Little gifts to keep you going

Matthew Hendricks
motivationmental-healthdepression
2 / 26 / 19

Have you ever wondered...

How is it you get yourself out of bed every day?

How do you feed yourself to keep yourself moving, independently?

I mean, sure – you take a step, you find some food...  But have you ever asked yourself what is actually happening behind your muscles to take that step?

Here's my loaded question:  How does your routine bring motivation in your daily life, your goals, and fuel your desires?

Motivation is a struggle.

We've all seen the memes, so I don't need to repeat them.  And I'm not going to post a picture of a mountain here because I think it's a bad look.

Motivation is broader than just wanting to put on your shoes and go for a hike. It's a complicated system that is involved in every decision you make (consciously or subconsciously).  And in the order of life, your motivation is both the catalyst and the reward.

Just like the resiliency needed to push yourself to go for that weekend hike – and the satisfaction we get when we're doing just that – we use these systems to drive our interpersonal life too.

It doesn't matter if you're trying to plan your relationship with your spouse, your parents, your boss – or your relationship with yourself – the feelings that drive those interpersonal relationships take fuel.

It's when you understand the underlying process that drives us, you can learn to reserve, refuel, and plan around your behaviors.  But like any system, it needs to run regularly intact before it runs automatically. Some of us (jerks) do this by instinct.  For the rest of us, the good news is, the motivation for both our relationships and our activities come from the same reserves.

And this multi-use system has always been there – since before you were born.  But to harness it's potential, you have to listen carefully.  

low angle photo of structure
Photo by Jeremy Yap / Unsplash

So where does it come from?

I think we've all lived through periods of our lives where we struggled with these questions – although I'm confident that the answer has always been right behind your field of vision this whole time (whether you know this by instinct or not seems to be what separates us from success.)

Where do you get the energy to plan your dreams? Where does that energy come to draw around your circumstances and where does it go to envision a reward?

your neurology

Let's assume you can execute your the task toward your goal – what is it that makes you feel like continuing, even if it doesn't feel right? Where are your feelings of accomplishment coming from?

your neurology

And after you finish the task, what drives you to do it again?  Why do you learn to do things differently, and sometimes always precisely the same?

your neurology

On the less motivational side, when you lose your vision, where does it go?  Why can't you keep it?  There's a simple answer for all of these questions.‌‌‌‌  ‌‌‌‌

your neurology

Neurology is not something "you have" vs. "you lack" – it's an equal part in all of us.  And it's not through medicine or drugs that bring it out (although they can help).  It's not in money, lucky, or even virtues (though they help too).  

You have to exercise it.

It starts inside you.‌‌‌‌

When you boil anything down long enough, everything eventually become single particles. ‌‌‌‌The same is true for your problems.

When you start looking at your habits as a pathway, you can begin to see their parts too.

A simple daily routine is all that it takes to engage in this process.

  1. Envision
  2. Realization
  3. Revision

This isn't about the steps toward your goals.  This isn't ABCDEFGOALS or whatever the latest trend is in goal setting.  This isn't even about your goals.

This about one thing and one thing only: Dopamine.  

human anatomy display
Photo by Samuel Zeller / Unsplash

But let's not make it about that.

No one wants to run around all day thinking about how their brain chemicals are influencing their behaviors (okay, maybe I do, but I'm pretty sure you don't).

Taking charge of your actions is the most vital step in mastering the challenges stopping you from the life you've envisioned. It's the same in the most simple times, and the most challenging.  The key to realizing your vision is mostly about action & feedback.  

Here's a really extreme example, Viktor E. Frankl reflecting on his time during the holocaust:

It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual. [1]

Understanding your will and motivations for doing something, and predicting how it will make you feel – and more importantly, adjusting your vision to ensure your actions are meeting your will – is the key to making sure your brain is rewarded enough to take another step in the same direction.

***

A practical gift to you

2018 was an exciting year.  My mental health issues hit an all-time high (or low? Let's just say, I was hospitalized at least once).

As no coincidence, 2018 was the same year my wife and I decided to host our long overdue wedding reception (I know what you're thinking, why would you do that to yourself? We still don't know...)

Despite our decision fatigue, we pushed through, and we had a very pleasantly rewarding reception.

But this isn't about the process of pushing through our goals or finding your peaks and valleys – or even how perfect the meal turned out to be – no what I want to share with you is the simple task I learned that helps me exercise my motivational pathways.

Buy yourself flowers.

It wasn't until we started planning our reception that I ever thought twice about flowers – but I've since learned what introducing a simple routine in my life can do to help with my motivational impairment has been influential in my mental health journey.

In addition to the cognitive benefits of having a bit of natural beauty in your house has on your outlook, arranging flowers seems to help us with something more fundamental:  exercising the striatal dopamine system necessary for the proper control and refinement of voluntary movements in order to achieve an intended outcome is a critical function of the nervous system [2].  

Uhh, let's say that another way:

  1. Envision:  imagine the steps you would need to take to obtain flowers, how they may look in your house, and try to predict how they make you feel
  2. Realization: Be mindful in all the steps necessary to select, purchase, wash, trim, and place the flowers in your house
  3. Revise: For the next week, every time you see the flowers, focus on how they actually made you feel, and adjust them if necessary

If it goes well, you're rewarded with a pleasant reminder of your task each time you come home to your purchase. Sometimes – it's just what you needed –and sometimes you may need to do it a little differently (who thought yellow daffodils would look good in here?!)

person typing on laptop
Photo by rawpixel / Unsplash

The point is, when it's good, it's good.  And do it again.

And if it's not feeling good, do it differently.  A healthy response to your goal setting will encourage the system to want to repeat itself – in the same act and anything similar that your pathways recognize.  The nice thing here is our brains are a bit biased, and lazy, and have a tendency to repeat similar patterns if it can make it fit.

This is the model for every goal you'll ever set: envision, execute and refine.  Although, the specific process can be complicated because of the complexities of your goals and duration it might take to realize them.  But don't let your big goals stop you from accomplishing the little ones.

The fantastic part about this flower trick:  not only is it a simple task that can be repeated - most goals worth pursuing need to be repeated – but repeating the process will help build and strength a neural network that other ideas can bind.

(Sorry I don't think fake flowers are going to do the trick and there's another lesson in living – let 'em die if they're dying and thrive if they're thriving; expect nothing and accept everything)

So are you having issues feeling motivated? Try buying yourself flowers.

I promise, the simple act of carrying it out each week strengthens your dopamine system – ensuring the process will be easily accessible for your next goal.

See how those flowers make you feel in a few days, when you see them again.

Then see how you feel about doing the dishes next.  Then put away that laundry.  And then maybe, eventually, those running shoes will just start lacing themselves. And before you know it, that mountain peak will no longer appear ahead of you, but behind you.

person inside car near pathway
Photo by adrian / Unsplash

Just remember to execute the process mindfully:  imagine how you will feel, concentrate on what you're feeling, and adjust your expectations.

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