motivation 101: the rules of engagement

If there’s a question that just seems to come up time and again for me as a coach it’s one related to the often confusing and vexed area of what truly gets us up and at ‘em and makes change happen … and that’s a conversation which typically runs something like this,

‘So I know I need to … (here add your dilemma of choice ie. get my butt up off the couch and go do some exercise, clean the house, get a new job, do some study) but somehow I just don’t. What’s the secret?’

It’s tough sometimes isn’t it? Wanting stuff to happen in our lives but despite our very best intentions, all those ‘I’m gonna’s’ never get much further than a great idea and yet another forgotten note to self. Or perhaps alternatively we might find (say when trying to maintain a regular ongoing exercise schedule) we can set off like the proverbial bull in a china shop, yet in a week or two all that remains is a dim memory of an exercise bike and a guilt ridden pair of running shoes chucked somewhere in the back of the closet. In fact 90% of gyms throughout the world probably bank on just this foible of fickle human dynamics, as they gleefully watch all those cross-my-heart-I’m-really-really-gonna-do-it-this-time New Years Resolutions fill their January balance sheets whilst the same running machines are virtually empty come Easter.

So what is the secret? Well frankly friends if I had a simple answer to that then I’d likely be a very rich man indeed, as ‘What motivates us and keeps us motivated?’ is a question keenly asked not only by we individuals, but as much by educators, business leaders, researchers and on. And to be honest there just ain’t no simple answer. However there are some very powerful tools and strategies that can and will work extremely effectively and that’s what I’m aiming to unpack for you all in this short series.

So let’s start by unpicking motivation itself and I’d like to begin by clarifying the fundamental differences between two important to know categories which psychological researchers term intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivators are typically some kind of external force of attraction or lure which creates the incentive to get your butt out of the house and into action. One classic example of this is if we consider the motivational power of money. For many of us the very reason we get up and go to work each day is simply enough that on one level we need the cash. The same reason would be the case if I were to pay you to do some training. The cash is providing the incentive for you to do it and is therefore the extrinsic motivation to turn up.

Intrinsic motivators on the other hand are the innate emotional qualities that exist within all of us, and which naturally and spontaneously fire us to action. Sometimes (and you may well be one of these lucky ones) our motivation for going to work may have little or even at times nothing to do with getting paid, but be entirely connected to generative and entirely altruistic qualities such as meaning, purpose or even a simple heartfelt desire to help or make a difference in the world. So the feedback we receive within (intrinsically) is sufficient to get us up and at it each day.

Can you get an idea of the energetic difference attached to these two seemingly oppositional qualities? Perhaps just take a moment now to consider how differently each of these sound and feel to yourself. How do they land? Is there one you think might offer better value or fit for you?

For some there’s a willingness to view these guys as a bit of an either/or choice. And whilst there is some evidence to suggest that extrinsic motivators may offer rather a limited and short-term success, I believe we’d be nuts to throw the baby out with the bathwater here. In the case of extrinsic motivators and exercise, one powerful and highly effective example may simply be that perhaps you just want to exchange some of those soft old flappy bits for something sleek, toned and a whole lot hotter, right? In other words the extrinsic motivation is simply to look a little better. Nothing wrong there at all is there if that’s what it take to get you off the couch? For many of us (my hand is up here!) that simple narcissistic desire alone is powerful enough mojo to get us cracking and on the way to that superstar body.

However if you’re more interested in engaging a process which will bring a deeper, longer-lasting, more effortless and far more intrinsically rewarding effect then it’s imperative to turn your attention to the unerring inner glow that is intrinsic motivation. I’ll be offering some structured tools for this in a later post, but one sure way in is to take some time to gain clarity on your values. By this I mean discovering which qualities are most important and enlivening to you: What do you most value and why? For example in the area of exercise, you might value health and fitness or even strength and power, frankly this list can be endless but what matters here is when you consider them, pay close attention to how they make you feel. In your body. Our highest values are typically ones which simply feel energising when we consider them, which kind of gives you a clue how they might provide the impetus for change. In my experience when we connect these appropriately with the desired activity, then frankly you’ve got something of an unstoppable force.

So perhaps rather than viewing extrinsic and intrinsic motivators as a kind of good cop/bad cop choice we might need to make, what I hope I’ve made clear is that both these qualities are valuable – though doubtless the trick is knowing how to balance them skilfully to best effect.

It’s common to frame conversations about motivation around a metaphor of fire and I think it can serve us pretty well here too. Let’s face it simply getting started can be tough stuff – whether it’s a new career or a campfire! So too can be staying the distance, but the long-term sure ain’t going to happen if you never get going in the first place.

As we heard earlier, extrinsic motivation (say, the desire to get rid of the love handles and rediscover those long lost abs) is possibly not a sure-fire long-term strategy on its own, so perhaps treat it a little like the kindling. Something to get that flame started. Then once you got the fire properly under way, now we’re now going to need to find a way to keep that sucker going. Here’s where discovering and giving air to those qualities alive inside us that truly want us to succeed is going to matter – the intrinsic, energising force. Those big logs that’ll keep this guy burning long into the night. Frankly for me, when I consider the value of exercise beyond the vanity aspects, then there is a part of me that desperately loves being well and alive and connected to my physicality and strength. There is both the immediate feedback of challenge and success alongside the longer term ones of health, clarity, energy, focus and on. Equally, in time the process of exercising engages a sense of mastery and we can find ourselves moving into the state a Positive Psychologist would call flow, a state which offers us it’s own level of personal positive feedback and there’ll be more on this gem in the next post.

Often enough, as we progress, these twin qualities of intrinsic and extrinsic rather than appearing oppositional, will develop into a sort of self-supporting tango, each one leading, lifting and assisting the other in turn. Now that the flame has truly caught and those intrinsic motivators properly engaged, in time you’ll likely also begin to notice more of the extrinsic feedback, meaning that hot, sleek body you craved gradually begins to emerge from the couch potato that kicked this all off in the first place. You’ll begin to feel ever more alive and energised. You start to see and feel first hand the change after each session, all of which will serve to inspire you even more as we find ourselves locked in a self-motivational feedback loop of sorts.

Listen there’s plenty more to share on all of this including some great simple steps and tips alongside some pitfalls to watch out for, but I’ll offer more of that in the next post. In the meantime if you find enough here to get you going then you go to it. Get started and there’ll be more shortly to fan those flames.

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