What Is Motivation?
The idea of motivation seems fairly straightforward on the surface, but when you don’t have the motivation to complete basic daily tasks, you realize it’s not that easy. And it can be frustrating to know that your ability to keep your life in order is so dependent on something that feels so out of your control.
Motivation is huge in therapy. Many people come in looking for help to regain the motivation they used to have and to explore why they can’t seem to do the things they want to do or need to do.
Motivation is also a bit of a paradox. My clients who are depressed, lost, and frustrated are all looking for the motivation to get them going in life. But my clients who are high functioning don’t see motivation as a relevant factor. They don’t get up every day because they want to, but because it’s built into their routines.
Don’t Wait to Want It
Structure and habit seem to be the key to bypassing motivation. If you only get out of bed when you want to, there will be some days when you simply don’t feel like it. But if you decide that you get out of bed every morning when your alarm goes off, you aren’t waiting to see how you’re feeling first.
Motivation Follows Obligation
This explains why many people can do well at work but have a hard time doing things they would like to be doing with their personal time. The external structure of work creates certain obligations- be up and ready by a certain time in the morning whether you want to or not, do your routine job tasks regardless of how you’re feeling, attend meetings when they’re scheduled even if it’s not your preference. At home it’s flipped. You want to start reading more, take up a new hobby or craft project, do a puzzle. But then the “I’ll just watch one episode with dinner” becomes a few episodes, or you’re comfy on the couch and it feels easier to stay seated than to get up and do some yoga.
Motivation Follows Habit
How do you motivate yourself? With each new habit. Every time you create a new narrative of how your evenings go. When you decide that you are a person who works out every day after work whether you feel like it or not. Every night that you decide that 9pm is when all the screens go off so you have time to read.
The narrative is the key to a new habit. It shapes your new identity as someone who does these things instead of someone who wants to start doing those things someday. Identity stories are powerful. When it’s 5am, an identity story of “I’d like to be a runner but I’m not there yet” isn’t going to get you out of bed. But when you decide “I’m a morning runner,” you find that your motivation shapes itself to the identity that you declare for yourself. Of course it isn’t as simple as naming yourself a runner, but that’s often the first step.
Try it on with something you’ve been meaning to start or get better at.
“I’m the kind of person who……”
“I ……….. every night after work.”
“I like to ……….. at least three times a week.”
Create Your Identity
These decisions are powerful. If you hit the gym every day after work, that becomes your routine. When coworkers ask if you want to get drinks after work, you can draw on your identity story to protect your time. You can still go out, but you’ve got to work out first and you’ll join them after.
As you shape these identity narratives into a habit, the action becomes routine. Motivation is not a relevant factor. You wake up early to run because that’s just what you do. Think of other routines you have. Severely depressed people often don’t shower or brush their teeth. They can’t motivate themselves to get up and take care of their hygiene. But most people who aren’t depressed don’t even think about it. They brush their teeth at certain times of the day whether they feel like it or not.
Motivation Is Not Important
Focus on motivation isn’t helpful because it requires you to be monitoring your internal state which is naturally highly variable. You will not always “feel like” doing things you need to do. Taking on a new habit means that you decide that you will do things regardless of how you feel.
Here’s the lesson: if you’re focused on motivation, you’re looking for internal resources to create an external structure. Try it the other way instead. Create the external structures- scheduling, habit forming, identity narrative- and don’t worry about waiting until you feel like following through. Because once you’ve created that habit, it doesn’t matter if you internally want to keep going, it’s just something that you do.
If you want help through this journey, click here to find out how I can help you.