The Seven Buts of Motivation

When the blog was starting out, one of the repeated requests I received was a post about motivation. Specifically, including motivation when “not training for some particular event but just trying to live life and feel fit / strong / healthy / awesome.”

Like life balance, motivation is an enormous topic, but I will do my best to get at the essential. Motivation is the need or desire to do something, whether driven emotionally or socially. By that definition, motivation can’t be a one-size-fits-all solution. People are pretty diverse emotionally and socially and even for a single person both of those things can change.

Below you’ll find seven approaches to rethinking motivation. This is not a to-do list, but rather a variety of ways of looking at what would work for you, now. Keep in mind though, even if one of them “works” for now, what works will constantly change. And again, like life balance, the best long term motivational strategy is responsive, reflective and adaptive.

Rewards motivate but

Our yearly triathlon, minus a few years of knee problems.

extrinsic rewards (like a finishers medal) can sometimes undermine intrinsic motivation (like the genuine drive to be faster). It’s actually called the “undermining effect.” It means that folks who have been highly extrinsically motivated will show lower levels of voluntary engagement when the external motivation is removed. This means that if your resolve crumpled the minute they put that 5K medal around your neck, that’s 100% normal.

If you know that rewards work for you, but you have trouble sustaining motivation, it could mean that you’re relying on extrinsic rewards. The two most common are: social recognition and image enhancement. Shifting to intrinsic rewards could give you greater consistency over time and some of those include: social affiliation/community, self care in the form of health management, and skill development.

Competition motivates but

Beth, offering a hand to the woman she just sprinted to beat.

“performance-approach” competition (the drive to do better than your last time or better than someone else) is much more effective than “performance-avoidance” competition (the drive not to do your worst or not to be last). Scott Geller, Professor at Virginia Tech and Director of the Center for Applied Behavior Systems puts it this way: “We have to figure out how to be success seekers rather than failure avoiders.”

The key there is in how you communicate with others and how you communicate with yourself. Beth and I are very different kinds of competitive—and I joke that it will make her the better triathlete in the long term. Beth is externally competitive. She’s motivated by the desire to beat me and others in her age group. I tend not to care if someone beats me, but I care deeply about whether I’ve improved my time. But in both cases, we’re striving toward something positive, instead of away from something negative.

Goals motivate but

it matters how the goals are created and what you believe about achieving them. The most motivating goals are specific/measurable, appropriately difficult, and important.  If your goal lacks specificity (“I want to be healthier”), then it’s hard to know when it’s been accomplished—and having no sense of accomplishment can kill motivation. If the goal is too easy, then it’ll inspire less than you’re capable of. If the goal is too hard, it’ll inspire frustration, discouragement, or cheating. To that last point, professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University George Loewenstein notes: “Research shows that if goals are unrealistic, but you can achieve them by cheating, then people will cheat.” Finally, if the goal doesn’t feel personally important to you, then everything else in your life will come first. (Exercise? I have to clean the microwave first.)

But equally important to motivational goals is the realistic optimism of the goal-setter. Again, this is a bit of a balance. The goal-setter needs to believe that it’s possible to reach the goal—otherwise pessimism will derail them almost immediately. But the overly optimistic goal-setter will subvert themselves in a different way. These are the folks who convince themselves that because they bought a FitBit, they’ll start walking more. In point of fact, without other efforts, that FitBit is likely to become an expensive wrist watch. Optimism is only helpful when our belief in achievement is coupled with realism about the effort it takes to achieve our goals.

Empowerment motivates but

Shoe bling. One of those things I didn’t even know I needed until I had it.

there are three pieces to empowerment and if any of them are missing, your empowerment might not be robust enough to withstand challenges. The first part is based in an honest self assessment of ability: can you do it? The second is all about efficacy: if you do it, will it work? The last piece comes back to the importance I mentioned in goal setting: if you do it and it works, will it be worth it?

If any of those are out of whack, your self empowerment will plummet and with it your motivation to do almost anything. If you believe it will work and it will be worth it, but doubt your abilities, those doubts will knock you out at the knees at the first hurdle. If you believe you can do it and it will work, but doubt it will be worth it, those doubts will become 100 pound ankle weights at each step. Whatever they are, those doubts will undercut your motivation until you figure out a way to address them and re-empower yourself.

Autonomy motivates but

it often has less to do with circumstances than self-talk. The question of perceived autonomy has to do with whether of not you believe you have a choice. This is why we sometimes feel better after quitting a job even if we haven’t left yet. It’s a powerful reminder that you don’t have to be there. How would your perception of exercise change if instead of “I have to go for a run,” you hear yourself say “I’m choosing to go for a run”?

There’s also an element of this that ties back to the difference between positive and negative competition. When we’re working towards something positive (like building savings), we’re more likely to feel like we’re in control of the decision. When we’re working away from something negative (like avoiding bankruptcy), we’re more likely to feel controlled by an external force (in this case our debts). And when we lose our autonomy, we start to feel resentful in ways that will corrode our motivation. The drive towards a something positive will increase autonomy and which will reinforce drive.

Social dynamics motivate but

Racing for suicide prevention with Team Eagle’s Wings

the quality of those dynamics matter. If you remember back to the rewards section, there were social elements in both the extrinsic and intrinsic categories. The intrinsic reward is about community, rather than status. It’s about the knitting group that you love hanging out with, rather than how many “likes” you get on your knitting post. In the best of all worlds, it’s a group of people you’ll miss if you skip a week. A group of people who will offer helpful insights and suggestions. A group that will keep you accountable, out of care for you. And hopefully a group whose own motivation will buoy yours when it starts to sag.

Nearly everything I’ve been able to pull off in my life has had a foundation in a community with some or all of those attributes. When Beth and I started training together, we found ourselves with a built-in micro-community with each other. In my own life, I swear by the power of community affiliation.

Meta-motivational beliefs motivate so know your own “buts”

This is about to get really meta, but hang with me for a second. Part of our motivation has to do with what we believe is true about motivation. If we underestimate our ability to self-motivate, if we read everything on the list and for every single one we think “Well that won’t work for me because…,” then those beliefs will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. What if, as if you were watching a movie of someone just like you, you suspended your disbelief? What might be possible? Sometimes our skepticism and disbelief are guarding something vulnerable or raw. In that case, in order to take down our defenses, we have to find other ways of protecting those things so they no longer hold us back.

For a long time, I couldn’t call myself an athlete. I was competing in multiple races a year and still felt like a phony. When Beth noticed she was having a similar problem and that our beliefs about what it meant to be an “athlete” were holding us back, she started a new post-workout routine. We look at each other, high-five, and say to each other “Nice work, athlete.” With three words, we prop open a door in our minds, a door to possibilities that wouldn’t otherwise be possible for us.


The Science of Motivation

The Psychology of Self-Motivation

Motivation: Setting and Achieving Goals

My life  😉

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