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Four thoughts on motivation

Updated: Jan 18, 2023

At the end of March next year, I'll turn 30. While I'm not overly concerned about what I will or won't have achieved in my life as a whole by that point, I did have a series of 30 goals to achieve by 30. I've proudly ticked off a fair few already, such as running the Great South Run, going wild swimming and learning how to skateboard. However I've also realised, at this point in the year, that I'm unlikely to complete them all by March. Some goals are bigger and will take more time than I have, like learning to speak, read and write Italian. For other goals, like being a film extra, I've realised I don't actually want to achieve it that badly.

While it's a little frustrating to realise I won't complete what I set out to achieve, I've learned some important lessons about motivation along the way. In some cases, I realised that I wasn't putting effort into pursuing certain things because I didn't have a strong reason for why I wanted to do them. (Read more about finding your why here.) I thought they might be fun but I wasn't concerned enough to pull out all the stops for them. Regardless, it can be frustrating to lack the motivation to do something, especially when it's something you really do want to accomplish.

Woman standing in front of the ocean with her arms wide open in celebration

Here are some thoughts on motivation I’ve been mulling over.

Motivation isn’t something you have, it’s something you create

It can be so easy for fear to overrule motivation. It could be fear of failure, fear of looking silly, fear of being seen to start small or any other reason. It might not even be something you’re consciously aware that you’re trying to protect yourself from but it still gets in the way of taking action.

Creating confidence and resilience can help overcome these fears. When the action you’re most fearful of taking feels too overwhelming, build them first in something that feels more accessible to you as a manageable first step.

One of the reasons I added daily cold showers to my goal list was because I knew this would help build my resilience to discomfort. If I could willingly turn my own shower cold everyday then surely I could use that discipline to push myself in other areas too. It becomes part of my identity that I am a person who can push through something even when it feels hard. In addition, numerous studies have found that regular cold showers promote emotional resilience by encouraging the nervous system to increase its tolerance to environmental stress.

Achievements wouldn’t be achievements if they came without effort

Achieving a goal is only rewarding when you’ve had to overcome something to get it. If everything came easily and immediately, there would be no sense of accomplishment and we’d get complacent. It may be cliché but the real joy is in the journey and what you learn on the way.

Even for the most dedicated person, motivation will ebb and flow. When you face a setback and lose momentum for a while, any progress after that is worth celebrating no matter how inconsistent it may seem at the time. And when you do start up again, it won’t be from scratch, it will be from a place of experience.

The greatest leverage you can create for yourself is pain

What we take action on is determined either by a need to avoid pain or a desire to gain pleasure. The problem is change is often considered a ‘should’; we make it an option rather than an essential. If you believe there’s endless time, it’s easy to rationalise delaying action for another day.

To change this, we need to create a sense of urgency that compels us to follow through. It’s often hard to do this because we have mixed emotions associated with change. You might want to eat better quality food to feel healthier in the long run (desire to gain pleasure) but get too much pleasure from eating sugary, processed food in the moment (desire to avoid pain). Linking both pain and pleasure to making change creates mixed emotions and leaves the brain uncertain what to do.

To break the stalemate, we need to reach the emotional pain threshold. Anyone can put up with something uncomfortable for a while and rationalise that the situation will improve. If this continues for too long and the pain gets too unbearable, the pain threshold is reached, you lose patience, and finally commit to make a change. The greatest leverage you can create for yourself is associating apathy with massive pain to inspire action.

Know when to focus on the wood and when to focus on the tree

The saying, ‘I can’t see the wood for the trees’ illustrates how getting very involved in the details of something can make it hard to step back and recognise the bigger picture of what’s important overall.

It can be easy to get caught up between appreciating how far you’ve come and stressing over how far you still have to go. It’s been important for me to try and keep things in perspective but recognise that perspective might look different depending what I’m judging.

When I’m thinking about how far I have to go, I focus on the tree. Take one step at a time and only focus on the first task then once that’s complete, look at the next task and so on. I’ve found this helps keep me focused, reduces overwhelm, builds momentum and celebrates the incremental achievements.

When I’m looking at the progress I’ve made, I focus on the wood. Rather than taking one or two bad days and feeling like a failure who’s still not where she wants to be, look at all the days that have come before and celebrate the progress.

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