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How to Find Your Motivation Again: The Importance of 'Persisting' Rather Than 'Starting Over'

06/01/2015 02:14 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2016
Martin Barraud via Getty Images

A few days ago, I was reading an essay by Stephen Jay Gould, Bully for brontosaurus. Reflections in natural history. (Not that I read this kind of essays every day, but for some reason I have always suffered the charm of the subject.) In a chapter of the book, the author was trying to explain why it is very important, and definitely more beautiful, to think of our universe as something that originated gradually -- over a continuous time, of which we cannot pinpoint neither the beginning nor the end, while we have the ability to recognize its most interesting or decisive events.

Clearly, Gould, who was a respectable American historian of science, was trying to explain, between the lines, why we should prefer Darwin's theory of evolution rather than a creation myth. But this thing of the continuous time led me to reflect on something else.

I'm sure that, in your life, you have experienced at least one time when you have said to yourself, 'Screw everything, I'll start over tomorrow.' You'll wake up early in the morning (very early) and you'll be a whole new person. You'll change every single wrong detail in your existence, beginning with the first moment you'll step foot out of bed.

For instance, you won't spend the whole day in your pajama again, unless you'll have it planned the previous evening. You won't eat chocolate ice cream while watching another romantic comedy starring Jennifer Aniston anymore -- instead, you'll make yourself a nice cup of tea and you'll read a novel by Steinbeck. You'll call your mother or your sister each time you'll have ten minutes to do so, and you'll only go out with people who'll make you feel good. You'll put on your make-up and best shoes every day, without using lack of time as an excuse anymore. And you'll brush your hair every night before going to sleep -- oh, and you won't sleep in your work clothes anymore!

Personally, I repeated these things to myself for several years, before I learned -- only in recent times -- an important, valuable life lesson: that 'starting over' is emotionally and physically exhausting.

Starting over usually involves a great waste of physical and mental energy -- as well as a considerable amount of stress when your purposes are destroyed by that little mistake you hadn't planned to make. And truth is, starting over is also highly counterproductive, a lot more than you would think.

In Psychology, 'motivation theories' explain why people decide to make lifestyle changes, but then they aren't able to make them last. One of the main problems is that, when an individual makes an inevitable mistake and, for example, eats more chocolate than he/she should while being on a diet, he/she gets immediately discouraged -- to the point that he/she sees no reason to continue the same diet, feeling forced to start it over again.

However, there wouldn't be too many problems, if all was limited to this: having to start it over again each time. Real problems are the many damages which occur between the loss of motivation due to a mistake and the new attempt to start over -- or better, to be finally 'perfect' in the achievement of some goal (e.g. losing weight).

Think for a moment about when you promised not to eat chocolate ice cream for the next three months, and then, let's say after two weeks, you fell into the old trap and ate an entire bowl of Ben & Jerry's: what did you do at that point? You probably said to yourself that the main damage had already occurred. You would start to count three new months from the following Monday. So, why not take advantage of the weekend and eat an entire bag of chips too -- and perhaps a pizza for dinner?

Luckily, if starting over is terribly stressing and counterproductive, 'persisting' could be the actual solution to all your problems.

Persisting means you can afford to make mistakes without feeling guilty and discouraged. It means eating chocolate ice cream (if you really cannot resist) and not giving in to chips and pizza too -- because you never stop being on a diet; you just make a mistake and you can always eat a salad tomorrow (yes, even if you're a Leslie Knope).

But persisting doesn't simply mean to be able to lose weight despite having eaten chocolate ice cream on a sad Friday night. It also means to be able to adjust all the things that don't work in your life -- gradually, day after day, and without having to reinvent yourself each time.

Because persisting means to grow up in a very long path, which is made of so many attempts, big mistakes and little successes. It means constantly training to achieve perfection without having to be perfect in everyday life. It means reaching a productive harmony rather than an unsustainable, counterproductive perfection.

To quote Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha, after all, 'I like things that look like mistakes.' Because, in the long term, they often prove to be the most beautiful and interesting ones.