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Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Maintaining Motivation : New Years and Beyond

Credit: Lazy Photo Dad
The start of a fresh new year fills everyone with energy. We make plans, set ambitious goals, and say we'll do better than last year. We'll go to the gym, we'll save more money, we'll spend more time with friends and family, and less time brainless on the couch watching reruns.

For the first couple of weeks, we stick to those goals. We're filled with fire, enthusiasm, and energy. The excitement of something new keeps us going. But as the weeks pass, and we return to work after the Christmas break, our fire burns out. It's easy to fall back into a rut, and our goals fall by the wayside.


With motivation flagging it's easy to put your goals aside, to tell yourself to that you dreamed too big. The good news is, motivation is only part of the puzzle. At first we do well at our goals because we're motivated. We're excited and we push ourselves to succeed every day. But we aren't full of endless energy and it's irrational to think we are.

In fact, we are lazy creatures of habit. Even the most exciting things can become dull if we do them day after day. As human beings, we get excited about variety, but when we run out of energy we fall back into routine. Rather than expecting this to lead to failure, it is in fact the direct path to success.

Get excited

In 2017 I was recovering from an ACL reconstruction. The injury itself happened in 2016, but it is such a large injury that I was not fully cleared until a full year later. After my last meeting with the surgeon I was excited to get fit again.

I picked up an exercise program online, as well as heading back to roller derby and I decided to get back into running. Two nights a week I went a running, every morning before work I busted out a 15 minute exercise routine (different each day) and when I got home from work I'd do another 10 minute garage workout. On top of that I was back at roller derby - I wasn't playing contact, but I was skating twice a week.

I was in the excitement phase of new goals. Every moment I had to spare I was stacking in new exercises, and I was feeling great. I even started changing up my diet.

Your financial health works just like your physical health. Many people would have started 2019 with goals to save more money. At the start of the year you're excited. You skip buying coffee, brown bag your lunch, and cut off a magazine subscription. Maybe you start Meatless Mondays and analyse the Dollars to Fun ratio of every activity you do.

Just like every who sets goals at the start of the year, I was keen to do my absolute best. I devoted time and energy, physical and mental, to making myself the fittest I could be. Even on a 40degree day I would work out in my garage upon arriving home. I quickly double the length of that get home strength routine.

Unsurprisingly, this wasn't maintainable.

Battling boredom and burn out

After just a couple of weeks, I dropped the running program. I was already riding to and from work each day, doing a strength routine at night, and balance / strength in the morning. To add to that, I was still doing Yoga as a recovery method for my knee - which was repaired, but fatigued easily.

A few weeks after that, I wasn't doing yoga anymore. After getting home from work, doing my get-home-routine, making dinner, and watching a TV show with Mr. FIRE, it would already be 8:30pm. To do yoga as well, we needed to start by 9:30 - which meant a measly hour each night to relax.

Burn out hits all of us because when we're excited we do too much. When something is new, it's easy to want to spend all our time on it. Unsurprisingly, when something is done for hours every day it can lose it's excitement value, but it also muscles out other things that are important.

When we start tracking our finances, and saving money it's exciting. Especially if you were an overspender and suddenly find yourself with all this money you didn't even realise you were wasting. But quickly we start to miss the things, and despite all the tricks in the book, saving and watching numbers becomes boring.

When struggling with your new years goals, it's important to understand that burnout is normal. Rather than giving up entirely, let burnout show you how much you need to scale back.

Success through systems

While the initial excitement of a goal will help you come up with ways to chase it, burnout will help you throw away the excess. However, we don't want to throw our goals out entirely.

After a few months, I was still riding to work daily. I kept up the morning workout - having gotten it down to just ten minutes - and I kept doing the get-home-routine. The part that kept these alive was habit. 

I had a system. I didn't stop to think about whether I would work out in the morning - the alarm went off, I got out of bed, and I did it. Generally yawning the whole way through. Every day when I got home from work, I dropped to the ground and started doing pushups in my garage - I didn't even step in the house.

The triggers for chasing our goals can't simply be motivation, but a system. 

If you are trying to save more, don't keep trying to motivate yourself to spend less. Instead, set a system when you immediately transfer money into a savings account on payday. Make sure it's an account where you can't immediately access the money. Even better, invest it directly into something like Raiz (previously known as Acorns) or RateSetter where you can't immediately get the money back for impulse buys.The system does the work for you, and you reap the benefits.

Want to spend more time with a partner, or friends? Don't say 'we'll catch up once a week' - tell yourself that every Friday is date night. The first Thursday of every month is Friends Night Out. Then make sure everyone else knows this to - build a system and stick to it. If no one can make it to Friends Night in January, make sure they know about it for February.

Habits are formed, and success is easy 

Once you have these habits and systems in place, you don't work at your goals anymore. They happen on their own. In January and February in 2017 I was working out constantly and thinking and planning about getting fitter all the time. Through March and April, I got bored, I put my systems in place, and I did things without even thinking. In September I glanced in the mirror and noticed I had the best muscle definition of my life. 

Success didn't happen when I was chasing it, but when I'd built a system that had me nurturing those goals every day.

In the same way, I opened a First Home Saver account in my teenage years. This was an Australian Government incentive where they would pay you a 17% bonus on any money invested, up to a certain amount. To get the full incentive you needed to deposit $5,000 a year, or $96.15 a week. I set up an automated transfer and forgot about it until three years later, when I withdrew almost $20,000.

Learn your systems, and don't break them

I leave you with a word of warning - every system needs maintenance. Most importantly though, every system has an on-switch. Your systems for success aren't a perpetual motion machine, and they won't keep going if you neglect them.

Skipping a day or two may seem harmless, but each skip weakens the systems. If you stop exercising because you have a cold, when you start again it's almost (but not quite) like building the habit from scratch. Thankfully systems are easier to revive than to build, but reviving them is work, which is frustrating when you had a no-effort system in place.

Secondly, learn what the go-button is for your system, and don't break it. My afternoon workouts were done in the garage, using weight plates and a yoga mat for comfort. In early 2018 Mr. FIRE decided he also wanted to get fit, and moved the workout gear inside the house where they were easier to use. Within a week, my routine was gone - rather than working out when I got home, I would come inside and greet Mr FIRE. Somehow, time would whirl away, and I wouldn't get to my workouts. I didn't pick up the routine again for another 6 months.

Lastly, tie your habits to something you can't miss. For example, if you tell yourself you will exercise at 6pm, and get home at 6:15pm then the moment is gone. However if you're workouts are tied to 'when I get home from work' then you can guarantee you'll exercise every day - at least until you take holidays, or hit the dream of Financial Independence.

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