Much of my career has been focused on helping people to make changes in their life, in response to injury, illness, mental health issues, substance abuse or major life changes such as parenthood, retirement, divorce and bereavement. One of the most common barriers to change I hear reported is a lack of motivation: it's too hard, I don't have the energy, I can't be bothered.
Often people know what they want to be doing, but they are waiting until they feel like doing it. It's like hoping that the Motivation Fairy will visit in the night so that one morning they'll leap out of bed, full of enthusiasm and ready to take on the world.
Motivation is a very popular concept these days. Bookshelves and speaking circuits are full to bursting with experts and gurus telling you to "find your motivation", "live with passion" and "awaken the giant within". With all this buzz about motivation, it's very easy to fall into the trap of assuming that in order to do something, we need to feel motivated to do it. Unfortunately the logical flip-side of this is that if we don’t have feelings of motivation we can’t get on and do things.
The problem with this concept is the word ‘feeling’. When we think of motivation in terms of feelings of drive, enthusiasm and energy, we are talking about something that is difficult to control. You’ve probably discovered yourself that it can be hard to make these feelings appear on demand. There are some days when no amount of positive self-talk, affirmations or visualisation can generate a desire to go to the gym, tackle your tax return or finish that report.
The motivation cycle
When we feel unmotivated, we can find ourselves in a cycle that looks like this:
Less energy & confidence < Doing less
It doesn’t take long for this cycle to become established; our first decision of the day can be enough to set it up. The trouble with a cycle is that it just keep feeding on itself indefinitely until something happens to break it. When I ask my clients “what’s the best place to break this cycle?” lots of them answer "motivation". "But", I point out, "it can be hard to make feelings of motivation appear. Let me ask it a different way: which bit do we have most control over?” The penny drops. “Doing!”, they exclaim.
Let’s have a quick detour into neuroscience to understand how motivation works. The chemical responsible for motivation is dopamine. Dopamine’s job is to help humans learn from experience – if we bang a nut with a rock and lo! there is food, dopamine is pumped out to lock in that association (nut + rock = food), create a feeling of satisfaction and a drive to do it again…and again…and again until hitting nuts with rocks became a learned skill. (Of course, once we know how to do something our brain doesn’t need to keep rewarding us, so the dopamine tap gets turned off. This explains why we get bored with things after a while – “this is so interesting, wow did you see that! I love this!...actually I’m a bit over it.”)
Do you see how that works? We do something that produces a good result, and then the dopamine is released, creating the feeling of ‘that was great, let’s do it again!’ that we identify as motivation.
So here is the first really important thing to understand about motivation: the action comes first. Don’t sit around waiting for the Motivation Fairy: she ain’t coming.
Here is the second most important thing you need to understand about motivation: your thoughts and feelings do not control your arms and legs. I’m sure you can think of many times that you haven’t felt like going to work or getting dinner ready, but you have moved your arms and legs and done it anyway, because it is important. So although positive thoughts and feelings of enthusiasm undeniably make it easier to get things done, they are not absolutely essential to the process.
Shifting from motivation to decisions
After years and years of running education groups on motivation I have found it more helpful to shift the focus from the ‘feel the passion!’ concept of motivation to the idea of making decisions to DO the things that make life better. Instead of trying to win an emotional wrestling match with ourselves we can focus on practical, problem-solving strategies that help us to make good decisions over and over again in our everyday life.
If we want to stack the odds in favour of good decisions there are a number of approaches we can take:
Reducing the effort
Break the task down into small chunks
When thoughts like "it's too big/long/difficult" appear, ask yourself “well, what could I manage?” then do that. Commit to a small amount of time initially (ie. set a timer for 10 minutes), or try the Pomodoro technique.
Apply the better-than-nothing approach
Thoughts such as "there's no point starting unless I'm going to do it properly" can easily lead to an all-or-nothing approach. However if the 'all' seems too difficult or tiring we are more likely to opt for 'nothing'. But ten minutes of jogging is better than nothing. So is two minutes of guitar practice, five minutes of tidying or paying one bill. Decide to do what you can manage now, rather than waiting until you have the time or energy to complete the bigger task.
Change your environment
Set your environment up in a way that makes it easier to make good decisions. Want to practice guitar more often? Keep it in the lounge room with a chair and music stand beside it. Want to do yoga each night? Leave your yoga mat laid out in the bedroom.
Plan in advance
Decision-making and planning is some of the hardest work for your brain to engage in. If you are constantly thinking "what should I next?" there is a very real chance that you will make bad decisions because your brain runs out of stream. Schedule activities then use alarms on your phone or sticky notes to remind you of the plan.
Develop routines and habits
If there are activites that you know improve your life, try to carry them out at the same time each day or each week. You may need to use reminders initially, but after a while (around a month) doing that activity at that time will become a habit.
Get support from others
Sometimes other people can reduce the effort by sharing the load, coming up with ideas or making the plans.
Connect with the outcome
Link the activity to your goals and values
If you can see that an activity is in the service of the things that really matter to you, it becomes more meaningful. There is a big difference between cleaning the house (urgh!) and creating a beautiful, nourishing space for yourself and your loved ones (yay!)
Focus on the outcome
Our natural inclination is to focus on the effort that is required here and now, rather than a hypothetical outcome we may achieve at some point in the future. However, creating a vivid image of the outcome can help to get a bit of dopamine pumping. Instead of thinking about the work involved in going to the gym/cleaning the house/doing your tax return/finishing that report, focus on how great it will feel to have it completed. The trick is to make this visual image rich in detail – close your eyes and imagine: what will you see and hear (and maybe even touch, smell and taste). How will you feel? What will you be thinking? What will you be doing?
Make the task more enjoyable
Listen to music while you clean, munch a delicious snack while you pay bills, listen to an audiobook while you exercise.
Challenge yourself to do your activity faster, with less mistakes, more creatively, more efficiently or with a pointless limitation (ie. getting through an entire conversation with your accountant without using the words 'money', 'income' or 'expense').
Doing an activity with a friend is a great way to bring extra benefits into the process.
Add a reward
This can be particularly helpful for boring-but-important tasks that aren’t rewarding within themselves. Promise yourself a treat at the end and focus on achieving that.
Establish some accountability
Make a commitment
Tell other people about your plans, arrange to meet a friend, pay up-front for classes or promise to deliver an outcome by a certain time.
Involve someone else
Other people can act as a training buddy, a cheer squad, a coach, a watchful eye or a guilty conscience, depending on what works best for you.
Manage the things that pull you off track
Clear your desk of everything except the task you are working on. Move tempting icons off your home screen and turn off notifications. If necessary, turn off your phone or internet connection while you work. Identify your main distractions and work out how to remove or hide them. (See more on resisting temptation here.)
Trying to keep track of a squillion little things will leave your brain feeling overwhelmed or distracted. Get these things out of your head and onto diaries, post-it notes and lists. Use alarms or reminders to make sure information appears in front of you when you need it, not when you want to be getting other things done.
Manage unhelpful thoughts and emotions
The trap we often fall into is debating with ourselves: “I don’t want to…but I should….but I’m tired….you’re just lazy…” Sometimes we win these arguments, but more often they just make us feel exhausted and demoralised. A great strategy to use at this point is thanking your brain. When a thought like “I don’t feel like doing X” shows up you don’t need to wrestle it into submission. You can simply and politely say “thank you brain for that interesting observation, but doing X makes life better”, then shift to some of the other strategies listed above to help you make a good decision.
Do you have any other strategies that help you to get things done?