The ugly Truth about Motivation.
Updated: May 13
In thinking about the role motivation plays in goal achievement, I’ve come to the conclusion that motivation is often misunderstood, misused and overrated. It definitely has a role to play in our goals, especially if we learn to use it wisely. Commitment, on the other hand, is a must-have and it's time we started giving it more attention. Here is why…
All of our actions are fueled by emotions. Emotions are the energy we bring to those actions. If you think of how one might start up a bonfire, motivation is like pouring gasoline on wood and lighting it with a match. You’ll get fire immediately but it dies down quickly or dies out altogether. Commitment on the other hand, is starting a fire by adding material like newspaper, then adding small pieces of wood kindling, lighting the newspaper, slowly adding more kindling until the wood is burning steadily and then adding larger logs. This creates a hot foundation for your bonfire that will allow it to last all night simply by adding more logs. Now, perhaps some of these larger logs are a bit wet, and the fire is getting low. That gasoline might be a good tool to use to get it going a bit stronger while you look for dryer wood to burn. (Note: I don’t recommend using gasoline due to safety concerns and these days — cost! We use a leaf blower which is effective and safer assuming everyone gets well out of the way of the sparks.) Back to the point — you can get the bonfire burning reliably for hours with no gas at all.
In a similar way, our goals do not actually need motivation. When it is available to you, motivation can help you dive into action more easily throughout your journey. It’s definitely a nice-to-have fuel but not a critical fuel. Commitment is the critical fuel.
This is one of many ways we misuse motivation. We think motivation must be there in order for us to achieve our goals. It does not.
Now that I’ve cleared that up (and got you all craving s’mores), here are some other common ways we misuse motivation.
Misuse #2: We measure the worthiness of the goal relative to the level of motivation we have related to it. We think: "If this goal was really important to me, I’d be motivated to stick to it." We get confused. We get down on ourselves. We start to question our decision to pursue the goal altogether.
In truth, there are many different reasons why we might not feel motivated at any given time, most notably the fact we are human and have lots of competing thoughts and feelings about a lot of things. The best way to gauge the importance of your goal is to get real with yourself about WHY you want to pursue it. And why now? Do you like your reasons? Do they feel authentic and connected for you regardless of what anyone else might think? If the answer is yes! yes!, you have a STRONG why.
Your WHY defines and clarifies the importance of your goal for you. The level of motivation you are feeling at a given time does not.
A STRONG WHY becomes the basis for strong commitment, a critical resource especially when things get hard and motivation is nowhere to be found.
Misuse #3: We plan the steps to achieve our goal as if motivation will be readily available. As I mentioned, motivation can be fickle and we are humans, not robots.
There will absolutely be moments where your future-self (the one who has already achieved the goal) is competing with your present-self (the one who is deciding what action to take right now).
I always suggest that my clients make a list of the potential obstacles they may face when pursuing a goal, along with a list of strategies to overcome those obstacles. One such obstacle that should be there by default is — I can’t find the motivation to take the action. Here are some strategies that I’ve found helpful in overcoming this challenge.
1. Build in some flexibility in regards to the “pace” of your goal pursuit.
Allow for some variability in the way in which you take action throughout your overall plan. Your energy will naturally ebb and flow. Some days/weeks you might be “on it” — take advantage of those and increase your pace. Some days/weeks you might be “off” — allow yourself to decrease your pace without it meaning you have failed. I suggest starting with breaking down your goal into smaller stretches of time and setting a minimum baseline along with a max goal for each of those stretches.
For example, I have a goal to ensure I have a strong body for the rest of my life. I have a strong why associated with this goal and I am working towards it every week. My minimum baseline right now is to workout 4 days a week. This is something I feel I can fairly easily do no matter what. My max goal (if I’m fully “on it”) each week is to complete 4 full on-plan workouts (about an hour each), plus 2 walks (30 minutes each). If I achieve anything along this range, I declare VICTORY and CELEBRATE.
Here is another example related to writing — could be a novel, a blog post, a business strategy, a presentation. A minimum baseline goal might be to write 3 pages/paragraphs of content or to write for 30 minutes each week. Your max goal might be to write 10 pages/paragraphs of content or to write for an hour each week. Perhaps you want to work less hours each week at your day job. A minimum baseline goal could be to stop working at 4pm once a week. A max goal might be to stop working at 4pm three times a week.
Again, if you land within your defined "range" of achievement, declare victory and celebrate. I mean it — literally have some kind of celebration for yourself.
And for my fellow perfectionists and high achievers, gut check that minimum baseline goal. Most likely you’ll need to cut it in half! It really should be something that you can do EASILY NO MATTER WHAT. It is not supposed to be super impressive, it is supposed to be super solid and reliable, a way for you to take action consistently towards your goal even if you have no motivation. Remember that you can always revisit and refresh your minimum baseline and max goal as you learn more or if unexpected events occur throughout your overall goal journey.
2. Create a protocol that will shut down the debate between your future-self and your present-self.
If you are like me, my unmotivated present-self (me now) is incredible at debating with my future-self (who I will become after achieving my goal). After all, there are 1000 reasons why it is perfectly reasonable for me NOT to take the action I had planned to take and then I cycle them over and over in my mind until time runs out: “I’m tired. It’s too hard. I don’t want to. What’s the point. It doesn’t really matter.” Sometimes my present-self makes a particularly good point like “I built in flexibility for just this time. I don’t feel well and so will just do my minimum baseline or I will move this action to tomorrow and still get to my weekly goal.”
Here is my protocol that shuts down the debate:
I revisit my STRONG WHY. I remember why I’m pursuing the goal in the first place.
I revisit my options. Do I have any flexibility to not take the action but still meet my minimum baseline goal for the week? Do I like my reasons for choosing to adjust the action I had planned?
I have a powerful “shut down thought” that stops the debate in my head and gets me taking action. For my strong body goal it is: “I am an athlete. This is what athletes do.” This is a very personal thought that works for me. You’ll need to find one that creates a strong sense of certainty/commitment for you.
3. Allow yourself grace if you veer off your planned path.
We often beat ourselves up for “losing our motivation” or “breaking our commitment”. You may take a slight detour off the main path. It happens. What if you looked at the situation as a correct and continue moment? Nothing is lost. The accumulation of steps and progress was just paused on the main path. You aren’t starting all over. There is no subtraction, just the addition of progress along with a great dose of learning gained during the detour. The main path is always right there waiting to welcome you back, without judgement.
If you need help sticking to your goals with or without the elusive “motivation”, book a free consult with me via my website https://www.jennifergibbscoaching.com. I’d love to coach you forward.