Browsing the archives for the elements of motivation tag.
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How to Harness Desire for Better Willpower

States of mind

Wanting something isn’t all there is to motivation: motivation requires knowledge of what you need to do, effort, and attention, for instance. Yet desiring something–organization, health, success, an achievement–is the most basic and essential ingredient of motivation.

I haven’t written much about the importance of desire in motivation because the connection seems so basic and obvious, but recently I’ve been realizing that desire isn’t as simple as it has seemed to me.

Desires change constantly
It seems we tend to think of our desires as being very consistent over time, but in truth they can expand to fill our whole attention or dwindle away to nothing in just a few moments. For example, a person might wake up in the morning with a firm resolution to start getting really fit, but by three in the afternoon, after a particularly wearing day, care about nothing so much as chocolate, or someone might be driven to rise to the top of her profession one week and perfectly content in her current position the next.

It shouldn’t be surprising that our desires change so much and so quickly: desire is influenced by both physiology (hunger signals, tiredness, the dopamine rush of a pleasurable experience, and so on) and thinking (for instance, admiring what someone else has achieved or daydreaming about the future). Our attention, physiological state, current thoughts, immediate environment, communication from others, and other factors can change from moment to moment.

The thing to take away from this realization that desires change is that sometimes when willpower falters, the root problem is that for that moment we just don’t care about the goal.

Affecting our own desires
Knowing that our desires change and that losing desire for a goal tends to cause willpower to go down the tubes leads us to the conclusion that sometimes we will want to influence our own desires. This sounds very strange: if we don’t want something, why would we expend effort to make ourselves want it? The key realization here is that what we desire at any given moment isn’t necessarily based on what will make us feel happy and fulfilled.

For instance, I might very much want to stay up all night and watch a Gilligan’s Island marathon, but being exhausted for the next day or several days combined with the negative thoughts and feelings from knowing I was sabotaging myself would not make me happy no matter how much I wanted to stay up.

In fact, it might be fair to say that getting what we tend to desire usually doesn’t lead to lasting happiness (see my article on lottery winners, “The Best 40 Percent of Happiness,” and my article on hedonic adaptation, “Why Long-Term Happiness Levels Tend to Stay the Same.”) The exception is when we desire something that provides long-term benefits, like health or rewarding work situations. Therefore being happy, fulfilled, and empowered often means changing what we desire.

How to change what we want
Changing our own desires may sound like a strange and tricky process, but in fact we do it all the time by focusing our attention. We may choose to read about Dr. Martin Luther King and begin to feel ourselves wanting to make a positive difference in the world. We may choose to walk into an electronics store to see what the new gadgets are and become possessed for the overwhelming desire for a 3D television. We may start reading about rollerblading and find ourselves wanting to get more active.

Other articles on this site talk about changing our environment and making good connections with other people to encourage ourselves toward our goals, and these are good external ways to influence our desires. But what it often comes down to is what we choose to think about. That moment of decision during which I have the choice “Stop in at the electronics store, or pull over at the park and go for a walk?” will change not only my environment but what I have available to focus on. The moment in the restaurant when I choose to look carefully at the “heart healthy options” on the one hand or “deep fried specialties” on the other will influence what I begin to be interested in ordering.

And the wonderful thing about changing our attention is that while it takes a momentary effort, when we do it we’re not yet to the point of strongly desiring something, so it doesn’t take the kind of complete reorientation we face when we already want something but know that it isn’t a good choice.

So while focusing attention and influencing our own desires won’t on its own provide all of the motivation we’ll ever need, it is one of the simplest and yet most powerful ways of altering our minds for our own benefit.

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How to Become More Focused and Enthusiastic, Part III: Willingness

Strategies and goals

The first article in this series talks about the difference between distraction and lack of focus or enthusiasm as well as the problem of not believing your goal can be achieved. The second article touches on how much the goal matters and whether or not it’s possible to track progress. This article will tackle another essential of being committed to a goal: willingness.

