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Tools for Immediate Motivation: Attraction and Distraction

Strategies and goals

As complex as our minds become as we grow older and learn more, one thing that doesn’t change from when we were young is that we’re easily attracted to anything appealing–a favorite face, a favorite food, something that glimmers. It’s easy to shift our thoughts onto the track of something we enjoy, which is useful, because sometimes it helps to choose how to direct our attention.

Attraction can help draw us into activities that we want to see ourselves doing but don’t yet have much enthusiasm for, and all it requires is that we find something that at least for a few minutes will be enjoyable or interesting. For instance, if I have a stack of papers I need to go through and file, I can begin to visualize what my desk will look like without that stack of paper, or focus on the fact that I can relax and not have to do much thinking while I do the task, or think about putting on some music I really like to listen to while I file. Anything a little bit appealing will help me shift from steering clear of the task to being drawn to the task, and a nudge at the beginning is often all we need.

If I’m trying to steer clear of a behavior–for instance, if I have a habit of buying too many DVDs and walk past a display of ones on sale while out shopping for shirts–then one good strategy is to find something else that appeals to me and focus on that. For instance, I could think about the fresh strawberries I have at home that I’m going to have as a snack when I get there, or about what kind of shirts I’m hoping to find. If I successfully get myself to focus on the other thing, then the immediate temptation in front of me fades. Ideally, I can then physically move away from it, keeping my attention on my distraction instead.

Whether attracting or distracting, the basic principle here is of thinking more about the things we do want to do and less about the things we don’t. The more we think about something, the more easily–sometimes even automatically–we start doing that that thing.

Which means that sometimes self-motivation can be as simple as “Ooh, look: shiny!”

Photo by RunnerJenny

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Where Are All the Other Beginners?

States of mind

When I first started exercising seriously and consistently, in 2005, I chose to run: it was free, convenient, and uncomplicated. I had recently moved to Jacksonville, Florida, a place where you can run practically every day of the year if you avoid the afternoon deluges in summer, and I lived in a quiet neighborhood near the river. Mercifully, this being Florida, my potential routes were dead flat. So everything was lined up in my favor, but one thing did make me nervous: the lack of fat people. There I was with my 75 extra pounds (down to 14 extra now, thank you very much), and there were all the runners, who collectively looked like they ate nothing but skinless chicken breast and celery-flavored air. Why were there no out-of-shape people out there running with me? Did that mean that it wasn’t possible to do it if you were out of shape, that I was doomed to be a failure as a runner?

Before these thoughts got too far, however, math came to the rescue, a particularly handy bit of math that explains why, whenever we start something, it’s often really hard to find anyone who looks as incompetent or ill-suited as we are.

Being a Beginner Who Sucks Is Normal
Part of that effect is just the fact that, when we begin at things, we’re generally bad or not well-suited for them, since as we progress, we become better and more well-suited. Being a beginner means not looking as cool as the other kids, whether we’re talking about playing violin, studying Taekwondo, running, programming computers, or raising children.

The rest is that math we talk about. Let’s compare beginners to veterans with some made-up numbers that nonetheless show real and useful information.

First, how many people begin something and then soon give up? It varies a lot by area, but it’s a lot. Many of our fellow beginners are vanishing after just a few half-hearted attempts.

Veterans Do More of It
How much time do beginners spend at tasks compared to veterans? It’s unlikely that a beginning violin player will be able to spend six hours a day practicing like some advanced students and professionals. A beginning runner can’t run nearly as long a time, as quickly, or as far as a veteran runner. Beginners at the dojang (Taekwondo gym) where I study have access to up to 3 classes a week, while more advanced students have their pick of 8 of them (on average, I do about 4-5 classes per week).

Beginners Vanish
And what portion of a person’s total career at something are they a rank beginner? A person might run seriously for 10 years and only be a beginner for the first 6 months, and the numbers for many other activities are similar.

The Only Beginner In the Room
So beginners who stick with the activity they’re starting might on average do 1/4 to 1/2 of the amount of that activity each week that a veteran will do (let’s say 3/8 as an estimate), and they will spend perhaps 1/20 of their career as a beginner. All of which means that for every hour of a thing a beginner does, we might reasonably guess there are 53-1/3 veterans out there doing that same thing. If you walk into a gym as a beginner and there are 20 other people in that gym, by these odds it’s unlikely that any one of those 20 people will be as out-of-shape and inexperienced as you.

Although, of course …
With all that said, those numbers are just estimates, and there are complicating factors: for instance, a whole lot more people start going to a gym than keep going to the gym, so in fact the gym numbers may not be quite so daunting as 53-1/3 to 1.

Get ready to suck!
But the upshot of all this is that beginners stick out, look bad, and are often alone doing it–but this is all just a nerd gate (a term coined by cavers, who use it to describe an obstacle that only discourages people who aren’t committed–it’s one of the terms in my book Talk the Talk: The Slang of 65 American Subcultures). While there are sometimes ways around standing out as a beginner (for instance, taking a beginners-only class), the fact of the matter is that beginners often look silly and may tend to feel they won’t belong.

This is just a phase to push through. However awkward or difficult something is at the beginning, the only way to get really good at anything is to keep working at it (and there’s good science to support that statement!). Some runners started out skinny, and some violinists started out as four-year olds, when playing a barely-recognizable, ear-torturing rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” is considered proof of utter genius, but the rest of us poor slobs will just need to suck for a while whenever we start something. And then, magically, we’ll get better and not suck, and people will look at us and say “Man, they must have always been that great at it!”

Photo by Martineric


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