How To Get Motivated (And Stay That Way)
It's time again.
Your repeating project, your commute to work, your [insert daily torture here] that never seems to go away. The argument keeps coming up, you keep having the same fight with your kids, your family is on your back again.
When times get tough, how do we stick to the course?
When all we want to do is quit, how do we get the motivation to continue doing what we know is right?
This does not only for situations when problems arise, but for situations where we know that we need to do something but have a difficult time getting started.
Whether it be the book that you know is in you, the business that you've always wanted to build, the perfect family life, better control over your money, or whatever else that you know that you need, what is the best way to get started on that?
You need some motivation. And I'm going to make a wild claim: humans always do what they are most motivated to.
They have to.
Babies, Decisions, And Bad Habits
Imagine a few scenarios with me and pick the one that most closely applies to you.
1. You wake up early in the morning (despite hating mornings) and go to your job (despite also hating your job).
2. You spend time pursuing your dream and passion even though it means long, painful hour of reading, researching, and self-improvement.
3. Your newborn child wakes you up crying in the middle of the night. You would really rather go back to sleep, but know that your child needs to be taken care of, so you do what needs to be done.
Whichever situation applies most closely to you, all of these situations share a few things in common: you are faced with a situation you don't want to confront but you do it anyways.
These mental exercises show an interesting trait present among humans: we are allowed to choose what we do and do not do. We have control over our choices and over the actions we make.
A big debate in the fields of psychology and philosophy deals with whether or not humans have free will, but the debate over whether or not you and I are free can be both misguided and destructive. (If you'd like to learn more about the debate on whether or not we are free anyway, I recommend trying here and here).
So instead of debating relentlessly, let's look at the science.
In a study on the effects of emotions and decision making, Antonio Damasio looked at multiple patients who suffered brain damage to the amygdala or the orbitofrontal cortex. This brain damage rendered many of his patients largely unable to feel emotion.
Never hating your job again sounds like a superpower, right? You're probably thinking "Gee, if I didn't hate half my life, I could accomplish anything!"
But not so fast. Among Damasio's patients that lacked emotion, decision making wasn't actually easier.
It was more difficult. Much more difficult.
In fact, some patients, despite not losing any IQ, were rendered completely unable to make decisions. Even small decisions that had little impact on the day were turned into sources of endless debate. (source).
Damasio expounds on his research in the book Descates' Error. His argument is that without emotion, while we are undoubtedly more logical and no less intelligent, we lack sufficient motivation to accomplish tasks and make decisions.
Damasio argued that without motivation inherent to emotion, we are rendered incapable of making decisions.
If you will remember the examples mentioned earlier, each one had a difficult or painful event. Yet in each of those examples, you ended up doing what needed to be done (nice job, you) in spite of the pain and discomfort.
This is because by nature, humans always follow our greatest desire and our greatest motivation.
You hate going to work, but you know you need money, so you go anyways.
You don't enjoy spending time reading or working on your passion that you feel isn't going anywhere, but you know that you have a chance to make a difference and be happy, so you do it anyways.
You don't want to get out of bed at 3 a.m. for your screaming child, but you love your baby, so you do it anyways.
In each of these situations, the motivation to act is greater than the motivation to not do anything.
And since science shows that good habits are hard to start (source) and bad habits are hard to break (source), it's not an extreme conclusion to say that it is difficult to change our decision making process in a long and lasting way.
So don't change your decision making process.
Change your motivations.
Want To Be A World-Class Achiever? Try Team Games
Humans are social creatures from just about every angle that you wanna look at it. Whether you're looking at research showing we're happier when surrounded by happy people (source) or that just talking to people on a bus makes you happier (source), it is obvious that we're best when we're with others.
A recent poll by Gallup looked at whether or not having a best friend at work changed your performance at your job. Results were nothing less than astonishing.
People who reported having a best friend at work were:
And in addition to all this, people who reported having best friends at work recorded significantly higher levels of healthy stress management compared to people who didn't have best friends at work. (source).
What does all this have to do with motivation?
With all the research in mind, it seems that one of the best ways to increase your motivation is simply to improve your positive friendships.
