How a Burst of Motivation Can Stop You From Reaching Your Goals

Many of us have goals that we want to achieve (and if you don’t, well, you should).  Goals help us achieve important things that are worthwhile in life. Goals allow us to get more satisfaction out of are day and go to bed feeling like we’ve accomplished something. Goals foster an increased quality of life over time and allow us to live a better tomorrow.

“Today I will do what others won’t, so tomorrow I can accomplish what others can’t.”
— Jerry Rice, Football Player

Many books can be written about how to achieve your goals, and indeed many have been. I would not be capable of teaching you every step to actually achieve your goals, and get the body you’ve always wanted, in one article [that is what my future book is for =) ]. However, I can give you one practical tip that seems to trip up people again and again.

If you really apply this principle after you finish reading this article, your life can change drastically for the better. Suddenly, you will find yourself able to stick with and follow through with your goals so that you can achieve much more than you have in the past, and in a shorter time period!

This principle isn’t hard to put into practice, and it isn’t too hard to start. In fact, probably the biggest reason that people don’t do this in the first place is that they underestimate the importance and value of it, or never even bothered to think of it.

While there still will be many, many sticking points on the journey to getting your New Body (which my future book will hopefully clear up and simplify as well), this one principle can make a pretty large impact on your success.

The problem with goal setting for many people is not the setting of the goal itself. While many people do default on setting a goal to begin with, that is not the purpose of this article. This article assumes that you know how to set a goal well enough and, importantly, you are actually somewhat excited to achieve it. Even with these two factors already in play, many people find following through with that goal after the first few weeks or so to be tiring, boring, and unfulfilling. Thus, the goal never gets accomplished.


They give in to the burst of motivation that they initially experienced when they first set their goal! This “burst” of motivation is like a wave: in the beginning, the wave is big and the person is very excited to get started on their goal. Normally, this happens because they are looking into the future in their mind and feeling the feelings of the goals already having been accomplished. This actually is a good thing, as it makes achieving the goal and getting to that place more exciting.

The trouble begins after this initial beginning.

By feeling so much initial motivation right off the bat, many people overestimate the amount of motivation that they will having during the weeks and months that follow. Especially if the goal is large, as most goals that are worth pursuing tend to be, it might take a while to achieve.

By overestimating the amount of motivation they will have in the future, or by erroneously assuming that their current level of motivation will be sustainable (in the large majority of the cases, it won’t be), they correspondingly start undertaking too much initially.

Some examples of undertaking too much in the beginning:

  • Starting every aspect of a new diet at once – eating only healthy foods, exercising (when they weren’t before), reducing calorie intake, and stuffing themselves with protein.
  • Trying to exercise for 1 hour every day when they weren’t exercising at all before.
  • Trying to vastly increase the amount of sets performed during a lifting session at one time
  • Greatly restricting calorie intake suddenly
  • Performing a lot of exercise frequently that you dislike doing
  • etc…

The problem with all of the above is that each of these new changes is going to take a massive amount of willpower. The problem is, while we might be motivated enough in the beginning during the first few weeks to muster up enough willpower to make all these changes at once, as soon as that level of motivation starts to subside, the ability to stick with these massive changes will become increasingly more difficult until, after skipping too many workouts in a row, you decide, either consciously or otherwise, to just give up.

We do not want to ride the motivation wave because eventually the motivation will start to diminish, as is the nature of waves. If you were relying on pure motivation to get you to make your new changes, then you are headed for trouble.

It would be much better if we never started surfing the wave of motivation in the first place, or if we did, to put something in the water to keep the level of water high and not let the wave bring it down.

How to Keep the Motivation Alive

One good analogy that Leo Babauta used before was placing a dam in the water.

Instead of riding the motivation wave and starting everything at once, put a dam in the water so that the water level (read: motivation level) stays high behind the dam, and the dam only allows a little bit of water to escape at any time.

Instead of trying to focus on incorporating so many new changes into your life at one time because you are just so excited to achieve that goal, force yourself not to. Instead, simplify the amount of changes that you are going to make at any time so that you can focus on fewer changes at once.

Just like a laser, if the focus is wide it will not be very powerful. If the focus is very tiny, it can cut through metal.

Besides being more effective, by incorporating the changes of this new habit or aspects of this new goal slowly and one at a time, you will not need to muster up as much willpower at any particular time. Much of the time, starting the task (stepping out the door to run, going to the gym, passing by the fast food restaurant) is the part that trips us up the most.

Starting the task is like climbing up the hill (going to the gym), but continuing the task is normally easier and is like walking a level field after the climb or sometimes even going downhill (lifting at the gym once you are already there).

When you choose to not ride that initial wave of motivation and instead start slowly, putting up a dam and simply making small changes that do not require much willpower in isolation, you will be able to sustain these changes for a very long time.

An important point here is that you should not move onto the next change until you feel fairly comfortable with the previous change so that you are simply switching your focus of willpower, not adding onto it. Once we have firmly established habits, they do not require much willpower to sustain.

Another good analogy dealing with making small, incremental changes is weight lifting. You could take a 60 lbs weight and muster up all your energy to curl it 1 time, for example, but then you would not be able to curl that weight again for a while until your nervous system recovered. Instead, you could take 30 lbs and curl it 12 times, for example, for a total workload of 360 lbs, 6 times the amount of work done from trying to do too much at once, leading to increased hypertrophy (muscle gain)!

Conclusion and Examples

The take-away point here is that if you have a habit of setting goals but not following through with them, then you might be trying to make too many changes at one time.

For increased chance of success and long-term achievement, you would be better off making small changes incrementally and focusing all your efforts on each of those small changes individually, until you are comfortable with them.

This does not mean that you necessarily have to only focus on one change at a time; you could pick two or thee, for instance. How many changes you decide to make should be based upon

  1. How difficult each change is to incorporate for you personally, and
  2. How likely you think you are able to follow through with each individual change.

By looking back at some of the examples I gave above demonstrating doing too many things at once, we could change each one in the following ways:

  • Starting every aspect of a new diet separately – first, eat only healthy foods; in two or three weeks, exercise for 15 minutes a day, gradually increasing that number over time; three weeks later, reduce calorie intake, starting with a small decrease and gradually eating less over time (if you so choose); and gradually acclimate yourself to high-protein foods by increase your protein intake slowly.
  • Try to exercise for 15 minutes every day if you weren’t before. Every 2-3 weeks, increase that number by 5 minutes until you’ve reached your desired amount.
  • Try to increase the amount of sets performed during a lifting session slowly, perhaps adding 1 set per muscle group every month until you have reached your desired amount.
  • Restrict calorie intake by 100-200 calories initially (get rid of the morning doughnut, for instance) and decrease that amount by 100 every week or two until you have reached your desired calorie intake.
  • Perform exercise that you like doing (maybe a game with friends, for example) and start once a week. Over time, increase to 2-3 times a week.

Of course, if one of the above is not hard for you or does not require hardly any willpower already to begin with, then there is no need to progress slowly (except for physiological barriers). Furthermore, the example time-frames given above are just examples – choose whatever time-frame works for you and you are comfortable with.

While this one principle, “start small”, might not do everything to help you achieve your goals, it can vastly increase the chance of committing to a goal long-term and actually accomplishing it, so that you continue to move closer to your ideal body. A more complete, thorough, and step-by-step guide will be available in the future in my book so that there are virtually no sticking points on the journey of getting your New Body.