Chris Varano is 2016 graduate of Westfield High School and senior at the University of Maryland where he is studying neurobiology.
It’s easy to wake up one day and want to be great. It’s easy to wake up one day and want to achieve your goals. It’s easy to wake up one day and get things done. What’s difficult is doing all of this day after day, week in and week out, for an extended period of time. One of the most challenging aspects of personal growth is maintaining the motivation to actually grow. It just doesn’t happen overnight. Even knowing that, we can fall prey to the ebbs and flows of our own willpower.
Let’s say you start a new job, and for the first few weeks, you’re hyped up. You jump out of bed at 5 a.m. and hit a tough morning workout. You roll into the office 30 minutes early to rip through some emails and get organized. You spend the rest of the day absolutely killing it. Networking with upper management and putting in extra hours to make sure you’ll be able to get ahead.
Fast forward eight months. You feel stagnation setting in, and that head of steam you had coming out of the gate is spent. You’re starting to get up at 5:30 a.m., sometimes 6 a.m. Your workouts are still there but aren’t as intense. You get to work on time and feel less inclined to network with managers. Some days you just want to be left alone with your work.
What can you do when your motivation runs low? One option is to sit around and wait for inspiration to hit you like a bolt of lightning and start a fire under your lazy ass. But if you’d prefer not to wait, you might consider employing the techniques of Behavioral Activation.
Behavioral Activation (BA) is a technique commonly seen in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). It involves breaking the cycle of depression using 3 simple steps.
1. Activity Monitoring
2. Value Reflection
To be clear, you don’t have to be clinically depressed to fall into the “cycle of depression.” In my view, anyone can fall prey to inactivity leading to a lack of motivation, leading to further inactivity, and so on.
The first step is looking at what you do in a given day and writing it down. To start it might be easiest to break up the day into one-hour blocks and write a brief description of the activity you were engaged in during those times. Examples could be “sleeping”, “eating”, “watching TV”, etc. When you document these activities, also rate them in terms of how much positive emotion you experienced (10 = highest positive emotion).
This step is effective for assessing how you spend your day and what activities give you the most bang for your buck. Step two is all about reflection. It’s important to identify the areas of your life that you value most and what you want out of each aspect of life. For example, a very simplified chart might look something like this:
Values must be prioritized. You can’t value everything equally, because you’ll inevitably have to choose between your family and career at some point. Here, I am explicit in my understanding that family comes before career (numbered 1 and 2). Don’t leave room for ambiguity if you don’t have to.
Step three is activation. We want to catalyze change by pairing values with meaningful action. What constitutes meaningful action? Something that puts you on the right track without overwhelming you. There’s no sense in setting action points that you won’t follow through on, so think small to start out.
For the values in the chart above, some simple actions could be:
1. Go out to eat with my Dad
2. Take a career aptitude test online
These might sound trivial, but that’s sort of the point. It’s hard to take on difficult and complex goals right out of the gate. But pretty much anyone can identify one or two simple and actionable goals in each area of their life that will get them on the right track.
Behavioral Activation is the most effective tool used by Cognitive Behavioral Therapists for this exact reason. It’s so damn practical. You don’t have to commit to extensive therapy sessions and dig into your traumatic childhood experiences (although that would also be helpful). Instead, you set easy to reach goals and follow through on them.
Read the last half of that sentence carefully. FOLLOW THROUGH. Making a promise to yourself and then breaking it will only make you feel guilty and shift the cycle of depression in the wrong direction. This is also why you have to keep things realistic, especially when starting out.
By consistently hitting low-hanging targets over time, you reverse the cycle of depression, and build something called momentum.
Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson has his own way of explaining behavioral activation
“You have to look around you, within your direct sphere of influence, and fix the things that announce themselves as ‘in need of repair’, and those are often small things”
By doing this, you not only improve your situation, you prove to yourself that you’re capable of improving your situation. Peterson explains that this creates a compounding effect over time, to the point where you can go from simply putting out fires to taking positive action towards your own vision.
Why is Elon Musk a billionaire? How did Arnold Schwarzeneggar go from bodybuilding to acting? How did the Rock go from having $7 in his pocket to building a media production empire?
It doesn’t matter where you start, as long as you commit to actually starting. The best part about Behavioral Activation is that you don’t even need to have an end goal in mind, you just need to be clear about your values and the general direction you want to move.
Make a note to yourself: “What can I do today so that tomorrow is just a bit better?” Put it by your bedside and use it as a starting point for Behavioral Activation, and see if you can build on it each day.
Disclaimer: My explanation of Behavioral Activation is far from comprehensive. Anyone who is experiencing symptoms of depression should consult a professional. Furthermore, I am in no way qualified to recommend clinical therapy treatments to anyone. My goal here is to outline an idea that can be adopted as a practice in personal growth.
“How to Get Action Momentum Started.” Performance by Jordan Peterson, YouTube, YouTube, 30 Jan. 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=PKCi5yuxY7g.
“Using Behavioral Activation to Overcome Depression.” Psychology Tools, Psychology Tools, 2019, www.psychologytools.com/self-help/behavioral-activation/.