The question of willingness came up as a side note in my article the other day about whether our willpower gets used up on a daily basis. The idea was that people seem to usually be less willing to keep doing things that require self-control the more of them they’re asked to do. Repeated demands are one reason a person might find she or he isn’t willing to exercise willpower. Others include

  • Feeling anger or resentment about having to do the thing in the first place, or being unhappy about some expected result–for instance if a person avoided cleaning an area up because they didn’t make the mess (even if they knew the mess-maker wasn’t going to clean it up), or if they were to hold off on doing certain work because they strongly suspected someone else would be getting the credit.
  • Being uncomfortable with success, for instance when a person is scared of the life changes a new job would cause.
  • Having a broken idea that someone else should be doing whatever it is, that whatever it is shouldn’t be necessary, etc.
  • Focusing on short-term discomfort or interruption of pleasure, like not wanting to pull a splinter out due to anticipating that being painful.
  • Feeling as though you don’t deserve to achieve your goal, for instance because of impostor syndrome.

Those are a few samples. The key point is that even when we have a desire to do something and recognize that it would be a good thing to do, we often still have conflicting feelings about moving ahead. To say that we simply want something or don’t want it is to imagine our minds being much simpler than they are. For instance, a person might desperately want to lose weight for reasons of both health and appearance, but also might want to feel free to indulge in eating as they like, might be worried about the discomfort of regular exercise, might feel protected in some ways by being overweight, etc.

Feeling conflicted is a natural result of being a complex human being, but when these kinds of conflicts prevent us from committing whole-heartedly to our goals, it’s time to address them and move past them. Broken ideas (including ideas about what should happen or what a person deserves) can be repaired, conflicting needs can be compared so that the highest-priority need can take precedence, discomfort can be faced in light of the greater happiness it will lead to, and so on. In the end, most barriers to willingness can be sorted out–and starting that process only takes asking ourselves this question:

“Am I really willing to succeed?”

Photo by Gavatron

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How to Become More Focused and Enthusiastic, Part II: What Matters and Keeping Score

Strategies and goals

In the first article in this series, I talked about the difference between not being focused or driven on the one hand and being distracted on the other. The difference is important because the two problems have different kinds of solutions.

I also began to talk about the kinds of questions we can ask ourselves to begin work on fixing our focus or enthusiasm. These questions tap into elements that research strongly suggests are important for self-motivation. The first element, talked about in that first article, was belief that we can actually accomplish our goal. Without that belief, we undermine our own efforts.

What is it worth?
The second question to ask is whether the goal feels worthwhile to us. What value is it?

Take, for example, my focus on fitness. Years ago I was 60 pounds heavier and much less strong and flexible than I am today–not to mention less energetic and happy. It took some real work to change my eating habits and to make exercise central in my life. Once I got close to my goal fitness level, though, motivation became much harder. Why? Because I had already reached the level where I was at peak health, and losing more weight would only really contribute to how much definition I had–that is, it was no longer a matter of health, but now only a matter of wanting to look great. I was still motivated, but my motivation wasn’t nearly as strong.

If your goal doesn’t seem worthwhile to you, then the two possibilities are that it really is worthwhile and you just don’t feel in touch with that, or it really isn’t worthwhile and you should find another goal. If you believe in your goal but don’t feel in touch with its value, spend time writing or talking about your reasons for attempting it and about what you want to achieve.

Measurability: Are we moving yet?
The third question we will want to ask ourselves is whether or not we can measure our progress. While being able to see progress isn’t an absolute necessity, most of us will get discouraged or at least very uneasy if we’re putting in a lot of work and not getting an indication of whether or not it makes a difference. That’s one reason it’s so frustrating for writers, for example, to wait for editors and agents to respond to submissions. Once you’ve done everything you can to write a good piece and get it out the door, you want to know how successful you were, to judge where you are in your process and what you’re doing effectively or ineffectively.

Some kinds of goals are difficult to measure. Even getting fit is hard to track, since weight alone isn’t an ideal measure of getting fit. With these kinds of goals, though, it is at least possible to note what you’re doing each day–that is, to track progress, which while it doesn’t give you results, at least shows how well you’re doing in keeping to the new habits you’re trying to form.

Photo by Thomas Webster

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How to Become More Focused and Enthusiastic, Part I: Plausibility

Strategies and goals

This is the first in a set of Willpower Engine articles on focus and enthusiasm.

