Monday, December 6, 2010

At War With Yourself.

Generally we blame motivation or a lack of willpower for failing to keep our Resolutions. But this is too simplistic a view. If you want to create an endless source of motivation you have to understand what motivation is and how it works. Everything in life has many, many layers and levels to it. And motivation is no different.

No one has ever lacked motivation. Probably the most common area where people talk about motivation is losing weight and exercising. Now why is someone overweight? Because they have too much motivation for the foods that make them put on weight. Why don’t people exercise? Because they are more motivated to do anything rather than exercise. The problem is not motivation. We are always motivated, but for the things that we feel will bring the greatest rewards or the least pain.

Our motivation depends to a great extent on your personality. Introverts are more interested in avoiding pain, whereas Extroverts are more concerned with possible rewards. Some people have a longer-term view of life, others care more about now. So an Introvert with a longer-term perspective is far more likely to choose the fat-free option because he or she wants to avoid the pain of being overweight. Whereas a more impulsive Extrovert will probably go for the chocolate cake because the reward now is far more exciting than the possible pain in the future.

Everything we do is based on an economic mindset. By economic I don’t mean financial, but we do attribute everything with a value, and we continually look to maximize our pleasure and reduce our pain. So if your Resolutions aren't working out, look for what you are valuing more. The pay-off may not be obvious or even now, but on some layer or level there must be a pay-off.

This brings us to another aspect of motivation. Different Resolutions work on different levels and as a result access different sources of motivation. The source of motivation you are using will determine how long you stay motivated for.

What does this mean?

Well, there are four levels of Resolution that I can think of. And each one has a slightly longer life span than the last. I think of them like this:

1. The Resolution you make because it’s expected of you.

This type of Resolution has no real emotional pay-off to you. It’s just something you are doing because doing something else may cause you the pain of disapproval or the risk of standing out and appearing abnormal. Doing what’s expected is easy. It saves anyone nagging you and the effort of thinking for yourself, but once you are out of that situation its hard to maintain, because it loses it’s reward and you have to suffer the pain of carrying it out.

2. The Resolution you make because you feel bad at the moment.

This type of Resolution is made as a knee jerk reaction in the moment to get rid of a pain. So it has an emotional pay-off, but as soon as the pain has gone there is no reason to continue.
For example, if you really analyse why people exercise, you’ll find that they tend to do it because they’re fed up being overweight or unfit or whatever. But this isn't a sudden decision. Most have been considering exercising for months or even years. What really gets them to start is a more intense emotional pain. Either a Doctor scares them into exercising or more often it’s a time when they feel insecure. Perhaps they have just got divorced… or their relationship is hitting a rocky patch and they are thinking of either competing for their Partner or being back on the dating market. Whatever the specifics they feel so bad when they worry that they have to do something to ease the pain. Yes, they say they're determined to stay on the program this time. I know its not a quick fix but they mean it when they say it. Two or three months later though, the situation that was causing the pain has resolved itself one way or another. So the incentive for exercising has gone. Yet still the grind of going through the boring routine is still there. Sooner or later the pain of exercising outweighs the pain relief it used to bring, and then the Resolution ends.

3. The Resolution you make because you want something.

Sometimes this level comes from wanting something to get rid of a pain. And sometimes it just a natural ambition to grow. It lasts until you outgrow the desire or something better comes along.
Often people will go through the other levels of Resolution. And with each stage of evolution they find that life in general starts to feel better after overcoming a problem. Then somewhere something just clicks and they realize that they feel better because each problem caused them to grow, in order to resolve it. The idea pops into their head that if they were to just grow for the sake of it… life might get more and more enjoyable, because this resolution is based on a far more permanent feeling it lasts for far longer than the previous motivations, which were just passing wants. However what you want and do to feel good will change as you grow. One time you may want X, but three months or three years (depending on how quickly you are evolving) later you change your mind about what will make you feel good. Then your Resolution will change possibly before your motivation goes.

4. The Resolution you make because it’s you.

There are some things that you just feel so strongly about that you absolutely must do them or you would never do them. This is because they just aren't you. So the motivation for this type of resolution will last for as long as your identity remains constant. Overcoming these problems or achieving these desires causes us to grow and evolve. Once we grow there is no going back. Try not being able to ride a bike or do up your shoelaces. So problems and desires are the carrot and the stick forcing us to evolve. 

"When you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot in it and hang on." - Thomas Jefferson

Eventually we can reach a stage where we realize that… all along it was us that created the problems. And if we just accept ourselves as we are… we can enjoy all of life and life will enjoy us.

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