The motivation fallacy
Take a moment to think of a time when you were highly motivated. Perhaps you were searching for another job, studying for an exam or training for a sporting event. What was going on, both for yourself and in your environment that explained such high motivation?
I suspect that you experienced one or more of the following:
- Enjoying what you were doing.
- Feeling supported from/connected to others.
- Excitement about the prospect of achieving something.
- Fear of failing.
- Confidence in your ability.
Motivation is widely considered to be a fundamental pre-requisite to achievement. Whatever brings you to coaching, be it developing greater self-confidence, managing stress or seeking a career change, success in any goal is predicated on motivation. One can only hope to change unhelpful thinking that perpetuates anxiety, break free from unhealthy relationship patterns, or finally stop smoking if there is sufficient motivation in the first place.
At least, that’s according to most self-help gurus and indeed has been a commonly held view in the psychology profession. The positive psychology movement in large part is focused on encouraging an optimistic disposition in order to support high motivation.
This may all be a fallacy.
The Acceptance and Commitment approach
A more recent theory - known as the Acceptance and Commitment approach in psychology -growing in popularity with a significant evidence-base, suggests that controlling our motivation may be a red herring.
According to this theory (which I subscribe to), the problem with motivation is that it is fundamentally about feelings. Feelings hugely influence our motivation, in both good and bad ways. I was motivated to attend the gym this morning because I enjoyed the experience of training and pushing my physical limits. I am motivated to play tennis because I enjoy sport, have a level of competence that makes me feel confident when I play and enjoy the camaraderie of playing with others. Enjoyment, confidence and connectedness are feelings that support my motivation.
Feelings also motivate us to act in ways that we know are not in our best interests. I was motivated to eat the most fantastic ice cream recently because I have a sweet tooth, and the anticipated pleasure of consumption was more powerful than my long term goal of eating healthily.
Or consider the person who has an affair, succumbing to the temptation of short-term pleasure even though they are aware of the long-term damage to their relationship. Or consider the procrastinator, who doesn’t study for an exam because they find the work boring or don’t have the confidence that they will succeed. Their feelings (in this case, of being unable to tolerate boredom and low confidence) motivate them to do something other than studying. In all cases, feelings outweigh what one knows to be the best long-term decision.
Motivation is, therefore, traditionally seen through the lens of feelings. And the way to manage your motivation is to manage your feelings. When we generate the appropriate feelings, we achieve a desired level of motivation. Except there is a huge flaw in this plan: we have far less control over our feelings than we like to think.
As a thought experiment, imagine someone putting a gun to your head and telling you not to feel afraid. How confident are you that you could carry out that instruction?
An alternative approach is not to even bother trying to manage your feelings. Feelings are ephemeral, and we can never really know why we feel moody one day or happy on another. My feelings change depending on how well I’ve slept, how well I’ve eaten, if the sun is shining, the state of my current relationships, to name just four factors. We are slaves to our emotions and to rely on, or attempt to control them in order to manage our motivation is a fool's errand.
A commitment-led life
Instead, I suggest a more useful term than motivation is commitment. Commitment allows us to extricate ourselves from the power of feelings, as it is rooted in our values. By values, I simply mean what is important to us. Being values-led is to strive to act in a manner that is consistent with what is important to us.
There can be few parents who feel motivated to spend their Saturdays at the soft play centre. I’m sure they can think of many more exciting activities on their day off. But they take their children because they are committed. And the commitment is rooted in their love for their child and the power of their values.
A commitment approach will not leave you impervious to the pull of in-the-moment feelings, but it better equips you to take action even when you don’t feel like doing so.
The first step towards leading a commitment-led life is to clarify your values. Make a list of what’s important to you in all areas of your life – work, play, relationships etc. Then write down what actions are consistent with each value. This can be used as a framework, which can be continually refined, to help guide your behaviour.
When you are struggling with motivation, or about to do something you know not to be consistent with your values, ask yourself what is driving your behaviour. What desire are you seeking to satisfy? Short-term pleasure? A need for excitement? Or maybe the avoidance of discomfort? Then ask yourself if to act on this desire would be consistent with your values, and would enhance your life in the long-term? Commitment isn’t a panacea but is an effective way to achieve our goals even if we are not feeling motivated to do so.
*This article is grounded in Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, and largely informed by the work of Dr Russ Harris. For a comprehensive understanding of this approach, see his book The Confidence Gap.
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