, pain, exhaustion, life change) will cause a halt to your progress. Any conflicting goal that gets you more excited will push your original goal to a lower priority. Not excited or inspired = not motivated. Inconsistent motivation does not create consistent action and will not help form a new habit.

If you wait to take action only when you’re motivated, you will act inconsistently. Whereas, study after study shows, if you take action first, motivation to keep going comes after you begin. A great example of this is successful athletes who train daily regardless of whether they’re bored or motivated. Their "why" is always strong but they don’t rely on being motivated daily to adhere to their training routine.

Let's face it... if you pursue your goals only when you feel like it, it’s not a great formula for success. For habit formation, you need something more reliable. Something that works every time.


What is Willpower & How Does it Work?

Willpower allows you to force yourself to act even when you don’t feel like it. And if you always have enough willpower, success is guaranteed. This is critical to habit formation which requires consistency. But can you always have enough willpower?

Many people believe willpower is either something you have or something you don’t have. In reality, studies show building willpower is more like a muscle that has to be flexed to become stronger. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. And everyone can strengthen it with practice.

(See my post on strengthening willpower Is Willpower a Skill You Can Learn?)

Benefits of Willpower

Willpower allows you to create a plan in advance removing the emotion from it. I often say, “Failure to plan is planning to fail.” Creating a plan for success before you go (to the gym, party, dinner, etc) is essential to success in any habit formation and requires willpower. Planning ahead, keeping things simple, and removing decision-making from your scheduled action can help your willpower stay strong.

Relying on willpower over motivation also means the action can be scheduled. If you rely on feeling motivated, you’ll have a hard time sticking to a schedule. When it’s time to do X, you may or may not feel motivated enough to follow through. With willpower, you’ll do it whether you feel like it or not. You put the action on your calendar and just do it. This creates that consistency essential to building your new habit.

The Downside to Willpower

Willpower works every time but can be depleted. You can only force yourself to do something for X amount of time before you eventually exhaust your willpower reserves and give up. As an example, if you stuck to your diet perfectly all day but come home from work exhausted, you may find your willpower has left the building. Why does this happen?

5 Things that Drain Willpower:

Effort - the physical or mental exertion required

Perceived Difficulty - how difficult you think something is

Subjective Fatigue - how fatigued you think you are

Negative Affect - negative feelings or any uncomfortable experience during your day that turns it into a "bad day". These are often an unavoidable part of life.

Low Blood Sugar - the body’s fuel source fluctuating or dropping

To make willpower last you must overcome these 5 areas. But how?


What are Micro Habits & How Do They Work?

A micro habit is a goal so small you can't fail. For example, creating a micro habit of doing one push-up a day. Anything beyond that is just a bonus. Since, as discussed earlier, action creates motivation (not the other way around) you may find you are often motivated to go above and beyond your goal. And even if you don't, you have still accomplished your micro goal creating a win. Psychologically this is key. And when it comes to your brain, you're creating that consistent action toward creating a new habit.

As an example, if you have 100 pounds to lose, focusing only on your end goal will seem overwhelming and daunting. Often this will leave people who reach the 50-pound mark feeling like a failure instead of focusing on what they've accomplished! The ramp seems too steep and the target too far.

Conversely, setting a micro-goal of every 5 pounds gives so many opportunities to celebrate! Getting to the next 5 pounds is so much easier to focus on and the reward is quicker to receive.

So let's circle back to willpower and how micro-habits can help you overcome those 5 areas that can deplete it. Remember, when willpower lasts, it works every time.

Effort - Micro habits require very little effort. Any bonus effort above the goal will vary, allowing you the autonomy to stick with the micro-goal or go beyond it. This reduces the chance of burnout. There is negligible willpower depletion with a micro habit as it’s easy to meet the goal requirement and create a win.

Perceived Difficulty - Micro habits have very low perceived difficulty. Starting with a micro habit also shifts your perception of how hard a bigger action actually is. With each micro habit win, you realize how easy it is to continue and succeed. Starting is often the hardest step. Once you’re in action, the momentum carry’s you, motivates you, and makes it feel easier.

Subjective Fatigue - Micro habits mitigate how you feel about reaching your goal. Larger goals increase subjective fatigue, leaving you to feel like you won’t have enough energy to make it to the end goal. Whereas micro-goals are empowering which is extremely energizing.

Negative Affect - The small size of a micro habit leaves them invulnerable to “bad days” because it's so easy to meet your minimum requirement for the day.

Low Blood Sugar - This may seem obvious but we don’t have great willpower when we are too hungry. When you are using your conscious mind to try and override your subconscious mind creating a new habit, it needs a huge amount of energy, ergo blood sugar. Even at rest, your brain utilizes 20% of your body's energy. Breaking actions down into smaller mental components is less stressful and more energy efficient.

With micro-habit goals, willpower is preserved. More than that, going beyond your goal feels empowering which can ramp up motivation to give you an additional boost. Creating goals that leave you feeling like a winner, will create a positive mindset. And micro-habits rewire the brain much faster making habit formation faster too.


We’ve seen that motivation is unreliable and willpower has its limits. Where does that leave us?

The truth is, once willpower gets you started, using motivation when it is available can help preserve willpower reserves, allowing it to recharge. The more motivated you are the less willpower you need in that moment. And when you can't get the motivation going, willpower carries you through. These two skills can act in tandem, pitch hitting for each other.

When both are utilized as a strategy, they take up the slack for one another when needed. It's a win-win.

With micro habits, you won't need much motivation to follow through. And even when motivation is low, the willpower requirements needed remain super low as well.


Why Words & Mindset Matter

Self-efficacy is your belief in your ability to influence an outcome. If you expect to fail, a positive outcome is unlikely. Your brain latches on to any repetition you throw at it. So you may have an expectation of failing at your goals because you've failed before, and it’s hard to believe that next time will be different.

It's key to use verbiage that says, “I am choosing to make this change in my life.” rather than, “I have to do X.” Your words and self-efficacy rewire the brain. When positive, they help develop a sense of autonomy, an acknowledgment of choice and control. Autonomy activates intrinsic motivation, making the task more enjoyable, and increasing persistence.

When you take a step, however small, in the direction of your desired behavior it decreases your resistance to take further steps toward that end goal. As taking more steps gets easier, your comfort zone expands.

Micro habits are too small to fail and help build self-efficacy, boosting your confidence and belief in yourself. ❤

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