Positive Psychology


The Art of Getting Motivated

It is time once again for those New Year’s resolutions. During or immediately following the holidays many of us reflect on what was satisfying, fulfilling or rewarding last year, or on those areas that we would like to change during the New Year.

The proposed changes may be in strengthening competencies or correcting deficiencies in ourselves, or changing behaviors in others (good luck with that).

How many times have you said to yourself or someone else, “I know I should, but I just cannot seem to get motivated? How can I get my act together to get going and do what I know I have to do?”

We often know what we need to do. But getting motivated is not easy. Whether to lose weight, exercise, quit smoking, get a job, budget more wisely (the list goes on)—often it is difficult to just get started.
Motivation—what is it?

Perhaps it will help to understand motivation if we discuss what it is, and why we have such a problem getting motivated.

Motivation is a concept. Psychologists tell us that motivation comes from a need that energizes behavior and directs it toward a goal.

Let’s use losing weight as an example. If we want to lose weight (our need) and we are motivated, then we will make better choices about what we eat and we will exercise (energize and direct our behavior) in order to reach the goal of losing weight. Sounds easy, does it not?

Why it’s so hard to get motivated

Let’s not kid ourselves. It takes a major kick in the rear to change our behavior. Psychologists tell us that one reason it is so difficult to get motivated is that we are often presented with choices that conflict with one another.

In psychology we call these conflicts approach-approach or approach-avoidance. Approach-approach conflicts present two equally desirable options, making it difficult to choose between them. For example, shall I have a Big Mac (approach) or Double Cheeseburger (approach)? Shall I buy this dress (approach) or that tunic (approach)? We want to save our money (approach), but we really want the latest cellphone (approach).

Approach-avoidance conflicts involve a desirable option paired against an undesirable one; we want to lose weight (approach), but we want the cheesecake (avoidance-because we would gain weight). Is it any wonder that it is so difficult to change eating (or any other) behavior?

Another reason why it is so difficult to get motivated is that we are afraid of failure. Perhaps we have tried to lose weight or quit smoking more than once and did not succeed. What reason would there be for us to be successful this time? Overcoming this fear is part of what getting motivated is about.
Why it’s difficult to stay motivated

Not only are we presented with conflicting choices and the fear of failure (and sometime success), but even when we make the decision to change our behavior, it is not easy to continue with the new behaviors. Ask any smoker how easy it is to quit. Many will say, “It is easy to quit. I’ve done it a dozen times”.

Making the decision to change behavior is only the first step in an effort to get motivated.  The change in behavior comes from the “need” to alter what we are doing. Now, we have to follow through with the long-term goal.

Helpful behaviors

Making weight-loss a long-term goal means developing a plan to get from our current weight to our desired weight. That process requires a plan.

For most people, the plan includes a lifestyle change. It may mean limiting foods we love, counting calories, learning a new method of food preparation, eating less of fast food, and exercising.

To some, just the mention of working out is tiring. However, it is exercise that burns calories, and results not only in our weighing less, but feeling more energized and wanting to eat less. We have to MOVE!

And what if we fail?  All of us falter at times, but we pick ourselves up and try again. Some of the greatest successes in business and in human relations came about after periods of failure.

Remember the childhood story of The Little Engine That Could? He said, “I think I can, I think I can”, until he passed over the crest of the mountain. In getting motivated, we must pass “over the crest of the mountain” so we can say “I thought I could” as we succeed.

Helpful self-talk

Getting motivated also means discovering your capabilities; identifying your goals, talking to yourself, having pep rallies. Spend time accentuating your strengths. Do not let anyone discourage you. You really can get motivated, you absolutely can change what you do. Keep telling yourself that you are capable, you are committeed to achieving your goals, and you are worth it!

Helpful feelings

Allow yourself the luxury of feeling proud of your efforts to get motivated and change behavior. It is OK to feel good about yourself and what you are able to accomplish through your own initiative and effort.

It is self- and soul-satisfying to feel the glow that comes from a job well-done, as you take charge, recognize your need, develop a plan, energize your behavior and direct it toward a goal.

As Robert Louis Stevenson said in Of Men and Books (1882), “To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life.” That is what motivation is about, and that is what makes it an art.

Contact Dr. Thompson at caroltmcc@comcast.net


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