“I’ll start on Monday.”
-Myself and every other human at some point in our lives
If you have ever said to yourself “I just need to get motivated,” you can appreciate that motivation often feels like this elusive unicorn of a thing. Comes and goes when it pleases, requiring you to pounce on it because who knows how long it is going to stick around.
What if I told you this doesn’t have to be the case? What if I told you that how you think about motivation is actually only half the story? Read on, my friends, read on. [Cue the eery and whimsical music that plays when Aladdin peels open the treasure chest to reveal all the riches inside…]
What is motivation?
First things first, let’s talk a little bit more about motivation. The Webster Dictionary defines motivation as “a motivating force, stimulus, or influence.” This is not super helpful. (Did nobody ever teach them you aren’t supposed to define the word with a conjugate of the word itself??)
Let me clear the mud. Essentially, motivation is having a strong REASON to act or accomplish something. And there are two types (which you are likely familiar with):
- Intrinsic – The stuff we do because we find it inherently rewarding.
- Extrinsic – An external reward or incentive received in exchange for doing something. [A note about extrinsic motivation: If it is not converted into intrinsic motivation at some point, it can actually be detrimental to our sustaining the behavior. We don’t feel like the outcome is within our control]
However, we all can appreciate that having a reason or knowing why to do something doesn’t actually translate to doing the thing. Unfortunately.
So what’s the missing piece?
One of my favorite behavior change and design thinking researchers, Dr. Kyra Bobinet, articulates in her book Well Designed Life: 10 Lessons in Brain Science & Design Thinking for a Mindful, Healthy & Purposeful Life that the piece we are missing from the motivation equation is EMOTION.
To create a visual of the interplay of these two very important components, she uses the example of a lightbulb. The lightbulb is motivation and emotion is the electricity that runs through it. You need the reason (motivation) and the viseral feeling (emotion) to light the bulb or create the behavior.
And our most emotionally charged decisions/behaviors get our attention. So if what we really need is more emotion and rather, more charged emotion, on the behaviors we are trying to shift, how do we go about creating that?? Keep reading, you’re getting to the good stuff…
6 Strategies for Creating More EMOTION for Change
For the sake of giving these big concepts some legs and to help them feel more tangible, we are going to apply them to the following goal: “I want to exercise three days per week.”
- Identify emotional disconnect or competing emotions. Remember how our most emotionally charged decisions reign supreme? When it comes to changing a behavior or making time for a new pursuit, other parts of your life might end up overriding what you are trying to do. Given our example, “I want to work out three days per week,” I often hear that time is the biggest issue. However, in reality, everyone has 24 hours in a day. This is not actually a time issue, this is an emotional one. What other emotions are competing? Get real with yourself about these.
- Are you stressed about leaving a project unfinished?
- Are you anxious about leaving the office before your coworkers?
- Do you feel guilty for spending time away from your family?
- Do you feel guilty saying “no” to your friends?
- Anchor the behavior to your highest values, top priorities, and/or self-identity. What do you value? Family? Connection? Security & safety? What do you pride yourself in? Being high-integrity? Intelligent? A hard worker? According to Dr. Bobinet, whatever it is that you are most proud of within yourself and whatever you value can become the anchors to provide emotional electricity to power your behavior. How will your behavior empower your values or best traits? Given our example, an individual may pride themselves on being a very hard worker and therefore feel guilty leaving work to go exercise. However, you can actually use this piece of self-identity to anchor that behavior… “I am going to start exercising 3 days per week because I am a hard-working, ambitious individual who needs the energy to be an active participant in my own life and I am MOST productive and excel at my job when I am taking care of myself.”
- Peel back the layers of your “why.” Your “why” should give you a fire in your belly (the good kind) because it is so connected to your top values and the parts or yourself you are most proud of. Take our example… “I want to start exercising three days per week.”
- Why? “So I can feel more energized.”
- Why do you need more energy? “So I can bring my A-game to my job.”
- Why do you care about bringing your a-game to your job? “Because my job is really important to me, I want to be creatively energized and bring value. I also want to work towards a promotion.”
- Why is this important to you? “Because I someone who gives 100% to my job and not doing so does NOT align with who I am.” [Keep on going until you feel that charged, emotional connection to the behavior.]
- “Soak in” what you find enjoyable about the experience of doing the behavior. We make decisions based on the emotions we have historically felt with specific experiences. In Buddha’s Brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love & wisdom, renowned neuroscientist Dr. Rick Hanson talks about humans’ evolutionary negativity bias. Essentially, we are programmed to remember the bad to help us learn and be smarter the next time there is a threat, ultimately promoting survival. However, in our current era, this negativity bias is not as useful. But knowing we are prone to one, we can take steps to override it when it comes to doing things that are putting us outside of our comfort zone…like a new healthy behavior. To do this, search for the positives, the intrinsic motivators. And once you’ve found them, allow yourself to think about them and feel how they positively impact your life. Dr. Hanson talks about letting these “soak in” like sunshine on a t-shirt or water in a sponge. With our exercise example, a few positives to “soak in” include:
- Feeling of accomplishment
- Feel productive and creatively inspired
- Better sleep
- More stress resilience
- More self-confidence
- More energy
- Feel good about how you are taking care of yourself
- Find ways to make doing the behavior inherently more enjoyable. This one pairs with the strategy above. Basically, to create more positive emotion around an experience, proactively find ways to make that experience more enjoyable! Given our exercise goal of “I want to start exercising 3 days per week,” here are some ways you can make that experience a more positive one:
- Listen to music
- Find a class that you enjoy
- Connect with a community that shares your interest (running or biking club)
- Recruit a workout partner
- Choose the best time of day (if possible)
- Get outdoors
- Feed your emotion with attention. Dr. Bobinet talks about humans having two brains, a slow brain, and a fast brain. Our fast brain is where all of our historical decision making and autopilot pathways are stored. These are so ingrained, they come to us very easily, very quickly. Hence the term “fast” brain. Our slow brain, on the other hand, is where we store new thoughts, ideas, choices. It takes awhile for these to be conjured up and we need LOTS of reminders. So how can you slow down your fast brain and speed up your slow brain? Use reminders, external prompts, and things that make you say, “yes, that’s right, this is what I want to focus on” like:
- Calendar reminders
- Post-it notes
- Lock screen on your cell phone
- Inspiring quotes and/or images in visible places
- Enlist a coach or reliable friend to hold you accountable (forced attention)
- Plan for the emotional state of your future self. Put yourself in Future Self’s shoes when planning for a behavior. Think of them as another entity even. Really think through where “they” will be energy-wise, emotionally, physically, mentally when it is time to do the behavior. Think through what they need to be successful and come up with ways that you can help them out now. For more information on this concept and examples, check out this article. For our exercise goal, a few ways you can help out Future You include:
- Having your bag of clothes packed and ready to go
- Putting a time block and reminder in your calendar
- Getting support from friends, family, spouse, etc.
- Getting adequate sleep
If you are struggling with connecting these dots and/or keeping your mojo going, reach out! Having a coach can increase the likelihood of you achieving a behavior by as little as 65%…so why struggle if you don’t have to?? Cheering you on as you create the right combination of motivation AND emotion to create a lifestyle that feels good and works for you! <3
- Bobinet, K. (2015). Well designed life: 10 lessons in brain science & design thinking for a mindful, healthy, & purposeful life. Walnut Creek, CA: EngagedIN Press.
- Hanson, R. (2011). Buddha’s Brain: The practical neuroscience of happiness, love, and wisdom. Readhowyouwant.com.