Archive for October, 2010


The Motivation Checklist


A week ago I asked the Internet what it does to “cultivate their motivation,” rather than just treat it like an unchangeable thing that you just have to hope you’re lucky enough to have. I received three different responses, from three different perspectives.

Sam focused on “an implicit belief that I do not have either the time, resources or ability to do what I want to do well.” Matt separated the question into short term and long term. I’ll leave his thoughts about the long-term for another day, but his short term focus was on powering through in order to get started. Eran focused on “appreciating how awesome what you’re doing could be, how much better your life could be when you’re done, and even how much you’ve already accomplished is key.”

I think that all of this is good advice, and I wanted to see if I could integrate them together into something a little systematic. I went to my library of psychology books to see if something worthwhile already existed by an established psychologist, but that was a failure. If anyone has a good lead, let me know.

I think motivation is a product of essentially two things, which Sam and Eran are dealing with, respectively: a belief that the goal one is pursuing is 1) possible to you and 2) worth the effort. There’s a lot of important detail to each, so, for example, “possible” doesn’t just mean having the materials or connections but also having the time.

The frustrating thing about not having motivation is that the cause of the problem doesn’t necessarily present itself. You just know you’re bored and then have to dig a bit to figure out why. I don’t know that this list is comprehensive yet, but next time you’re in a low motivation situation, I hope this can be helpful.

Questions relating to the goal’s worth
-Do I know what I want? It’s surprising how often people just fall into a goal without questioning why they are doing it.  
-Do I know how this action gets me what I want? And is the action a meaningful step?
-Is the goal specific, real and concrete to me? Or is it vague and abstract?
-Is there a limit to how much time, energy, money I will be spending on this thing? (ie Do I know the cost?)

Questions relating to possibility
-Do I have the time needed for the goal?
-Do I know how to measure how well I’m doing? And do I know where I am now?
-Do I have the skill needed? This can mean knowledge, effective habits, muscle memory.
-Do I have the money, relationships, reputation, or other resources needed?

If you can pinpoint exactly where the problem is, you can start to figure out what to do to solve it. In looking at the list, I realized a problem with my own motivation in this blog–I don’t know the time cost. I have a rough estimate regarding the time it takes for a weekly post (around four hours per week) but not regarding how long I will keep it going. Let’s say I will just focus on the next month and reevaluate then whether I reup. That’s three more posts this month. I have three quality post in me.   

So, Internet, what am I missing from the above list?


The McFly Effect


Anyone who has seen the Back to the Future Trilogy remembers the scene where Marty starts a fight because a bully calls him “chicken.” (Or the one where “chicken” taunts him into a bad business deal. Or the one where he’s tempted into a drag race. As a friend joked, Marty doesn’t actually have a psychological problem, he has a kill word.)

I had the same sort of problem for a while. Where Marty was held hostage by challenges to his courage, I was held hostage by challenges to my skill. The challenge didn’t even have to be intentional, as I could also be set off by a stray remark that something was hard or that a different person was really funny or intelligent (which, by implication, might mean that I was not particularly funny or intelligent). Under the grip of proving myself, I have taken on projects way out of my depth, declined to accept much needed help, engaged in stupid dares like eating a half-cup of wasabi all at once, and perhaps worst of all, stewed in frustration and self-pity instead of getting to know some pretty funny and intelligent people.

The funny thing is that this problem was actually rooted in something really, really good: my desire for skill and joy at times when I am able to do something. My appreciation for times when I’ve had something insightful to add to a conversation, for example, became neurosis that I should always be adding something insightful to a conversation, even when I was exhausted or the others in the conversation knew far more about the subject than I did or I simply didn’t actually have anything interesting to say on the subject.

The reason I’m sharing this is not self-disclosure but because I don’t think I’m alone on this one. It’s a problem you see often in ambitious people: a desire for something good somehow becomes twisted into pain and neurotic behavior at evidence of not having it (or not having as much as others). My particular variant was a desire for skill, but there are many others.  Common examples are number of friends, success in one’s career, respect, and money.

I think that the problem here is one of self-judgment. It’s hard to know how to judge one’s accomplishments and, by extension, one’s worth as a person. Do I have enough skill/friends/success/respect/money? Well, how could I decide when enough is enough? In absence of a clearly defined way of judging oneself, comparison with others is at least a common standard and might be a natural default standard.

I’ve seen a few different ideas about what the healthy standard could be, but this post is getting a little long now to discuss them all. I think it’s going to be a topic I return to a few times on the blog.  

So that I’m not completely opening a can of worms without closing it back up, I’ll end with how I got over my own problem. I realized that what I was expecting from myself was impossible: I was essentially demanding omnipotence in all situations. Obviously, that’s crazy. A person has only limited time and resources with which to develop a skill. When faced with someone else’s ability to do something, such as a backflip, that I’m not able to do; the correct thing to do is ask myself what would be involved in my developing that skill. Would I prefer to spend the time and energy (and healing) on perfecting a backflip or on learning more about psychology or watching a film? I’ll admit, learning how to backflip is tempting and I may actually attempt to learn how at some point, but it’s just not where I want to spend my time now.

I think the same pattern works for all values. The question is not “Do I have enough” but “Would I prefer to spend the time and energy to achieve this particular value, or would I prefer to spend my time elsewhere?” If the answer is that you want to do the work, make a plan. If the answer is that you don’t, then that’s fine. Accept and enjoy your current state. Everything else, just let it go.

So the standard then becomes not whether I’m happy with the current state of anything but rather whether I am happy with my choice of commitments. Am I building the skill I want, engaged in the kind of job that should give me the money I want, working toward the kinds of accomplishments I want? If so, then congrats; you win.

I’m not certain that’s it, and there’s definitely more to develop, but I submit the idea for your consideration.

[Hat tip to Sam Applebaum, whose concept of value neurosis clearly informed this post significantly. I might be dealing with the broader category?]


How Do You Inspire Yourself? (Yes, You, The Person Reading Right Now. I’m Asking.)


Last week’s post on inspiration sparked a comment that deserves further development. In my opinion, only the awesome power of the Internet is up to the task. I will build on your comments to write next week’s post.

Eran Dror wrote:

“One very obvious fact that I think men especially tend to forget is that emotions, including motivation and inspiration can be cultivated. Sometimes instead of simply trying to get back to work from where you left off, the best approach is to engage in some activity specifically designed to rekindle your motivation. That can be anything from reading an article on the topic, or trying to come up with some fresh insights. I found that my biggest obstacle was learning to recognize my own emotions as a distinct roadblock that had to be addressed separately and not just ‘powered through.'”

So, Internet, what do you do to cultivate your motivation?  Reading an article or coming up with fresh insights? Or something else entirely?

PS This is not my post for the week. That would be cheating.

%d bloggers like this: