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Mindset Myths of Motivation

by Alissa Ellis, PhD

If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me how to improve motivation, I’d be writing this blog from somewhere in the Caribbean! Whether it’s the desire to work more, exercise more, plan for the future, save money, study for an exam, eat healthier, wake up earlier…the list is endless! All changes come down to one thing: the motivation to actually do something to make that change. To be clear, motivation is not something that can be immediately and easily turned on. For example, how many people are truly “motivated” to clean out their garage or refrigerator just because it’s needed? Not feeling motivated is a ubiquitous trait that everyone experiences at some point. Motivation can be affected by eating, sleeping, stress, burnout, self-doubt, fatigue and inner conflict…and, that’s just a few of the factors that may be playing a role. Knowing that motivation is susceptible to fluctuations over time can help to remind yourself that you can do something to change it.

Both our brains and our behaviors can create barriers to our motivation making it difficult to get ourselves going. Here are 5 common mindset “myths” or thinking errors that can negatively affect your motivation:

  1. Negative influence of choice: Imagine the scene we see on the television where on one shoulder there is an angel and on the other sits the devil. Imagine your own life. What’s the scenario when you feel that there are two opposed choices to make in a given moment, and you struggle to make the most effective decision? Is it when you set your alarm to get up an hour earlier to try to get to the gym before work, but then realize as it’s going off how deliciously wonderful your bed feels? Is it knowing that you have a healthy meal at home, but realizing you could just grab something easy and savory (but less healthy) on your way home instead? Often, the pleasure seeking, hedonistic part of our brain seem much stronger than the rational one. It’s so much easier to give into temptation than it is to fight it! That said, many of us set ourselves up for failure when we give ourselves the chance to make a choice in the moment. For example, if I tell myself that I’ll “try” to get up early in the morning to go to the gym, that already gives myself the opportunity for an “out…” which is very tempting to our brains, especially at 5am in the morning! Think of the alternative: If your boss told you that “if it worked for you to come into the office at 8am, that’d be great,” but they present it as an option versus an expectation. How many of us would be motivated to get there at that time…and be pleasant about it? Without knowing it, our own brains give us the choice to do things: do work versus play a video game; knock out chores versus binge Netflix; exercise today versus start tomorrow. These implicit cognitive choices can be detrimental to motivation and moving forward productively.
    • How to fight it? Hold yourself more accountable or find someone who can. Tell yourself that there isn’t an option in some situations. Make your choice to make a change in your life an absolute. Recognize that you’re giving into the idea of the negative choice.
  2. The terrible “TOO”s: I sometimes think of our brains as carrying around a magnifying glass…that, unfortunately, they use very selectively. It’s not that they take the good events, feelings, actions and highlight those for us! Instead, they choose to focus that magnifying glass on the task or goal at hand. What does that do? It makes us perceive things as much bigger than they actually are! Thinking that things are too big, too hard, or going to take too long is an immediate downer on our motivation. Who’s motivated to do things that seem so difficult? Realizing that your brain is making your progress toward your goal harder than it needs to be can help to improve motivation.
    • How to fight it? See if you can break it into the smallest possible step. Challenge yourself by questioning, “Is it really too hard?”
  3. The Mood Myth: Have you ever told yourself, “I don’t feel like doing that right now,” as an excuse to procrastinate? Have you ever said, “I’ll probably feel more like doing that later since I don’t feel like doing it now”? What about, “later will be better because I won’t be XXX (insert: tired, hungry, grumpy, distracted)? Or, “I’ll do that when I feel like doing it.” Using our feelings to dictate our motivation is one of the hallmark myths that affect our productivity. Linking the concepts of “feeling like doing something” with being “motivated to do something” is erroneous. The latter is distinct in terms of success and productivity because it highlights the ability to act on something despite not feeling like it.
    • How to fight it? Start to believe that we will almost never feel like doing some things!! Waiting until we do is an automatic set-up for failure. Admit to yourself that there are things that you eventually did do, but not because you were in the mood, but because you had to.
  4. The “Go big or Go home”: Oh, boy! Our minds are ambitious, aren’t they? While sometimes they aren’t as nice to us as we might want them to be, there are other times when they make us feel quite capable. They set lofty expectations. They see the end goal or completed product immediately and can struggle to see the little parts. Because of this, many of us fall into the trap of thinking that things aren’t even worth the effort because they seem nearly impossible. The outcome is so “big” that we cannot visualize how we can go from where we are to where we desire to be. Because of this, we don’t even try to start! We just go home. Changing behavior is hard, but if expect ourselves to immediately reach the end goal (versus setting our mind on the journey itself), we will automatically lose the motivation to continue.
    • How to fight it? Be realistic. Set small incremental steps in the process. No one (sane) runs a marathon the day after deciding that they want to start running.
  5. The “slip up = give up”: Forgetting that it’s common to not do things perfectly on the first try is definitely a mistake made by most in affecting their motivation. When you set your mind to do something, but can’t get yourself to follow through, you can feel overwhelmed by defeat. That feeling of defeat sucks the energy from us that might be better used to just try again. I commonly hear from clients, “I’ve tried that, and it didn’t work,” to which I respond, “why didn’t it work?” Usually, that creates a thoughtful moment for a person. Why didn’t your approach work? What obstacles did you encounter?
    • How to fight it? Figure out what went wrong. Identify the problem and remind yourself that perfection is never the goal. If the problem was you stayed up too late the prior night, making it hard to wake up early, then try to get to bed earlier. If you felt like you ate something less healthy because it was satisfying, convenient, and effortless, consider meal planning or having something pre-made that’s healthy at home waiting for you to reduce the burden of cooking after a long day. If we are able to identify why an effort didn’t work, we are better able to identify solutions to try for the next attempt. Do not be a “one and done” person when it comes to your effort.

See if you can catch your brain playing a trick on you to make you feel less motivated. It’s probably going to pop up during those instances where you’re presented with the chance to do something pleasurable/fun versus doing something that you know will be better in the long run. In my world, I like to believe that both can be true. I just like to do the hard one first. A client I worked with would say, “Make the worst the first!” When we stick to our goals, stay motivated, and feel how good productivity can feel, we end up having more free time that we enjoy to the maximum extent. Go out, do something, and reap the rewards that come with productivity.