Distraction or Enthusiasm?
If you’re having trouble focusing on a goal, there are at least two possible problems. One is that you’re getting distracted. If this is the real issue, then handling the distractions is all that’s needed to get on track. I’ve had a chance to talk about distractions in depth in the following four articles, so if that’s the subject of most interest to you, try these out:

The other possibility when it gets difficult to focus is that there isn’t enough enthusiasm, drive, or commitment toward the goal. For instance, someone who wants to learn Spanish but doesn’t take out the materials very often and isn’t very energetic about studying might not have the short-term enthusiasm about learning Spanish that would be needed to really make it happen–but at the same time, it might be honestly important to that person to learn Spanish. Unfortunately, importance doesn’t always translate to a sense of urgency and enthusiasm. Bridging that gap is what this and the articles that come after it are about.

Can it be done?
If you find yourself wanting to do something but not driven or enthusiastic to do it, a good approach early on is to ask yourself a few frank questions. There have been some very useful psychological studies in recent years that spell out some of the things a person needs in order to feel committed to a goal.

If your goal doesn’t feel realistic, or if it feels realistic for someone else but not for you, then it’s very difficult to feel enthusiastic about chasing it. After all, if you don’t believe you can do it then on some level you’re constantly telling yourself that you’re wasting your effort and heading for failure and disappointment.

It may seem like simple common sense to make sure a goal feels possible before pursuing it, but realistically, many of the best goals really don’t seem like they’ll ever happen until they do. For instance, a person who has received dozens of rejections on novels may not have much confidence about sending out a new book, but statistically is much more likely to succeed than someone who has never tried. Someone who wants to lose 100 pounds may be completely incapable of imagining a body that much fitter, yet every pound that comes off is proof that it is possible to lose the weight.

Convincing yourself
If you have a goal that logically seems like it should be possible but that doesn’t feel possible, the first thing to do is to make sure that you believe in that goal for good reasons. For instance, when I was a teenager I had a goal of becoming conversant in enough languages to speak at least a little to the majority of the world’s population. Learning those dozen or more languages might be possible in theory, but not unless I devoted all my efforts to it–and while I like languages, I wouldn’t want to do nothing but learn languages day in and day out!

If you conclude that your goal is realistic, the next thing is to prove it to yourself in a way you can understand on a gut level. Calculating that something can be done doesn’t always translate to confidence that we’ll really do that thing. Here are some ways to get from here to there:

  • Think about things you’ve achieved in your life so far. Is any of them similar in important ways to what you’re trying to achieve? If so, go back and remind yourself of that experience in detail.
  • Find role models, whether through magazine articles, documentaries, interviews, news reports, blogs, looking among the people you already know, or elsewhere. My conviction that I could lose weight and get fit came in large part from seeing my sister do just that (60 pounds later, my conviction proved to be right).
  • Look at the exact requirements and think about how you’ll tackle each one. If your goal is to get a much better job, research job descriptions for those positions and even ask companies that hire for them what they look for in a candidate. Then map out a specific plan to getting as many of those qualifications as possible. When you have a very precise plan and know what you need to achieve, it’s much easier to feel confident.
  • Plan or do your first step. If the end goal is hard to picture, just picture what it would look like to move a little bit toward that. For instance, if you want to get your whole house organized, concentrate on only one very small area and organize that. If you can do that effectively, then organizing the rest of the house is mainly a matter of repeating something you’ve already done successfully.
  • Visualize what it will be like to accomplish your goal. Get a very clear, vivid picture in your mind of what you want to achieve, and daydream about that situation often–daily or more if you can, the more often the better!

The next article in these series will pick up with more questions that are important to ask if you want to be fully committed to a goal.

Photo by Omara Enero


“I think I can.” vs “Can I?”

Guest posts

Today’s guest post is from Kari Wolfe, whose blog Imperfect Clarity passes on everything she’s learning as she works toward building a writing career, interviews fascinating people, parents her daughter in ways she never expected, and forges her own habits of success.

I can haz Thunderbird too?

Does it really matter how we phrase things when we think about them?

According to researchers at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, it matters.

