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  • Maria Pennanen

How to motivate yourself to change your behaviour?

Updated: Sep 6, 2020

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

-Leo Tolstoy


I took a three-month break from social media, mainly to finish my book on startups and

eccentric founders that will come out later this month. The three-month brake was during the summertime, and it was a fantastic time to write, work on my startup and spend time with my family. Now summer is over and we are three weeks into the new school year, and thankfully settling into a routine again that enables us to start functioning normally. This is probably the reality for many families, not only in Finland and Germany but worldwide. If the COVID pandemic taught me anything, it is the importance of routines and social network of friends and family. Looking back, the summer went by in a bliss. This summer we decided not to go on vacation abroad. We stayed in Frankfurt.


We were lucky, the weather was great and we had the golf course close by. Additionally, the summer camps ensured that our child was entertained and could spend time outside with his friends. I was not sitting idle either this summer, still battling with the bad conscious when I took some days off from my startup to play golf. However, I decided it was time to enjoy life a little and appreciate the many things in it, starting with myself. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to start and finalise things during this pandemic. I finally see the light at the end of the tunnel regarding my book. It is soon ready for publishing. Some people already know about my book project that started over one year ago, and yes it will soon be available. I am grateful to my family, friends and acquaintances that have given me time and feedback to brainstorm about two things the past summer; my book and my new startup.

How to undo your own blocks

The summer was not only about beginnings and endings, but also about acquiring new habits. One new habit I started was writing my morning papers. This spring, I was suffering from a writer's block, I felt that I was going nowhere with my book and did not know how to get it finalised. It changed after I was listening to my favourite podcast "the knowledge project" by Shane Parrish. The episode with Brian Koppelman, the writer of "Billions" was one that  gave me an input to start a new habit. Billions is one of the very few series that I watch. I am fascinated by the dynamics and psychological insights you can get by watching it. It is entertaining and at the same time makes you think of what motivates people behave the way they do. Brian spoke in the podcast about his habit of writing the morning papers that helped him get over his block. He recommended the book "The Artist's Way" by Julia Cameron to get started. I immediately ordered the book and started to test it. I call it a three-paper long brain-dump and I have been doing it since the end of May. It got me writing again and has helped bring clarity in all the other things I do. Writing is the second thing in the morning I do after my yoga or meditation practise. 

Trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results…

Another new habit I took was taking golf lessons. I have played golf for twenty years and probably taken five golf lessons until this summer. In June we decided with my husband to spend the summer in Germany and play golf. I had long been frustrated with my golf game and I realised that if I did not take professional advice, I would not be able to change it and improve. I had never been interested in going to the driving range I just played since I enjoyed to being out in the nature. Hitting a ball and walking after it made the long walk more purposeful, I would never spend 2-4 hours outside walking if it was not for golf. It was time to test if we could lower our handicaps by dedicating time and doing systematic training. We took weekly golf lessons for six weeks and played golf almost every day and even went to the driving range every week. I was impressed with the results: I lowered my hcp from 25,7 to 20, my husband lowered his from 22 to 17,8! It was not a straight forward process as it never is when you try to break old habits and learn new ones.


We had some difficulties too, the hard part was to learn the new grip. Motivation plays a vital role for not giving up even when you have played three rounds of golf and see no improvement (and actually feel that it is getting worse!) It becomes hard to believe when the pro tells you that this is normal, give it more time, train, hit balls, and it will work in the end. Frustration is what makes most people quit. Getting rid of an old grip that one has used for years is hard, as is changing any kind of behaviour or habit. Change takes practise and time, not to mention persistence. Finally, after almost giving up, we saw the impact on the swing and better outcome in the shots. I can only recommend the pro, Martin, an amazing young man at the Frankfurt golf club. 

What would you do if you could not fail?

In the middle of COVID, I founded my startup, a team development software. I had been thinking of it for years, but I was always too busy doing other things until COVID put a stop to them. There was not much to do since mid-March when everything froze down. Then I remembered my professors' words: "What would you do if you could not fail?". The good thing with experience is that I have learned that the only way to know 100% the outcome of something is to try it out. I decided that it was time to try the unexpended. Studying human behaviour and the psychological aspect of it has been my passion for the past ten years. I was fortunate to get an organisational psychology degree from INSEAD that was a stepping stone to this new exciting world of understanding the motivation and defence mechanisms of us humans and the impact behaviour has on team efficiency and corporate culture. 


I started my entrepreneurial path about ten years ago and have since worked with hundreds of founders, invested in some and co-founded a couple of startups myself. I could see the benefit of executive coaching to understand my motivations and the impact of my behaviour in other people and the trouble I could get in due to my own defence mechanisms. "Perception is reality", holds true to everyone. Those who want to live a more fulfilling life will want to understand their behaviour style, its impact on other people and how they can make it their strength. I found some interesting material online looking at the difficulty we humans have in changing our behaviour. Firstly, to change is not fun, it is difficult, and that alone is enough to scare most people off the task. Secondly, it is our natural defence mechanisms that hinder us. Thirdly, if there is no upside, we will never even bother to change. 

With my startup, we try to do precisely this to help teams. We concentrate on the positive information and give

  1. Social incentives: Highlighting what other team members are doing  

  2. Immediate rewards: You collect rewards to motivate the continuation of the process

  3. Progress monitoring: We show how far you are on your journey, the progress you are making and the next steps

The key to change is to concentrate on positive information and feedback, that will keep you motivated and going.

If the COVID pandemic taught me anything, it allowed me to stop and reflect on what is essential in life for me. It made me appreciate routines and social network of friends and family without which it is impossible to stay sane. Thank you, friends, for the listening, drinks and dinners during the summertime. The morning papers helped me to gain clarity and start the day in a good state of mind. Understanding that if something does not work and you tried to fix it yourself without success, it is time to rely on experts for improvement. Whatever you are trying to change, give it time and do the practice required even if it feels that you are not going anywhere. Trust the process. To learn a new habit, start with small steps. If writing three pages feels long, start with one. If meditating for 20 minutes fills you with anxiety, dedicate five minutes for it. Motivate yourself by setting the bar low, make it easy to succeed and to create a new habit. Once you have established a routine, it is easier to increase the time or intensity. There is no need to rush, take it one step at the time.

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©2020 by Maria Pennanen