The essence of motivation
A student recently came to me with a question: How do I get myself to study History when I don’t want to do it? I try to force myself, but then I get distracted or forget.
Solving this problem is the essence of motivation.
This often happens when we’re doing something that feels hard…and there’s always stuff in our life that feels hard, or outside our comfort zone. When it comes up, a sense of resistance or inaction often comes up too.
Whether it’s studying Spanish, bringing up a difficult topic with a loved one, or doing the last bit of editing on a project that doesn’t light your fire, we all face activities and tasks that we’d rather not do — but that still need to be done.
The “Old School” method is to force yourself — to just suck it up and do it. It’s a method that relies on willpower.
But is forcing yourself really the answer? If not, how can you get things done when you really don’t want to do them?
The problem with willpower
The newest research shows that willpower isn’t reliable. Your level of willpower depends on how much energy you have. Specifically, activities that require willpower use glucose in the brain. As the day goes on and glucose in your brain is used up or diverted for other purposes, less of it is available for “forcing yourself” to do uninspiring tasks. (Roy Baumeister, author of Willpower, talks about this).
A healthy mid-afternoon snack can help boost your energy. But the drains on willpower are everywhere. Every decision you make, every temptation you resist, every complex problem you solve depletes your daily supply of willpower. For many of us, by the end of the day, we’re out.
If you rely on willpower to get you through the day, expect that some things — even important things — won’t get done.
So what’s the solution?
It turns out that people who really get things done don’t depend on willpower. They don’t force themselves to do anything. Instead, they do all the “heavy lifting” ahead of time, by creating structures to make the task easy.
The power of simple
Difficult things are often, in essence, simple. I remember being fascinated by this when many years ago I studied the martial art of Aikido.
In martial arts, you don’t have the luxury of thinking through every possible move in the moment you’re attacked. Instead, you’ve planned them in advance. When someone reaches for you, you step this way. When they grab you from behind, you move closer and turn.
Of course simple doesn’t always mean easy. Learning how to hold your body, when to move, and where to rest your attention can take years of practice. But the movement itself — a half step backward, a slight movement of the arm — is simple. A tiny movement, and the attacker is down.
A new way of making decisions
Imagine how much easier it would be if you could start that History homework (or finish that editing) with just a gentle nudge. Here’s how to make it happen:
To preserve willpower, don’t wait until you need to take action. Instead, pre-make your decisions.
Let’s take a look at how this might work for studying History. Make all the decisions about your study session the day before, or on the weekend.
- What time will I get started?
- How long will I study?
- What topics/chapters/big ideas will I study?
- Where will I sit while I’m studying?
- What materials will I need? (gather them ahead of time and set them out)
- What will I have accomplished by the end of the study session?
Once those decisions are made, it’s much easier to get started. Write one sentence, or read one paragraph. Then, pat yourself on the back, or give yourself a high-five, and finish the study session.
Give your conversations a good start
You can pre-make other kinds of decisions as well. Let’s look at how this might work with bringing up a difficult topic instead of sweeping it under the rug.
First, you need to know that the first three minutes of a conversation predict the outcome of the conversation with amazing accuracy. Therefore it makes sense to think about how you start.
Of course there is much more to a conversation than starting it. But if your goal is to get your point across and stay calm, pre-making your decisions is an essential first step. You might ask yourself questions like these:
- When is a good time for the two of us to talk?
- How long will the conversation be? (“Until we’re done” is not a good option. Think 10-20 minutes.)
- What kind of conversation do you want — to express yourself, or solve a problem?
- How do you want your partner to feel at the end of the conversation?
- What will you do to help create this feeling?
Once you’ve made these decisions, write them on an index card so you can refer to them before (and during) the conversation.
Simplicity, not force
In the case of my client and his History homework, once he started to pre-make his study decisions, his homework got easier and his test scores improved.
Motivation is about simplicity, not force. It’s about finding — or creating — the easiest possible path to your goal. The difficult part — the daily practice in Aikido, the decisions about study — can be taken care of in advance. Pre-making decisions is a powerful way to bring simplicity and motivation into your daily life.
This article is the first in a series of 3 on motivation. In our next article we’ll talk about the connection between motivation and boredom, and 4 simple ways to increase your motivation.