Albarracin’s team tested this kind of motivation in 50 study participants, encouraging them explicitly to either spend a minute wondering whether they would complete a task or telling themselves they would. The participants showed more success on an anagram task, rearranging set words to create different words, when they asked themselves whether they would complete it than when they told themselves they would.

Further experimentation had students in a seemingly unrelated task simply write two ostensibly unrelated sentences, either “I Will” or “Will I,” and then work on the same task. Participants did better when they wrote, “Will” followed by “I” even though they had no idea that the word writing related to the anagram task.

Why does this happen? Professor Albarracin’s team suspected that it was related to an unconscious formation of the question “Will I” and its effects on motivation. By asking themselves a question, people were more likely to build their own motivation.

(Emphasis mine.)

Let’s look at exactly what the experiment was.

Instead of saying “I will complete this task,” half the students asked themselves “Will I complete this task?”

The students who questioned whether they would complete the task had a higher success rate than the ones who told themselves they would complete it.

Intuitively, I think this makes sense.

Questions allow us think about the reasons behind what we do. By asking ourselves if we will do a task, we realize that there are two answers to that question: either “yes, we will” or “no, we won’t.”

I have often heard it said you must have the ability to fail in order to be able to succeed. By asking ourselves whether we will complete a task, we give ourselves the opportunity to be able to fail. In fact, we can choose to fail, should we so desire.

Questioning allows us to list our own private reasons whether we want to do something. Those reasons, whether we choose to admit them to anyone else or not, are the most important reasons we have to do anything. Ultimately, they are what motivation is all about.


1. Think of something you want (or don’t want) to do. Write the task at the top of a piece of paper.

2. Write it in the form of a question, ex. “Will I finish my book in June?”

2. Draw a line down the center of the page.

3. List your own private personal reasons for doing the task on one side; on the other, list your own private personal reasons for NOT doing the task. Be honest with yourself–at least, in your mind, even if you don’t want to write it on the paper.

4. Do this for a stated period of time. (Personally, I find that deadlines–self-imposed or otherwise–help motivate me to write down what I’m thinking.) 10 minutes, 15 minutes… Even 5 minutes. Choose your own amount of time and set an alarm to ring when it is finished.

5. When your time’s up, finish up your last thought and stop writing.

6. Review your list and decide which side has the best reasons for you.

By listing those reasons, both for doing the task and not doing the task, we can strengthen our own thought processes where that task is concerned. We can stop and think whether our goal is even possible. If I haven’t started writing a book and I’m questioning if I will get it done by tomorrow, more than likely, most of my reasons are going to consist of the fact I won’t have time to finish it. Is it possible?

Having a goal that you want and that is possible for you to complete will help you be more motivated to finish those goals.

What do you think?

Kari Wolfe is a stay-at-home mother of a very curious three-year-old daughter who happens to be autistic. She is a writer and maintains her own blog, Imperfect Clarity where her focus is becoming the best writer (and person) she can be by living her life to the fullest 🙂


Useful tool for Nutrition and Fitness: SparkPeople


A screenshot of part of the Nutrition Tracker tool at SparkPeople

Ever since I started seriously working on my own fitness back in 2005, I have kept track of what I eat, my weight, and how much I exercise in little notebooks that I carry around with me, at least most of the time. Recently, though, a friend showed me SparkPeople, a free nutrition and fitness site. SparkPeople allows users to track what they eat, how much they exercise, and what kind of exercise they do (including both cardio and strength training categories), weight, measurements, and other fitness metrics. It’s well-suited both to weight loss and to other fitness goals and offers charts and totals of helpful values like calories, fat, protein, cholesterol, sodium, vitamins and minerals, calories burned in exercise, and more. There are other features I haven’t used extensively, including recipes, forums, goal-setting, and tracking how much water you drink. All of these features are free; to the best of my knowledge there are no paid membership options on the site. SparkPeople is supported by noticeable but well-behaved advertising.

