We’ve all done it before. Set a goal, but couldn’t quite motivate ourselves to follow through.
It’s not that we didn’t have the willpower. Oh no, we definitely willed our way through those painful first moments when we started acting towards our goal. It was our willpower that got us through the painful second moments too. And the third, and the fourth, until our willpower finally ran away screaming that it was done serving a crazy person.
Unfortunately, even the most diligent of people, working tirelessly on their perfectly calibrated SMART Goals, can have their goal-setting backfire on them. Relying on willpower and sheer determination alone is simply exhausting and not sustainable.
But that’s not how “proper motivation” is supposed to work, right? After all, properly motivated, goal-achieving people frequently say insufferably smug things like “If it matters enough to you, you’ll find a way to do it” and “If you give up, it means you didn’t want it enough”.
Nope. There’s more to it than that.
A goal may matter a lot to us, and we can summon all the willpower we have in pursuit of it, but we can still find it impossible to do. Eventually, we give up on it. Example: every new year resolution ever made.
The issue is not the amount of motivation that we have. It’s that we were motivated for all the wrong reasons.
Motivation and Me
I’ve been intrigued by the topic of motivation for a while now. If you read my previous post on procrastination, you’ll know that I’ve struggled with procrastination all my life. A part of me had started believing that I just didn’t have the motivation or willpower to overcome my worst self.
Yet, three months ago, I did something that surprised me. When I realized just how much wheat (gluten) was worsening my health, overnight, I became that most ridiculed of all things: gluten-free. Shudder. I went sugar-free to boot.
This meant no cakes, cookies, pastries, 99.9% of other processed food. No chocolate.
Chocolate. I’d never believed I could cut out chocolate. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth; it was a KitKat bar instead.
And yet, I did cut out chocolate, overnight. And I have no urge to eat it anymore. I’ve displayed a level of commitment and discipline I never expected from myself.
It confused the hell out of me.
How could I so easily do this, when for all my life, I have struggled with disciplining myself for a much easier thing – to not procrastinate and just start whatever it is I’m supposed to do on time?
Bad Types of Motivation:
I’ve come to understand that the key to staying motivated is understanding what should motivate us in the first place.
Not all types of motivation are created equal. Some types of motivation are low-quality. They may start us off very determined to succeed, but they’re just not strong enough to last the distance. Once we’ve burned through our will power, our motivation also goes away and hides under its Invisibility Cloak. It’ll re-emerge from time to time just to make us think “Hah, there are you. I’ve found you again. This will be the time that you stick to me.” Nope. It’s just too good at staying hidden.
I’m going to use the example of getting in shape/getting healthy as a goal, since that’s something a lot of people can relate to. There are 2 types of motivational sources/outlooks that lead to our motivation eventually putting on its Invisibility Cloak:
This is when we are motivated to get healthy because of the promise of some kind of reward: making sure we look good for a special occasion, fitting into that new dress, and getting compliments, respect and admiration from other people.
Why it sucks: Rewards may work in the moment, but they’re really only good at creating one thing: temporary compliance to get the reward. We become so controlled by our desire for the prize that we forget about the actual goal itself somewhere along the way. And once the reward goes away, so does any motivation.
There’s a reason that the weight-loss reality competition show “The Biggest Loser” never did any reunions. True, maybe it just didn’t occur to the show producers, but also, it would have been the saddest reunion ever. Most competitors, season after season, went on to regain the weight they had lost on the show.
This is the shittiest type of motivation. It’s when we feel pressured to get healthy, out of doctor’s orders or someone nagging us, or out of shame/guilt/fear at mistreating our body and the future consequences, or just generally, trying to make other people happy.
Why it sucks: While pressure may work well in the short run, we will always be resentful at feeling forced to do something that we don’t truly want to do. The resentment gradually erodes our willpower. Eventually, that chocolate-chip cookie right in front of us becomes way more important than whatever the doctor said.
I now realize that I struggled with procrastination for so long because I had been acting for the wrong reasons. As a student, my primary motivations switched back and forth between not wanting to do badly or let myself down (imposed motivation) and wanting to get the best grade possible (external motivation). My intrinsic love of learning and knowledge was dying a slow, mournful death.
Good Types of Motivation :
So, if those are the bad kinds, then what are the good types of motivation that actually create sustained change? If we have one of these types of motivational outlooks, then we don’t need to rely on willpower. Good behaviour comes naturally most of the time.
1. Inherent (Intrinsic):
This is when we do something just because we have fun and enjoy ourselves doing it. These are the activities that we do just for the thrill of them, like our hobbies. Health-wise, this type of motivation is seen in the people who genuinely love eating salads and/or are addicted to working out. The rest of us can only look upon them in wonder.
Why it’s good: We don’t need any kind of prodding or incentive to achieve a goal that we actively enjoy working on. Good health will be ours in no time.
