Where do we find the energy to achieve big, long-term goals?
How can we persevere over time and through adversity to create something that requires a commitment of several years?
Simple. It has to matter to you.
Not just a little bit. It has to matter enough that you’ll see it through.
When someone calls me for coaching, once we’ve established the goals that they want to accomplish, one of the first questions I ask is “Why is it important for you to reach these goals?”
If the reason is something like “My parents want me to…” or “My boss wants me to…” or “I’m supposed to…” I know we have some work to do before we get to the nuts and bolts.
Somebody else wanting us to do something is rarely a strong enough motivation to make changes in our lives.
And reaching big goals usually requires making big changes.
Changing behavior, learning new skills, overcoming personal limitations – all take consciousness, time and willpower.
Habits are powerful forces; we can change them but not lightly.
Frankly, we have to have a darned good reason to change.
And we have to have an even better reason to maintain these new habits through adversity.
Willpower works like a muscle: It strengthens with use over time, but it also takes energy.
When our reserves deplete – through fatigue, hunger or overuse – willpower can weaken.
But what if we still have things to do? What if we’re tired, hungry, exhausted from overworking all day and still need to finish something important?
I think we’ve all been there at some point. Somehow, we rise to the occasion.
How can this be when our willpower is spent? What makes the difference?
We care enough.
Big things can happen when something matters to us.
I love this saying from the Canadian pastor Basil King: “Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.” Although it’s hard to be bold with something we don’t care about.
Sometimes money can be enough motivation too.
Researchers have found that when people were paid enough, they could overcome fatigue and actually perform as well as those who were fresh.
Helping others also can mean enough for us to tap into something deeper and carry on.
The bottom line is when it matters enough to us, we can do it – even when we’re worn out.
If it doesn’t matter, we won’t – even if everybody else thinks we should.
This is why it’s so hard to get someone else to make the changes we think they should make.
This is why parents get gray hair hounding their kids about what they should do, why couples drive each other crazy trying to change each other and why addicts don’t stop using until they feel the gravity of their own situation.
We don’t make changes or endure the depletion of our willpower unless we care enough to do it.
How does this ability to push through our fatigue work? Do we grow in willpower? Sort of.
We get depleted when we do things that require self-control – making decisions, putting off short-term desires, focusing our attention amid distractions.
We don’t get depleted from doing rote tasks – copying documents, adjusting equipment, doing the dishes… things that don’t involve making decisions.
So to keep up the momentum, we may take up more rote tasks – while simultaneously taking care of those willpower-fatiguing tasks.
We lean on the rote things a bit more to get us through.
That’s the strategy we may use, but what inspires us to use that strategy is that we care enough to do it.
If there’s something you have to complete but you’re having trouble drawing the extra strength to see it through, think about why you’re doing it.
Is there a way to look at it that’s more meaningful?
If you have it framed in your mind that you’re doing it because someone thinks it’s important, see if you can define what’s in it for you – or how it will help someone who matters to you.
If you can find the meaning, you can find the motivation. And then you’ll have the strength to see it through.
That’s good for short-term rallies. But the truth is willpower does get depleted.
If we don’t get enough sleep, food or rest, we’re going to have a harder time concentrating and directing ourselves consciously.
Knowing this allows us to schedule time to recharge and take care of ourselves.
If we want the best from ourselves, we need to get good sleep, we need to eat well, we need some physical exercise and we need to take a break every so often, to refresh and relax, so we have all our resources available.
We need to take care of our health and well-being in order to bring out our best over time.
Bottom line: Human beings are extremely resilient, and we have backup systems. We are made for adversity; part of our resilience comes from that reserve tank we draw from when we need it.
But it all comes back to whether or not we care. What matters to you may not matter to anybody else.
What makes all the difference in the world is that whatever it is, it matters enough to you.