Personally the most useful feature for me is the Nutrition Tracker, where I can tap into a very large database of foods and record exactly what I’m eating in as precise amounts as I can figure out. This allows me to receive detailed nutritional reporting. The tracking on this site takes me a little longer than my notebook method because I previously counted only calories, and I had memorized the calorie counts of most foods I ate, but it has several benefits. One is that it gives me much more information than I had on my own, protein and cholesterol totals being especially useful to me. Another is that, interestingly, I feel compelled to track everything every day–even on the days when I exceed my calorie goal, when the total is less appealing–because if I track a partial day, it feels like I’m being misleading: it would appear that I had only eaten however many things I tracked instead of that I stopped tracking. Using my paper system, there were days that I didn’t track. I like this slight extra incentive to be consistent.

A third benefit is that I’m forced to write down the specific foods I eat rather than, for instance, writing “omelette” and estimating total calories: my numbers are more precise using this system.

While I find some of the tools a little cumbersome–speaking as a techie, for instance, I’d love to see the tool for adding foods integrated into the Nutrition Tracker page as an iFrame–all in all they have been fairly easy to use and quite useful. Of course you have to have access to the Internet to update the system, but they have a good mobile phone interface that I’ve barely used but that might do the trick for people who don’t always have access to a computer.

Speaking about motivation specifically, notice that this site provides some key pieces: one is supporting detailed tracking and regular review of tracked information, which is a rudimentary feedback loop (a more sophisticated feedback loop would just add free-form discussion or journaling about what led to good and bad outcomes and how to change or stick with behaviors for best results in future). Another is the community that’s available there for encouragement and cameraderie. Yet another is focusing attention on nutrition and exercise issues, since more attention often translates to more and better motivation.

Since there are a lot of features on this extensive site that I haven’t used, I hope other SparkPeople users will post their impressions and tips in comments.


Finding More Moments to Focus on the Things We Want to Change

Strategies and goals


There’s one particular kind of choice that most of us make several times a day without even noticing it, one that can have a profound impact on our focus, understanding, and drive and therefore on what we accomplish in our lives. These choices are about what to do with spare thinking time. Driving or riding in to work, we might be in a habit of turning on the radio or listening to music or to audiobooks. Waiting at the doctor’s office, we may pick up a magazine or check e-mail on a cell phone. Relaxing after a long work day, we might turn on the television as soon as we have a moment to breathe. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with those things, but they are worth reconsidering just the same, because we can use some of those times to think about our goals.

Why thinking about goals is cool
I admit, “thinking about goals” doesn’t sound like a very exciting activity, but it does have some immediate payoffs. Taking a few moments to write about or think about or discuss or even talk to ourselves about whatever our primary goal is at the moment–eating more healthily, being a better parent, contacting more sales prospects, honing violin skills, or whatever it may be–provides us with four essential ingredients of self-motivation: mindfulness, visualization, feedback, and planning.

The mindfulness advantage of using some of our available mental time to think about a goal is that we have more opportunity to anticipate times when we want to be more aware in the near future–to remind ourselves to be mindful–as well as more time to notice details of things that have happened very recently.

Visualization is about reconnecting with our goals. What are the payoffs of eating well or talking to more prospects? How would it feel to be able to play that really difficult piece on the violin or to get through a disagreement with the kids at home without shouting? Really taking time to imagine how things might be once we succeed at a goal is both informative–we get a clearer idea of where we’re trying to get–and energizing.

The feedback that even a few spare moments provide can offer solutions to problems that may not even have been apparentotherwise. For instance, if I’m trying to be a better communicator and I realize at lunch that I haven’t gathered all the information I need for the meeting I have at 2:00, I may come to the realization that sometimes my communication problems are just lack of preparation. Reflecting often on how things are going with an important goal gives a better short-term understanding of our own actions that can be invaluable.

And planning can be more useful even than it might seem. For instance, if I’m working on always being on time I might think about a 7:00 dinner I’m expected at while driving home from work and realize that I need to leave the house fifteen minutes earlier than I had planned because I need to allow time to stop and pick up a bottle of wine.

Fighting habits to change another habit
Fighting the habit of immediately going to some kind of entertainment or distraction as soon as our brains are available takes some doing, and requires a bit of mindfulness itself. However, the payoff of using even a few spare moments a couple of times a day is greatly increased awareness and greatly improved ability to use the tools available to us to increase motivation.