Aligned motivation occurs when we link our goal to a value that is significant to us. I realize that this was my motivational type for cutting out gluten and sugar from my life. I had mentally attached this goal to a value that is currently very important to me: full healing and good health, so I could finally stop feeling like death barely warmed over. Now when I look at food containing gluten or sugar, I see poison instead. Doesn’t seem that appealing anymore.
Why it’s good: This is a case of figuring out what is way more important to us than whatever it is that we are giving up. The singular focus on the good stuff removes the hold that the bad stuff previously had on us. In a lot of cases, that switch can be instant.
3. Integrated Aligned:
This kind of motivation happens when we link goals to a key life purpose, or as central to our identity. Examples of a key purpose include a person wanting to be a good role model for their children, and having all the energy needed to play and bond with them. Getting healthy then becomes the first step in fulfilling their purpose.
Why it’s good: We are identifying what we love so much more than what we are giving up. If a goal can help us achieve what we see as one of our key purposes in life, being committed to it becomes non-negotiable.
The 3C’s to watch out for:
So why exactly does our types of motivation so drastically affect our success?
It’s all to do with how our outlook or our source of motivation affects our most basic psychological needs.
Social science research has firmly established that all of us have 3 primary psychological needs. Fulfilling these needs is essential for us to thrive and flourish. If we can’t fulfill them, we feel like we have a void or emptiness in our lives, even if everything else seems to be going well.
A motivational source is effective if it helps us achieve:
- Choice or Autonomy: We have a human need to perceive that we have choices. We need to believe that what we are doing is out of our own free will and that we have control over our actions and our life.
- Connection: We need to care about and feel cared about by others. We must feel connected to others without fears of any ulterior motives (like the worry we are being used). We need to believe that we are contributing to something greater than just ourselves.
- Competence: We have a need to feel competent at what we do, and effective at meeting our everyday challenges and opportunities. We need to feel like we are growing and gaining mastery in our abilities and skills over time.
Types of Motivation and the 3C’s
The 3C’s do not work in isolation. All three of them must be satisfied for a person to feel fulfilled. When even one of them is undermined, a domino effect happens, and the other two are negatively affected as well.
Let me give you an example:
If somebody is trying to lose weight just because their doctor ordered them to lose 30 pounds (imposed motivation), their sense of autonomy has been violated. Their perceived lack of choice makes them doubt how capable they will be. When they do try, they struggle, which further erodes their need for competence. Not being able to eat favourite foods with family, or going out to dinner with friends further destroys their ability to connect with others.
In short, it’s a disaster. This person will give up on their weight loss goal after a few days or weeks of struggle, and feel guilty about their failure. They may end up believing that good health just isn’t possible for them.
On the other hand, consider a person who recently had a health scare. They start researching all they can into finding out the causes and cure for their disease. The more they learn, the more competent they feel at fixing the problem. Their growing sense of competence gives them back a sense of control over their health, and the belief that they can cure themselves if they so choose. They gain a sense of connection from sharing what they have learned with those around them, and from helping others on their journey towards health.
This is the person who has normal (good) blood test results in a year and manages to lose all the weight they needed to.
Goal-Setting That Actually Works 101
It’s important to acknowledge that behaviour and motivation are complex. People are rarely driven by a single source of motivation; we often have multiple reasons why to pursue a goal.
This is fine, as long as our primary or predominant motivation is internal or aligned with our values and purpose. External and imposed motivation do have their place, but they must be used sparingly. Otherwise, they can crowd out the good stuff.
E.g. I have a goal to write 2-3 hours every day so that I can become the best writer I can be. This is a goal aligned with my value for growth and self-discovery. I also know that when I’m up against a case of writer’s block, what helps the most is looking at a publicly stated deadline for publishing a post (imposed motivation).
I’m going to assume that you don’t need to know how to set goals for things you intrinsically love doing. Nobody needs to tell a 12-year boy (or some 25-year olds either) to play more video games.
So we’re going to look at creating goals that are aligned with our values/purpose.
1. What are your values, anyway?
Lots of people would have absolutely no idea what to say if we sat them across a desk and asked them point-blank “So, what are your values?” We don’t usually have much opportunity to think about what’s truly important to us while living our messy, complicated lives.
However, we can’t afford to neglect them. Our values are the measures that we use to tell ourselves if our life is turning out the way we want it to. Everybody is different, so what makes one person happy may leave another feeling either anxious or bored. Security or adventure? Self-discovery or comfort? Wealth or charity/making a difference?
How to figure out your values
To determine our values, we must ask ourselves questions like:
- If I were on my deathbed, what would I be most proud of doing/being in my life? What would I regret most not doing/being?
- What type of stories or behaviour inspire me? Which stories or behaviours make me angry?
- When am I most proud of myself? When am I most ashamed of myself?
