I’ve never seen beating yourself up as an effective form of exercise. Yet, we do it all the time. Especially this time of the year when we review our goals for the year, and realize how many of them are still on the “someday” list, or look at the list of things we need to do before the holidays and realize that we’d need a week of Mondays to get it all done.
So how do we get motivated to do what needs doing?
The word “motivate” is a fairly recent invention as words go. You won’t have to visit the Urban Dictionary to find it, but it it first came into usage in the early 1800’s as a combination of “motive” and “action.” Literally it means to give someone a motive to take action.
Pretty much every motive you can invent falls into one of two categories; something you want, or something you want to avoid. The carrot or the stick. So which motive works best with you? Here are three things to think about before you answer that question.
You Have to Believe in the Consequence.
Consequences can be positive or negative, your actions or lack thereof might result in getting what you want, or getting what you want to avoid. But if you don’t BELIEVE that the consequences are real the motive isn’t going to be real either.
We are naturally programmed to be more willing to believe in bad things without proof than we are good things. So it’s easier to convince ourselves that the stick is real. If that doesn’t make sense just look at it this way — we’re wired for survival. Our natural focus is on preventing bad things, even when we’re working toward a good thing, like food on the table, our natural translation system says we’re taking action in order to not starve. For basic survival, we need to believe in the stick, even when we cannot see it, because in the bad old days sticks that you didn’t believe in made you dead.
But you don’t want to live in basic survival mode, do you? So how do you make the carrot more believable? While the practices of writing out your goals, creating vision boards, repeating affirmations or mantras, and meditative visualization are often dismissed as too “woo-woo” to have any practical application, the truth is that, regardless of your understanding of spiritual or metaphysical principles, they serve to ignite a physical response in the brain. Called the “reticular activating system,” this response has the power to hone your focus and attention. And, because your brain cannot differentiate between events that have happened and events or consequences you’ve imagined, you can use it to make that carrot very real indeed. Used properly and consistently, journal writing, goal setting, and various forms of visualization can not only make the carrot visible, they can make it reachable.
Intention Doesn’t Matter, Words Do.
The brain is highly literal. You cannot put yourself down in a loving way without the brain feeling the sting of the stick. And you cannot say anything to others without saying it to yourself as well. So when you say, “No, I’d better stay up and finish that report or my boss will kill me,” you’re threatening yourself with a form of death at the hands of your boss. Of course, that won’t convince you rational mind that your boss is an over-reactive murderer of people who are late turning in reports, but your subconscious just got programmed with the message that something really bad will happen if that report isn’t done before you go to bed.
Just as it’s easier to believe in bad consequences (threats) it’s also easier to participate in negative self-talk. What we don’t realize is that when we do that we’re threatening ourselves. And over time, those threats become our default belief setting. Which means we’re functioning under stress, even when there is no real threat on the horizon. The stress hormones accumulate in our bodies, creating chronic anxiety, and perhaps even physical aches and pains. The brain is now working through the fog of fight or flight hormones which means our thinking is not as clear, and our decision making skills are compromised.
All from trying to use a “swift kick in the pants” to get through our to-do list and achieve our goals. Positive intention, not positive outcomes.
Do You Need to Just Get Started, or Do You Also Want to Keep Going?
The threat of the stick can certainly get your attention, and it might get you moving. But it won’t keep you going over the long haul. But focusing on a carrot that really matters, and that you believe in, is what will keep you getting up to tackle that to-do list day after day.
While danger is the most powerful short-term motivator, desire is the most powerful long-term motivator in the known world. Avoiding immediate threat will certainly give you a motive to take action, but unless you’re under continued threat, that motive is short-lived. In fact, if you’re under imminent threat for too long a time it’s likely that your system will overload, shut down, and refuse to get moving again. However, staying keenly focused on what you desire provides an ongoing motive for action.
When I get the “blahs” I know I have to recreate my vision for what I desire. I have to focus on it, I have to repeatedly bring my attention back to it, I have to connect to it emotionally, I have to believe it’s attainable, and I have to believe that the actions I am asking myself to take will increase the likelihood of my attaining it. That’s my carrot. The stick is easier, but the carrot is more sustainable.
We all get discouraged, we all fall prey to self-deprecation, but what we need isn’t self-blame, it’s self-responsibility. You hold both the carrot and the stick, it’s up to you which you’ll offer to yourself as a motive for action.
Photo: Flickr/Clay Junell