The key word in that last sentence is the word "positive". Simply increasing your existing number of friendships may not be effective; quality is greater than quantity in this regard.
Research gives us reasons why we should hang out with people who are better than we are. A study on obesity found that when you have an obese friend, you are 57% more likely to be obese yourself, but the results of this study showed an even deeper importance in choosing your friends:
When a friend of a friend is obese, you have a 25% higher chance of being obese. When a friend of a friend of a friend (yep, 3 levels out) is obese, you are 10% more likely to be obese. These statistics are true even if you've never met these friends of friends. (source).
While we should never judge someone's success by their weight, this study shows the power of friendships and how likely we are to mimic those who are close to us. This law of averages is important: one of Jim Rohn's most powerful quotes says that "You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with."
And when asked what advice he would put on a billboard, Tim Ferriss said it would be "You are the average of the five people you most associate with."
So to increase your motivation's starting and staying power, increase the quality of your friendships. This can include developing deeper friendships with people you admire, spending time with people who have accomplished things you want, finding a mentor, escaping negative interactions as much as possible, or simply trying to mimic great qualities in great people.
Whatever action works best for your situation in life, the research is clear: having positive friendships increases performance and motivation while negative friendships decrease it.
Want To Be A World-Class Achiever? Play Follow The Leader
Many people are familiar with research popularized in Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers claiming that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice was necessary to make someone an expert at something. When hearing that statistic, a few questions come to mind.
First, what exactly is deliberate practice? People understand that deliberate practice is practicing to the point of failure, but what does that actually mean in my life and in my goals?
Second, how do I know what to practice? While I can certainly be an expert at quoting Brian Regan, that won't provide much value in my life for the long term. What do I need to practice to become a true expert at my chosen field, goal, or dream?
And if you don't know who Brian Regan is... (video has mild language).
Finally, what in the world causes someone to practice at something for 10,000 hours anyways? If a person spent 40 hours a week on this project, the length of a typical workweek, solely filled with deliberate practice to failure, then that person is going to need five years to become an expert.
And while five years may not sound like much, remember that it's probably not too difficult to spend 40 hours a week on a hobby unless you have a job, any social life whatsoever, or a need to eat between now and the next half-decade.
All of these questions can be solved by having a mentor: someone who is already an expert in the field that you are pursuing. A mentor can teach you what deliberate practice in your field looks like, can show you how to best apply it, and keeps you staying the course until you yourself are an expert.
The importance of mentors can be seen in leading psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's book, Creativity: Csikszentmihalyi interviewed 91 highly creative people, including 14 Nobel Prize winners.
Csikszentmihalyi found that by the time almost every single one of these high achievers were college-aged, they had a mentor. Csikszentmihalyi's conclusion is that a mentor is not necessary to unlock someone's talent, but the presence of a mentor has the potential to make a lot of difference in someone's life.
So if you want to get and stay motivated, it may just be time to find someone who can show you the ropes and keep you in the ring when the fight gets going.
You need a mentor.
See It Yet?
Since the dawn of man, the brain has pretty much baffled all of us. Science is largely unsure how a glorified slab of meat can perform such a wide variety of functions like language acquisition, fine motor skills, and reminding the body to keep digesting food while using so little energy.
In recent attempts to mimic the brain's complexity and efficiency, one of the world's supercomputers took 82,944 processors and about one hour of real time to mimic one second worth of brain activity. (source).
With such a powerful tool inside out heads, it's no surprise that some people want to master it... and others want to monetize it.
Brain games have become popular in recent years as a form of training the mind. Research shows that some are helpful (source), others are not (source), and that video games may hold the key to teaching new skills quickly and enjoyably (source).
In the context of all this brain training, one brain exercise is heard of more than any other in self-help and self-improvement circles: positive visualization.
And to be entirely honest, I was a little surprised in my research to find that science has recorded no benefits of positive visualization (much to the horror of every motivational speaker since time began).
In fact, positive visualization was shown to have a negative correlation to achievement. While sad to hear, the most likely cause is that our brain has trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality; visualizing and dreaming of an outcome literally saps us from energy we otherwise spend being productive. (source).