- Which moments of my life have I been the happiest/unhappiest?
Take a piece of paper and write down your answers to these questions. Examine the answers: an answer like “I’m happy when I’m spending time with my family” means that you’re family-oriented and need their presence in your life. This could mean that spending 60+ hours/week working would make you very unhappy. “I’m inspired by stories about entrepreneurs who struggled but made it big.” could mean you value wealth, initiative and/or persistence.
Here’s a list of personal values to help you out in case you’re struggling.
How to prioritize your values
Once we’ve figured out our values, it’s time to rank them. Prioritizing helps us get even closer to what’s important to us. Rank them in the form of a pyramid:
(I’ve made this diagram available here for those who want to print it out.)
Well, great, you’ve now figured out what’s really important to you in life! You’re doing better than most people in the world.
(Pro tip: Write down your 2 must-have values and stick them somewhere you have to look at every day – like your laptop desktop screen, or your fridge door. It’ll help you stay focused on them when things get tough.)
2. Create goals and give yourself the 3C’s.
Once we’ve prioritized our values, we can figure out our goals should be.
For example, if we’ve put “ health” as a top value– it’s time to start with the healthy diet and consistent exercise routine. We must work in the 3C’s whenever possible:
- We can grow our sense of competence with additional research: what supplements help with any health conditions we have, stories of how other people have managed to fix their health problems etc. The aim should be to learn as much as possible. We have access to all the knowledge the world has ever created at the touch of our fingertips. Use it.
- We can connect with an online community who have the same health goals as us. Sharing with others around us what we’ve learned and helping them out feels good too. (Remember not to force/shame anyone into acting better though – that’ll hinder our connection, not help it.)
- Most importantly, we must remind ourselves any time we feel tempted to do something unhealthy, that we are making a conscious choice to focus on our health so that we can lead the best life that we can.
3. When values and goals may not be enough…
Sometimes, even though we know what we value, and know what steps to take, we still can’t make ourselves take them. It’s because the parts of us that don’t want to make a move (out of fear, laziness or feeling overwhelmed) are winning out over the parts of us that do want to make a change.
You see, while our conscious minds may rationally try to prioritize our values according to what we hope for in our lives, our subconscious mind can rebel. It has its own set of priorities: to keep us away from pain, harm, and fear.
We’re like a teacher who’s completely lost control of their class.
Learn how to be your own teacher
We need to become more like the type of teachers we see in inpirational movies. You know, those ones where the new teacher gets an under-performing class in a rough neighbourhood and brings all the students up to scratch and everybody cries in the end.
In this class, we have a group of sullen, moody teenagers that resist anything we tell them and believe they’ve got us all figured out. They’re also kinda asshatty. What do we do?
We start by talking to the ones creating the trouble. The key is to find ways to give them what they are crying out for but have been deprived of all their lives:
- If they’re lazy, find a way to give them more choice in what they do. If they say jogging is too hard, sign them up for kickboxing and swimming instead. Suddenly jogging mightn’t seem that bad after all.
- If they’re fearful, they probably need to feel more competent at the task. This means they need to find ways to celebrate any progress they make, without tying it to external prizes or punishment. Congratulate them on how much more energy they seem to have now, not what size dress they’re wearing.
- If they’re hiding away in shame and guilt, they could use more authentic connection in their lives. A new friend or mentor could show them how to ignore the haters and find them a new healthy activity that also makes them happy.
You know your unruly students and your mind best. Figure them out. Otherwise, they will take over your entire life, and everything you do will
be tainted by the knowledge that you could have done way better suck. I speak from experience.
The End Result
I’m going to leave you with something I’ve ragged on in the past: an image of a motivational quote with a completely unrelated background:
I’ve plucked it out from its natural habitat of Instagram and spotlighted it here because it hints at a truth many of us prefer to ignore. The myth of the perfect future us.
For years, I told myself that Future Diane would have all her shit together. She’d be a non-procrastinating, eight-languages fluently speaking, some vague Forbes business award winning, yogi zen master who would deliver the perfect advice in wonderfully witty one-liners. Does that sound like some female muggle equivalent of Dumbledore? Hmm.
We like to imagine that “The Future Us” has life all figured out and is capable of anything. And they just might be, but only if we actually start acting on those dreams in the present. Our future self will never be the amazing person we want them to be unless our current self isn’t trying to be amazing as well.
To summarize this entire post: The only thing that stands between us and our goals are the bullshit reasons we use to motivate ourselves, and the bullshit excuses we give ourselves to stop examining why our reasons are in fact, bullshit.
So figure out what you truly value in your life, create goals that align with those values, and use them to feel more competent, connected with others and in control of your life. Then, go forth and kick some ass.
I drew a lot of insights in this post from the book “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work..and What Does” by Susan Fowler. Highly recommended for anyone who want to manage and motivate themselves and others better.