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Does Motivation Really Work?

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The personal growth industry is built on the idea that we can get fired up by a walk-on-coals weekend seminar or a new book and then radically change our life. Most of us have been 'motivated' in this way, and I'm not saying it's bad. But what tends to happen? A couple of weeks after the big epiphany we go back to our normal selves and the life we had before. If it's true, as many motivational books suggest, that 'You can change your life in 7 days', you can also just as easily change it back again. Motivation is like seeing a great movie on a Saturday night; we're inspired at the time, but by Wednesday we've forgotten about it.

But if motivation doesn't actually work, what does? While not as sexy as the idea of 'instant change', personal strategies and habits, which involve time and work and thought on a daily basis, are the closest thing we have to a guarantee of success. Depend on 'being motivated', and achievement becomes an erratic matter, but with strategies in place to do particular things by a certain time, backed by good work habits, major achievements can become almost inevitable. Most of the great spiritual leaders, including St Paul, the Buddha, Mother Teresa, even Malcolm X, each had big 'awakenings', but it still took years to gather the followers and implement the vision. Don't get me wrong: motivation, awakenings and epiphanies are all amazing, one of the delights of being human, but let's not confuse them with actual success, which by its nature happens in time, over time.

After studying the self-development literature for over a decade you come across every technique imaginable for improving your life, but there's a curious lack of attention given to the role of time itself in achieving success. One exception is Anthony Robbins, who said "people overestimate what they can achieve in a year, but underestimate what they can achieve in a decade". How true. We've all heard about the magic of thinking big, but perhaps it is the power of thinking long that can lift us above the rest. The problem is rarely the size of a person's goals, but the timeframes they give themselves to achieve them.

"People often say that motivation doesn't last. Well, neither does bathing - that's why we recommend it daily." Motivational legend Zig Ziglar said this, and of course it was in his interest to, with a busy speaking schedule to fill up and books to sell. But it does it say much for motivation if it must be a daily need, almost like an addiction?

I'm inspired by a great speaker or good self-improvement book as much as anyone, but to make motivation the basis of your success is like making sex the basis of a long-term relationship. Of course it's important, but it's only a moment (or hopefully a bit longer). Just as a good relationship rests on lots of little loving acts over many years, so success is built on excellent daily work habits and strategies for the next week, month, year and even decade ahead.

To you who wish to be great this may sound like a boring recipe, but let's use a another analogy: motivation is like a shot of double espresso that gives you a buzz for an hour or two, but good strategies are like whole foods that give a slow release of energy, good health and a longer life. If I had to make a bet on my chances for genuine success, I know which one I'd go with.

Tom Butler-Bowdon is the author of 50 Self-Help Classics and 50 Psychology Classics and comments on success and self-development.

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