Yet there is an alternative to positive visualization made popular in Eric Barker's book Barking Up The Wrong Tree (this book is so good, it made our list of best self-help books). The alternative, as Barker describes it, has, "the silliest name in all of social science." It's called WOOP.
Yep. You can improve your motivation to accomplish a task using a method that sounds like it came from your five year old.
WOOP is powerful because it picks up the slack where positive visualization stops: when you WOOP, you have to envision your obstacles and define a clear way that you will overcome them when (not if) they arrive in your dream scenario.
Here's how to WOOP:
Wish: What is your dream? What do you want the future to look like?
For example: "I want a perfect marriage."
Outcome: Be specific. What does wish look like for you?
"I would never have any fights with my spouse."
Obstacles: What is in the way that will cause problems for my wish and outcome?
"One day my spouse and I may disagree over money."
Plan: Set up If/Then scenarios to handle these problems.
"If we start arguing about money, I will sit down with my spouse, listen to their point of view with the intent to understand, not with the intent to refute their point of view, and then discuss solutions to the problem."
WOOP is quite literally the exact opposite of positive visualization; it is classified as negative visualization. And while the benefits of positive visualization have been battered and bruised by science, negative visualization has a lot of research, both science and experience based, backing it.
As recorded in the book A Guide To The Good Life, Stoic philosophers would often ask the question "What is the worst possible thing that could happen to me today?"
While this seems quite depressing, it is actually freeing. Imagining all that could go wrong can make you really appreciate when things don't go wrong and makes you more thankful for the things you have.
On a similar note, Steve Jobs said in his famous 2005 commencement speech, about minute 9, "Remembering I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in my life."
On the science side, negative visualization is so powerful it even has the ability to make you stronger without ever going to the gym.
The reason for this power is the same reason why positive visualization is so ineffective by itself: seeing an outcome literally causes your body to feel that the outcome is real. It takes your energy and saps your strength. When negative visualization imagines obstacles to overcome, your body trains itself to be prepared for these obstacles.
In one study, participants were split into several groups with the two most notable groups being the physical training and the mental training group. While the physical training group increased their strength by 53% over 12 weeks, the mental training group (with no physical training involved) increased their strength by 35% over the same time frame. (source).
When we visualize our problems (and see ourselves overcoming them), science is clear: you'll go much further and accomplish much more than just imagining that your dream life is happening to you.
Flash, The Brain, And The Little Voice In Your Head
On the ground, Wally can't be beaten, not even by Superman.
No one, in entire DC universe, knows exactly how fast the Flash is. He's so fast that he can pass lightspeed. He's so fast that after a nuclear explosion, he carried the entire population of a town in North Korea to safety before the explosion had time to reach them.
The Flash is so fast that he literally outran Death by running millions of years into the future on accident. (source)
Yep. Science has proven that the only people who talk to themselves are people who admit it... and people who are liars.
Yet self talk is so powerful that when Navy SEAL candidates were taught to make their self talk positive, their graduation rate increased from 25% to 33%. (source).
When we experience new tasks, our brains begin to analyze possible scenarios. We've already talked about why you should visualize the negative aspects of a task instead of the positive, but does this hold true for mental talk as well?
Should we tell ourselves and hear the same negative things we see in our minds?
Research shows that when we visualize negative things, we become prepared.
When we hear negative things, we become depressed.
So imagine negative things, hear positive things.
Positive self talk is necessary for motivation. Studies show that when we talk to ourselves positively, we perform better on a variety of tasks. This holds especially true if we talk to ourselves in the third person.
Reasons why third person self talk (using your name, saying "he/she is really going to accomplish this") is most effective is unclear. An educated guess is that third person self talk takes your mind out of the equation a bit.
Whatever the reason, when people were engaged in self talk, they performed better on a variety of physically demanding and emotionally frightening tasks. (source).
So to max out your motivation levels, start telling yourself that you are capable of accomplishing (and enjoying) the task in front of you. Visualize the negative, but listen to the positive.
That Famous Study Isn't Real, But This One Is
If you are a fan of self-help, you have almost undoubtedly at one point or another heard of a study citing that during a certain time frame, 3% of Harvard or Yale graduates made nearly ten times as much money as the other 97%.
The 3% wrote down their goals.
