By Mike Reeves-McMillan
To achieve great things – to achieve anything– you need to understand how motivation works.
The thing is, our minds don’t work the way we often think they do. (It’s the Inigo Montoya effect: “You keep using that mind. I don’t think it works like you think it works.”)
Therefore, there are some very popular motivational techniques that sound plausible, but are actually counterproductive if you don’t know exactly how to use them. Here are five of these techniques. For each of them, I’ve given an alternative that does work to produce more motivation and more goal achievement.
Affirmations do work – but only if you’re affirming something you actually believe to be true.
If you keep telling yourself what you know to be lies about yourself, all it does is create dissonance and disillusionment. If you don’t believe you’re beautiful, standing in front of the mirror saying “I am beautiful” is an exercise in futility. Rather than improving your self-image, it will make it worse.
Your alternative: Find phrasings that reflect reality, that talk about progression rather than achievement, until you have achievements to point to. “I am taking steps towards my goal of…” is a better phrasing than “I am achieving my goal” if you actually aren’t achieving it yet.
According to a very popular teaching which rhymes with “Flaw of Distraction”, visualising your end goal is pretty much all you need to do in order to achieve it.
In fact, this is an excellent way to ensure that you never achieve your goal, no matter how many seminars you attend or products you buy in an attempt to find out why you haven’t “made it” yet.
Why you haven’t “made it” is that you’re not taking action. And one of the reasons you’re not taking action is that you’re spending your action-taking time convincing your mind that you already have what you want.
Your alternative: Visualising the process of reaching your goal, rather than the outcome, increases the likelihood that you’ll achieve it. This is because you’re practicing the steps that you will have to take in order to reach the goal. It lowers the barrier to taking those steps in reality, because they already feel familiar and achievable. What’s more, you’ll perform them with more skill, just from having mentally rehearsed.
Willpower works to motivate you – up to a point. That’s the point at which you run out of willpower, because like energy or strength, it’s a finite resource.
Whenever you motivate yourself to do something that you don’t, emotionally, want to do, there are measurable changes in your body and brain. You use up blood sugar, for example. It’s an effort, just the same as running round the block is an effort. And just as you can’t run round the block forever, so you can’t keep making yourself do things that you feel negative about doing forever, however important they are to your long-term happiness.
Your alternative: You actually have several alternatives to willpower. One, of course, is finding ways to achieve your goals that you actually enjoy. Another is finding new goals. Yet a third is reducing other drains on your willpower so that you will have more to devote to your most important goal.
But if none of those are options, work on finding the enjoyment and worth in the process of working towards your goal – so that you don’t have to exert willpower all the time in order to keep doing the essential steps. At the very least, find ways to reduce your resistance.
Rewards can be motivational – but only if they relate to what you’re actually doing.
Whether it’s bribing children with candy to get them to draw pictures or offering workers more money instead of more fulfilling work and more autonomy, “extrinsic” motivators tend to backfire and produce less motivation, not more.
Your alternative: “Intrinsic” motivation – rewards directly connected to doing the activity you are trying to motivate – is the way to go here. Again, it’s about making the process itself worthwhile, rewarding and enjoyable, and about celebrating milestones towards your goal, not putting off all the happiness for when you eventually achieve it.
Punishing or scolding yourself (or someone else) may be one of the most commonly practiced forms of motivation. It’s true that negative consequences are motivational, but only if you use them in a particular way. Otherwise, they just produce resentment and backfire – not only because the emotional associations with the goal become negative, but also because the punishments, like the rewards, that are offered are often extrinsic to the goal itself.
Your alternative: First review the positive consequences of the behaviour you want to motivate. Then review the negative consequences of the behaviour you have at the moment. It’s very important to look at them in that order. For some reason, the mind is more compelled by a negative consequence preceded by a positive than the other way around, or by either consequence alone.
Notice that these are the intrinsic consequences, the consequences that arise directly out of the behaviour itself. It’s not an external carrot and stick.
You’ll notice that there’s a common theme in what works. It’s the process – the very thing we don’t want to think about, don’t want to go through – that holds the key to success. By paying attention to your process, you give yourself a motivational advantage and you’re much more likely to achieve your goals successfully.