The month of August in Texas is hot, sometimes brutally so. The only beings with any animation left at all seem to be the cicadas, whose chorus becomes more deafening as the temperatures soar. In a text exchange with my oldest daughter, Nicole, I complained that I lacked any motivation to write the monthly blog for my website. I wondered if she were similarly struggling with studying for her Occupational Therapy Board Exams which are coming up in a few weeks. After agreeing that she was feeling similarly stymied, Nicole suggested I write my blog about the subject of motivation as it might end up being helpful to both of us!
Motivation is defined as the process that initiates, guides and maintains goal-oriented behaviors. It is literally the desire to do things. We can be motivated by internal drives like hunger or thirst, or external factors such as rewards. An internal drive like hunger causes you to go to the kitchen to make a sandwich, while an external drive like earning a raise causes you to listen to your alarm clock in the morning when it interrupts the comfort of deep sleep and signals that it is time to get up for work.
We have all seen (and possibly been annoyed by) motivational slogans on social media or at the office such as these:
Work Hard; Dream Big
Be Tougher Than Your Life Is
The Best Way to Predict the Future is to Create It
Nothing Worth Having Comes Easy
No matter how simple and true those slogans may seem, anyone who has ever had a goal like wanting to run a marathon or quitting smoking probably immediately realizes that simply having the desire to accomplish this is not enough. Achieving such a goal requires the ability to persist through obstacles and endurance to keep going in spite of difficulties. What factors equip or hinder a person to achieve their goals despite the challenges involved? While the list below is far from exhaustive, here are five factors that may enhance or limit motivation:
Timing – there are definitely periods in our life when tackling a new project is more optimal than others. Times of transition, such as starting a new job, moving, or becoming a parent, already involve challenges that drain our emotional resources and limit the time we have available to devote to accomplishing a new goal. While there may never be the perfect, stress-free window to start training for that race or becoming a certified sky dive instructor, it is important to weigh the impact of these activities on current responsibilities and relationships.
Expectations – people often become overwhelmed or defeated in pursuing a goal because they underestimate the extent of the changes they need to make in order to be successful. We generally resist change because it requires new neurological pathways to develop in our brain, which involves mindfulness, consistency and patience. In our microwave culture, we become impatient with the amount of time required to sustain lasting changes in our thinking and behavior. Having realistic expectations allows us to celebrate small, incremental successes and sustain our motivation over time.
Internal vs. External Investment – while rewarding oneself for progress made towards a goal may seem like a strong incentive, rewards actually diminish motivation over time. Research shows that people who pursue a goal for the intrinsic satisfaction of accomplishing it rather than some kind of external perk are not only more likely to stick with the process and reach their goal, but also to find more enjoyment in their achievement.
Support – people who inform their family and friends about their desire to accomplish a goal and build a support network are more likely to maintain their motivation over time to achieve that goal. Research reveals that telling someone else you plan to hike the Himalayas or learn to ride a horse establishes some accountability for that goal, as well as a desire not to face the embarrassment of having to confess failure down the road. Joining a group of people who are pursuing a similar goal increases both motivation and likelihood of success; hence the popularity of meet up groups for virtually any activity or endeavor a person might be interested in.
Task management – breaking down your goal into manageable steps is key. You don’t start out running the full ten miles, but perhaps alternate running and walking in increments of several minutes at a time, building up to higher mileage as your fitness and stamina improve. Practicing mindfulness for two minutes a day at first, then adding a minute each time until you reach your desired goal of 10 minutes or more is preferable for those of us who are easily distracted by our to do list or the dog scratching at the door.
Most importantly, my daughter reminded me that one of the worst enemies of motivation is being hungry, so sometimes you just need to have a snack before continuing on in pursuit of your goal!