Photo by tripu

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5 Ways to Strengthen a New Year’s Resolution

Strategies and goals

In recent articles I’ve posted about choosing a New Year’s resolution and why New Year’s resolutions often fail. Now that 2010 has begun, here are 5 ways to make a New Year’s resolution stronger.

1. Schedule a regular time to think about it
New goals can tend to get shoved out of the way when things get busy or complicated. To make sure that they always come back into the spotlight, it’s important to take time to think, talk, or write about that goal on a regular basis. This kind of attention helps encourage problem-solving and makes more opportunities to reflect on and reinforce the kinds of behaviors that will support the goal.

2. Set waypoints
If your new goal is a long-term one, getting to the vision you have for yourself may be a long, challenging trek. Setting waypoints makes goals more immediate and rewarding. For example: if you’re decluttering your house, make each room a goal of its own, the entire focus of your attention until it’s done. While working on that room, you deliberately give yourself permission not to worry about the rest of the house. It’s a lot easier to come to grips with organizing a room than organizing a house, and worrying about the whole thing at once will only get in the way of the large job at hand.

3. Read and learn
Find books, online forums, blogs, in-person groups, magazines, articles, or any other resource that will help you learn how to pursue your goal better, or even just inspire you to keep pursuing it. Learning more about your goal gives you more power to move toward it, keeps it fresh in your mind, and often provides a vision of what things might be like as you see more success.

4. Be prepared for a few failures
If habits were the kind of thing we could just switch off, there would be no need for willpower. Trying to change a bad habit, adopt a good one, or make regular progress to achieve something challenging is difficult and is likely to involve some setbacks now and then. If and when these come, unless you’re defusing a bomb or building a card house, all is not lost. It will help enormously to step back and try to recover soon from a problem rather than saying “Oh, I blew it–now it doesn’t matter what I do.” Failure is a normal byproduct of success, and a lost battle isn’t the same as a lost war.

5. Stay inspired
Taking on anything challenging means that there will be times when you don’t feel like working on your goal and are faced with the choice of pushing ahead or giving up. At these times, it makes a real difference if you’re in touch with why you’re doing what you’re doing and have kept your enthusiasm for it alive. Visualize what things will be like as you make more progress; review the things that draw you toward your goal; reflect on past accomplishments; explain to friends or family why you’ve chosen the path you have; or do anything else you can to keep yourself inspired. Inspiration does not automatically create willpower, but it certain does help fuel it.

Photo by Tim in Sydney

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The Six Basic Requirements of Self-Motivation

Strategies and goals

building blocksIf you’re a regular reader of The Willpower Engine, you may be wondering by now what purpose it’s supposed to serve to keep reading new ways to break down self-motivation into one simple concept or another. In one article, I say that willpower is exactly like owning a dog. In another, I say that willpower is a matter of thinking more of the right things and less of the wrong things. And so on.

There is a point to these different perspectives, even though each is a simplification, because each one comes at motivation from a different perspective. The point is that it’s much easier to find and fix the problems with our self-motivation if we keep examining it from different angles. So for today’s article, here’s another way to look at self-motivation: do your self-motivation efforts have all six of these basic requirements?

In order to motivate ourselves, we need to decide what exactly to motivate ourselves toward. That is, we have to have a clear, attainable goal that tells us what we want to achieve.

Once we see where we want to get, it’s essential to understand what steps are needed to get there. Someone who’s trying to organize needs to learn organization techniques. Someone who’s trying to lose weight needs to learn how much they should be eating each day and how to exercise effectively. Someone who’s trying to renovate a house needs to know how to put up wallboard.

We are very, very unlikely to be successful in achieving goals we don’t care about, for fairly obvious reasons. It is possible to start caring about a goal (for instance, by carefully considering the benefits), but the self-motivation machine groans to a halt when it runs out of passion.

Pursuing a goal means devoting time to it, and if a person hasn’t been pursuing that goal already, the time needs to come from some other activity. In order to pursue a goal successfully, therefore, it’s essential to carve out time to do that and to know what to do less of in order to free up that time.

Even if we have a goal, know what needs to be done to achieve it, desire the goal, and set aside time for it, it will not do itself. At a certain point it’s necessary to make a decision to put out effort. Sometimes this is easy, especially if desire has been stoked up. At other times it requires a conscious resolution, saying to ourselves, “OK, now it’s time to put on my sneakers and run.” or “That pile of papers isn’t going to file itself! Let’s get started.”

Lastly, like a plant that withers and dies without water, goals weaken and get forgotten if they’re not regularly showered with attention. All this means is making a resolution to turn the mind to the goal on a regular basis. One very effective approach to regular attention is a feedback loop. An even more powerful (but more labor-intensive) approach is decision logging.

And that’s it. The reason there’s so much information on this site is that none of these six requirements is always simple. Sometimes it’s hard to choose the right goal, or to know the best way to pursue it once chosen, or to find the time or ignite the desire or to make the effort or to focus the attention. Yet anyone who does all six of these things will make meaningful progress toward their goals: there’s no inborn talent for motivation, no secret ingredient, and no insurmountable barrier. Which is a good thing: just doing these six things takes work enough!

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How to Make Self-Motivation Easier, Part II

Strategies and goals, Uncategorized


In my previous article, I offered four ways to make self-motivation easier, and talked about stacking up advantages ahead of time instead of waiting to come face to face with a difficult situation. Here I’ll cover five more ways to make self-motivation easier: building up enthusiasm, being more mentally and physically prepared to face challenges, getting help from others, learning, and minimizing temptation.

Visualize and find your enthusiasm
When things are going well, I’m not distracted, and I have time to think about what I want to do, I’m often in a good state of mind to improve my motivation, but by definition these low-demand times tend to be ones when not much motivation is needed. I can build up motivation for harder times by using these opportunities to visualize where I’m trying to get and by otherwise spending time thinking about and especially enjoying my goal, whether I’m reflecting on successes so far, enjoying progress, envisioning future payoffs, or planning ahead. The more time I spend thinking positively about my goal, the more accessible positive thoughts about it will be when I really need them. For instance, if I’m trying to learn to play a musical instrument, I can visualize myself playing it and remind myself why I’m putting in all the hard work.

Take care of yourself
When we get enough sleep, exercise regularly, eat well, and use techniques like meditation to aid mood and mental focus, we’re much more capable of being proactive in our lives than when we are tired, inactive, badly nourished, overstuffed, or carrying around a lot of stress. Mood and physical well-being have an important impact on making good decisions, so everything we can do to improve them will tend to improve  motivation, too.

Get support
Connecting with a friend or family member to talk about your goals, the problems you’re running into, your plans, and your successes is a good way to keep your goal more in mind and to process your thoughts about it. Having someone in your corner can also make it more important to to do well and provides more options if something starts going wrong. A person trying to quit a bad habit can go talk to a supporter when temptation seems particularly strong. Someone trying to get a better job can talk through their plans and strategies if they have a sympathetic ear.

Read, learn
Reading about subjects having to do with our goals serves several purposes at once: it gives us more information to use when making plans; keeps our goal more in our mind; lets us try on others’ ideas; and serves as a physical reminder (whenever we see the book) of what’s being accomplished. Someone trying to get fit can learn a lot from books about nutrition and exercise, like The 9 Truths About Weight Loss. Anyone trying to change habits and running into emotional resistance can benefit from books like Emotional Alchemy, The Feeling Good Handbook, or A Guide to Rational Living.

Minimize temptation
Finally, minimizing temptation can be a real boon, at least in the short term, for anyone who’s really struggling with making the right choices. If you’re working on spending money wisely, you can take any savings you have and put it in a CD or some other instrument that makes it difficult or impossible to withdraw for a time. Someone who’s trying to quit playing video games can actually sell the games rather than hanging on to them to play just a little bit now and then.

This approach is a bit of a crutch, and the problem with relying too much on it is that when a situation comes up where there is temptation–for instance, when the person working on spending gets a tax refund, or when the former video game player is staying with a friend who has a top-notch video game system–the strategies to deal with the temptation may not be very well developed. But like all of these strategies, minimizing temptation–if not relied on absolutely–can help make everything simpler.

Photo by James Jordan

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