Why do we start but not finish?

When we start something new the brain releases a chemical called dopamine. That's the same feel good hormone released when you're eating chocolate or having sex. It's a survival hormone. It allowed our primitive ancestors to know what would help keep them alive.

So why does starting something new release this feel-good hormone?

Prehistoric survival was highly dependent on being alert to new things. Whether spotting approaching predators or being able to find new sources of food, our ancient ancestors didn't know how to raise livestock, farm or build cities. They were at the mercy of nature, both its bounty and its threats, and these could very suddenly change.

Because of this kind of environment they lived in our ancestors were always at the whim of performing short-lived experiences like escaping from a tiger, finding a handful of wild berries or managing to hunt down a boar. And so each time they set out on one of these activities their brain gave them a shot of dopamine to let them know they were on the right track.

In our modern more sophisticated society, a short attention span is just not as compatible with the types of material, psychological and spiritual progress that we are looking for. In fact the exact opposite has become true; if you can't focus and stick to something for a sustained period of time, you won’t make very much progress. Whilst this won’t lead to you starving to death, you will most likely find yourself leading a dull, unhappy and unfulfilled life.

Unfortunately our ancestors' short attention span and obsessions with new threats and opportunities seems to be coded into our DNA. After that initial excitement where our body and willpower are fighting side by side towards our new goal, we are left with a situation where our willpower has to continue the fight alone or worse fight against the natural habits of our body.

This is one of the major reasons we have so much trouble sticking to a personal development program for more than a few days. The same reason is behind why we get bored after learning a few basic greetings in a new language and why we give up on a diet and exercising after only a week.

But despite this many of us will have experiences where a burning desire, or even a life-and-death necessity has aroused our willpower and made us commit to certain long-term goals, and more importantly manage to stick to and achieve them. And the satisfaction of completing a long term goal like this, produces a deep sense of joy and wellbeing that the fleeting rush of dopamine we get form first starting simply cannot compete with.

So now you know, what can you do about it? Well the good news is being aware of the underlying cause is half the battle, now you know what to expect, and this allows you to plan for it.

Let’s say you want to make a new habit of going for a run every morning. If this is important to you, and you feel motivated to do this, you can be reasonably confident you’ll keep that motivated state for at least the first 5 days or so. But after that you’ll probably have a few off days, where it will be a real battle with yourself. So why not build in some rewards to your plan.

Plan that when you complete your first 7 days, give yourself a reward. It doesn’t have to be big or expensive just something that you really want. Make sure to write down just what this reward will be before you even start on your first day and leave it somewhere you’ll easily be able to see it.

So when you get to your 6th morning, you might not be feeling that motivated to go for your run, your mind will probably come up with all sorts of excuses why you can’t or don’t need to do it. But you’ll also know you only need to go on 2 more mornings to get your reward, and that doesn’t seem like too much effort.

Add in more little rewards at roughly 10, 15 and 20 days, to keep yourself motivated in little bursts and before you know it going for those runs (or whatever else you want) will just become habit.


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