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Choosing habits over motivation

2 months ago / by Sweta Vikram

Showing up regularly is more important than intention

Young South Asian female professional smiling with a folder at work
Image via Shutterstock

My Instagram stories are flooded with my daily routine. Yoga, writing, morning chai with my husband, cooking, nature time. Eating mindfully. Social connection. Community. Technology breaks. Gratitude.

In Ayurveda, this would be called, “dinacharya”, the Sanskrit word for “daily routine” (‘din’ means day and ‘charya’ means to follow or close to). According to Ayurveda, a daily routine utilizes our natural biological clock, following nature’s rhythm. Dinacharya is a simple, yet profound way to bring radical change to one’s physical, emotional, and mental well-being. 

Difficult Days 

I have written earlier about how our morning routine sets the tone for the rest of the day. When life is going your way, it’s easy to stay motivated about your diet, lifestyle, self-care, exercise, relationships, work, etc. Typically, I don’t think twice about starting my morning with oil pulling and ending it with Ayurvedic foot massage and meditation. I also follow the Ayurvedic approach to eating, which means no snacking between meals.

But what do you do when life throws you a curveball? That extra cup of chai sneaks in for me. Maybe it’s that third drink that you pour or that second slice of cake you might serve yourself? It could be sleep deprivation, or an erratic routine. Or it could show up as non-stop snacking as you type emails from your couch. How do you find motivation on such days?

It’s been two months since I lost my dad, and it’s been 60 days since my husband lost his father. But the other night, I woke up at 1am to call the hospital in India and check on Dad, or to get updates on my father-in-law in the ICU. Perhaps it was cell memory, or just physical exhaustion and non-stop mind chatter.

Or call it survival in a stressed state for several months. I had been in fight-or-flight mode for so long—erratically hungry and always tired. It would take some time to return to homeostasis. 

I didn’t want to do oil pulling in the morning. 

I didn’t want to meditate. 

I didn’t want to practice asanas. 

I didn’t want to do pranayama. 

I didn’t want to write. 

I didn’t want to go in to work. 

Showing Up As a Habit

I told myself, gently, that I don’t need to give my 500% to anything today. A friend and colleague said that SHOWING UP was enough. Showing up diligently. I couldn’t make sense of it at first. How did showing up become a habit? But I am so glad that I listened to her. Because it made all the difference. 

If I had listened to my motivation, which was unreliable and lethargic that day, I would have sat and worked from the couch. Or I would have scrolled through social media. Eventually at some point, my pitta-mind would have been upset with myself for falling short and not keeping up with dinacharya or daily deadlines. A part of sustainable self-care means NOT listening to everything we believe we need and want. There is a fine line between indulging yourself temporarily (to heal, replenish, recover, recalibrate) and developing detrimental habits. 

Reminder: Showing up was the word choice for the day! I couldn’t let the grief immobilize me. As I practiced Ashtanga B Surya Namaskars, the reluctance and agitation slowly turned into flexible and happy movements. Pranayama nourished my mind and lowered the mind chatter. Writing and meditating taught me how to accept my new reality. Work, for me, is another way to allow myself the compassion and care I deserve.

Mere Motivation is Not Enough

This reliance on habit versus motivation is applicable to not just extreme scenarios like death and loss but also our day-to-day lives. That work deadline or essay in school or article due to the editor or dance recital—can you imagine the outcome if we only relied on motivation? Would you hit the gym if it was snowing or raining outside? Would you eat all your vegetables and fruits, or would you be face down in ice cream after heartbreak, if motivation was the only factor, not habit?

Life will continue to throw curveballs. There will be good days and some awful days.  Don’t rely on motivation to get you through the day. 

We might not always know what’s best for us if we are not in the right space to make that decision. Building sustainable and reliable habits will get you through times when your head is not in the game and motivation won’t strike.