While whoever you heard this from is well meaning, this study never actually happened.
Yet that doesn't nail the coffin for goal setting; while that study is phony, another study is not:
In this real study, participants were separated into five groups and were each given different levels of activity that they needed to accomplish for their goals.
Two groups were told to write goals down, another group had to write down goals with action commitments, a different group had to do all that and then give these action commitments to a friend, and the last group had to do everything mentioned before as well as give this friend weekly progress reports.
The most successful group by a long shot was the group who wrote down their goals, made action commitments, gave these commitments to a friend, and then gave their friend weekly progress reports.
In other words, the most successful group was the group that forced themselves to succeed by making written goals, creating action plans, and holding themselves accountable.
These actions are so powerful that the group with the lowest commitment (only writing goals down) achieved about 43% of their goals. The most successful group with the most commitment achieved 76%. (source).
So while you may not make 10x more than 97% of Harvard or Yale graduates, you're statistically far more likely to achieve your goals if you write them, make a plan, and then force yourself to act by making a friend keep you accountable (this isn't nearly as embarrassing as I thought it would be - friends tend to be extremely impressed at your motivation and productivity).
And if we take another look back to Navy SEALs...
When SEALs were taught to set goals with their positive self-talk (and negative visualization), their graduation rates improved dramatically. And it seems like their favorite goals to set were goals that could be described as very, very small:
"Make it to lunch."
"Get out of this water."
"Don't panic." (source).
So despite the false studies presented as truth, goal setting does have serious benefits. For maximum effect:
1. Write your goals
2. Develop an action plan ("How am I going to accomplish this?"
3. Force yourself to be accountable (give goals to a friend, give friend progress reports - I promise it's not embarrassing. Your friend will be proud to have your trust and glad to encourage you)
4. Keep it small
World Of Warcraft At School And Work (Plus Why You Should Treat Yourself Today)
Joe was dead.
At least, he was going to be in a moment. Simon had just cut the rope.
It was undoubtedly a difficult decision for Simon, yet he knew that to save his own life, he had to let Joe die. The rope was cut, Joe fell, and if he had landed two feet to the right, he would have kept falling and inevitably been killed.
As it was, Joe had landed on an ice bridge. He was alive, but his broken leg and the sloped ice above him meant that he had no way of returning to Simon. In fact, the only direction Joe could go was down further into the crevasse.
So further down he went, crawling on his shattered bones.
When Joe saw a crack of sun, he knew he could somehow make it. He had no food, no water, but he did have one thing: that rock up ahead.
In the midst of his mountain climbing adventure gone horribly wrong, Joe recalls making a game out of his torturous crawl away from the mountain: he would try to make it to that rock in under 20 minutes. He would try to pass that patch of gravel in under 15.
Often he would fail, but each failure came not with a quit, but with a restart.
After three days of grueling torture and while highly delirious, Joe made it back to his base camp.
Joe tells his story in his book Touching The Void. His story emphasizes something important to the realm of motivation:
Turning tasks into games much us much more motivated to succeed.
In the book Sidetracked, Francesca Gino cites the study of a classroom of children, but this wasn't quite your ordinary classroom.
It was made to resemble World of Warcraft.
Children were given experience points, quests, and monsters. When a child did good on an assignment, they received points instead of a test score. During this period, children worked harder, studied more, cheated less, and were more enthusiastic about their time in class.
Shawn Anchor in The Happiness Advantage echoes this sentiment: he says that the best way to deal with stress is not to view it as a trial, but as a challenge. His book is so good that it made our list of best self help books.
And as with any game, remember to reward yourself after you have completed a challenge. The theory of operant conditioning states that an effective way to modify behavior is to reward good actions and punish negative actions, much as your parents taught you to do as a child. (source).
So next time you're faced with an obstacle, remember: this is a challenge. You can win this game.
And when you do win, treat yourself.
It's guaranteed to get you motivated and keep you there.
Thanks for reading!
Motivation is the great driver of human action. A person who commands their motivation also commands their destiny.
By controlling when we are motivated, we are able to construct the life we long to live. I hope today that I have helped you achieve that life.
Let me know in the comments: what's your most effective way to get motivated?
Stay awesome. Have a great day.
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