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The Myth of Motivation

For many people, the start of the year is a popular time for sheepishly picking up those longer-term goals we banished to the backburner months ago, blowing the dust off them, wondering how on earth we strayed so quickly from what seemed so important but a year ago, and vowing that this time really will be different.  “This year I really mean it – I’m joining the gym and starting a diet…and I’m sticking to it”.  Or perhaps, “Enough daydreaming – I really will save up for that holiday/car/deposit this year.  I have a budget, I’ve opened a savings account, here we go!”.  Or how about, “I can’t do another year of this!  I wake up exhausted, I arrive at work flustered, I come home to chaos, and by the time the kids are settled in bed there’s nothing left over for me, let alone other humans.  This isn’t living.  Time to change – time to take back my life!”

From drinking less, to learning Spanish, to chasing that elusive “work-life balance”, decent research suggests that about half of us are inspired to set new goals at the beginning of the year.  And, unfortunately, we have it on equally good authority that for the vast majority of us, our best-laid plans end up following their predecessors into exile before the year is through.

Regardless of what kinds of changes we strive for, or when in the year we set our goals, we always seem to chalk up our thwarted attempts to one particular culprit: “If only I could stay motivated!”

See if this sounds familiar:

As the final days of the year come to a close, you toy with making yourself a promise again.  This promise of yours has been on your mind for some time, but crunch time’s here now, and you’ve actually set some plans in motion.  Motivation!  This feels great!  You set off on your new quest without incident at first.  A few days pass and there’s certainly some challenges, but nothing you can’t handle; so far your resolve holds true.  You may even be buoyed by some early pay-offs for your troubles!  The days tick over, and a disquieting truth grows louder…  What you probably understood from the beginning at an intellectual level starts sinking in experientially; your usual two modes are ‘stationary’ and ‘sprint’, and this is looking very much like a marathon.

Time really starts to drag, and you begin questioning how you managed to find yourself in this familiar predicament yet again; even now you are adamant that you want these changes – they’re important to you – and yet your behaviours betray your best intentions or most careful preparations.  Following dutifully behind your admirable initial efforts, your newfound confidence now bids you farewell; only a few weeks ago you stood on what felt like solid new ground, but now you’re wavering.  Until recently you drew a certain comfort from the aching muscles, or the cravings, or the going without, or the unchartered territory, or the constant checking and re-checking with yourself; they signalled milestones on the pathway to your liberation.  Today they feel more like burdens that grow heavier as you grow weaker, and you’ve begun to wonder just how much longer you can stave off the familiar.

You dig deep to wrest one last helping of impetus from within, but instead of fuelling your reprisal, it only serves to strengthen the blows of your frustration!  Bamboozled by your waning stamina, you call yourself lazy, and perhaps you even admonish yourself for being too weak.  Heaping self-criticism atop disappointment, failure or shame only drives you deeper into disenchantment, so that by the time hopelessness rears its head (which it usually does about here), finishing you off is a matter of letting forces already in motion run their natural course.  Your will spent, your spirit defeated, and all but exasperated, you at last succumb to the path of least resistance.  Without too much fuss – lest anyone notice – you go back to sleeping in, or spending your earnings week-to-week, or joining your mates at smoko, or making a variety of other choices that do not honour the highest in you.  For now, whatever interest you had in continuing on this journey is lost.  The quiet erosions have claimed their prize, rendering your ambitions – and along with them your vitality – inert once more.

How am I doing – have you been to the place I’m describing, too?  If it sounds at all familiar, I have two things to share.

Firstly, it can be helpful to recognise that this is usually human nature.  The occasional person manages to ‘go cold-turkey’ or otherwise initiate and sustain dramatic life changes without any trouble, but for almost all of us, turning around a longstanding pattern usually involves either some kind of sustained effort or prolonged discomfort, or both.  If you look around the room you’re in right now, you might notice that humans are pretty adept at finding ways to intentionally avoid just such experiences.  In short, splicing a new and foreign habit into an old and familiar lifestyle is hard going for most of us.  This doesn’t mean we should use our inherent nature as a copout; I’m not advocating that we give up on trying to change old patterns, I’m only saying that our failures aren’t usually a sole reflection of insufficient willpower or motivation.

If that doesn’t fit for you yet, take a moment to consider that person in the earlier story, setting out with good intentions to reach a goal they’ thought they’d prepared for, and berating themselves for not trying hard enough.  Ask yourself this question: If it’s human nature to slide back into old habits once the initial buzz wears off, then is “more motivation” really what’s missing, what’s needed?

Who says lasting motivation is required to set lasting behaviours in place?  Check for yourself; do you need to talk yourself into brushing your teeth every morning and night?  When was the last time you had to psych yourself up just to put clothes on when you go outside?  So, perhaps motivation plays a role at first, and then something else is needed.  Not that motivation is needed even to get going; think back to a time when you achieved something you thought was really beyond you.  Maybe you went bungee jumping, or perhaps you had to confront your worst fears in a doctor’s surgery, or you may have pushed through your aching muscles to have a dream workout after all, or maybe you stood up to someone even though in your head you were petrified.  What brought about the action?  Was it this nebulous emotional state we describe as motivation, or something else?

In my 11 years of counselling people who are desperately seeking lasting change, I’ve learnt that motivation is helpful but not vital.  Pablo Picasso apparently once said, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working”.  Personally, I find that quote very liberating and empowering.  I love it because it lets me off the hook.  To me, the quote reassures, “You don’t have to wait around for some emotional shift that may or may not come; you can get on with the job at hand regardless.  If it’s important to you, don’t wait for a spark.  Commit your arms and legs to the required actions, and go get it!”  For the goal-setters amongst us, perhaps there’s something in that.  ‘Inspiration’ certainly doesn’t hurt, but it’s our commitment to the ‘working’ which will really get us within reach of our goals.

I’d like to leave you with one final thing to ponder.  Ask yourself, “If I already had the motivation, in what small ways might my choices be different tomorrow morning?”  Last night I ran my usual monthly group therapy session for people working towards a range of health goals, and I asked the small group that exact question.  Despite all four attendees saying they felt unmotivated, each was still able to name at least one small task they could complete the following day in service of their longer-term health goals.  Then, as an experiment, I invited them to consider taking on that small task regardless of what they told themselves about their current capabilities and motivation levels.  This took place just last night, but already two members have been in touch to let me know that they started their morning today completing the task they had committed to.  It seems those individuals no longer needed to wait for motivation – they just got on with what was important to them.

So, perhaps motivation is overrated when it comes to translating talk into action.  Maybe there’s better long-term outcomes to be found in the regular practice of modest, immediate actions that we commit to irrespective of how ready, inspired or motivated we feel in the moment.

If that’s so, where does that leave you?

© Jacques Rizk, 2014