Tag Archives: motivation

Warning! Don’t Expect to Be Motivated by Motivation.

I really dislike the word “motivation.” I try never to use it.

In writing Better Than Before, my book about habit change, and in talking to people about their desired habits, the term “motivation” came up a lot.

And here’s why I don’t like it: People use the term to describe their desire for a particular outcome (“I’m really motivated to lose weight”) as well as their reasons for actually acting in a certain way (“I go to the gym because I’m motivated to exercise”). Desire and action are mixed up in a very confusing way.

To make it even more confusing, people often say they’re “motivated” to do something when what they mean is, “My doctor and my family tell me that I need to quit smoking, and I know it would be healthier and cheaper to quit smoking, and I wish I would quit smoking, but I have no desire to quit and no intention to try to quit. But am I motivated to quit smoking? Oh, sure.”

People often tell me that they’re highly motivated to achieve a certain aim, but when I press, it turns out that while they passionately wish they could achieve an outcome, they aren’t doing anything about it. So what does it mean to say they’re “motivated?” No idea. That’s why I don’t use the word.

In fact, people aren’t motivated by motivation.

Expert advice often focuses on motivation, by telling people that they just need more motivation to follow through. This may work in a certain way, for certain people (see below), but not for everyone.

The bad result of this advice is that some people spend a lot of time whipping themselves into a frenzy of thinking how much they want a certain outcome, as if desire will drive behavior. And it rarely does.

Instead of thinking about motivation, I argue that we should think about aims, and then concrete, practical, realistic steps to take us closer to our aims.

Instead of thinking, “I want to lose weight so badly,” think instead about the concrete steps to take, “I’ll bring lunch from home,” “I won’t use the vending machine,” “I won’t eat fast food,” “I’ll quit sugar,” “I’ll cook dinner at home at least four nights a week,” “I’ll go to the farmer’s market on Saturdays, to load up on great produce.”

Of course, in Better Than Before, I argue that it’s a lot easier to follow through with such steps consistently if you make them into habits.

The great thing about habits is that you don’t need to feel “motivated!” And that’s important because again, motivation doesn’t actually matter much, if what you mean by that is “How badly do you want this?”

In my forthcoming book, The Four Tendencies, I do talk about how thinking about reasons for action can help some people to act, and how desire does help some people to act — but that’s not the same as motivation.

For Upholders and Questioners, thinking about reasons helps.

For Rebels, thinking about desire helps.

For Obligers, outer accountability is the crucial element. What does this mean? It means that Obligers are the least likely to be helped by thinking about “motivation.” And guess what? They’re the Tendency that talks most about motivation! They keep trying to amp up their motivation, and then they get frustrated because that doesn’t work. Nope. Obligers should focus on systems of outer accountability.

So whenever catch myself saying or writing, “I’m really motivated to do ___,” I stop and think: “What do I want, and why do I want it? And given that, what steps can I take to achieve my aim?”

Because we really can’t expect to be motivated by motivation.

Why We Shouldn’t Reward Ourselves for Good Habits–With One Exception.

Once a week, I have Tips Day or List Day or Quiz Day.

Today: 5 reasons why rewards can be very dangerous for habit-formation.

Of the 21 strategies that I identify, that we can use to make or break our habits, the Strategy of Reward was one of the most difficult for me to understand.

In large part, because the lesson is: be very wary of using rewards to master habits!

Why? It sounds so sensible to reward yourself for sticking to a good habit. But it turns out that rewards are very, very tricky to use well.


1. One common form of reward is the attainment of a goal, and that reward marks a finish line — and a finish line marks a stopping point. Once we stop, we must start over, and starting over is harder than starting.

The more dramatic the goal, the more decisive the end — and the more effort required to start over. By providing a specific goal, a temporary motivation, and requiring a new “start” once reached, hitting a finish line may interfere with habit-formation. Running the marathon, quitting sugar for Lent, doing a 30-day yoga challenge — once the goal has been met, and we feel the reward of hitting that finish line, the behavior tends to end.

Also, once we decide that we’ve achieved success, we tend to stop moving forward.

2. A reward requires a decision (“Do I deserve this reward?”) Habits are freeing and energizing because they get us out of the draining, difficult business of using decision-making and self-control. We don’t reward ourselves for brushing our teeth, so we don’t have to ask, “Have I brushed long enough to deserve my reward?” We just do it.

When we have to decide whether we’ve earned a reward, we’re forced to employ our decision-making; we’re not on automatic behavior. And every time we make a decision, we have the opportunity to make the wrong choice. So many loopholes to choose from! One for every occasion.

3. It permits an opt-out ( “If I forgo the reward, I don’t have to do this activity”).

4. It teaches us that we’d do this activity only if a reward is offered. A reward provides extrinsic motivation, which tells us that we don’t feel intrinsic motivation. We’re not practicing guitar because we want to practice guitar, but because we promised ourselves a beer every time we practice. Along those lines…

5. A reward makes us associate a behavior with suffering or imposition.  Why else would we need the reward? One person exercises in order to earn points at work to get swag. Another person exercises without that reason. Who, do you suppose, is more likely to be exercising, a year from now?

Furthermore, we often choose perverse rewards. A friend told me, “After I’ve lost this ten pounds, I’m going to reward myself with a big piece of chocolate cake.”

The one kind of reward that does work? A reward that takes you deeper into the habit. Doing lots of yoga? Splurge on a new yoga mat. Bringing lunch to work every day? Buy that expensive set of great knives.  One company had a smart policy: any employee who exercised at least 75 times in one year in the company gym was rewarded with…the next year’s gym membership free. The reward for exercise was more exercise.

For these reasons, rewarding an activity may make us less likely, not more likely, to form a habit.

How about you? Have you noticed this in yourself?

“Getting a Good Night’s Sleep Is a Top Priority, and a Bath Is a Delightful Habit.”

Interview: Michelle Segar.

I was excited to get my copy of motivation scientist Michelle Segar’s new book, No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness. She and I are interested in so many of the same things — in particular, the big question of how we can stick to healthier behaviors.

Her work is especially interesting to me, because she focuses on “motivation,” which is a term that I generally don’t use.  I was curious to hear what she had to say.

Gretchen: You have a new book being published this month called No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness. In your view, how do habits and motivation intersect?

Michelle: That’s such a good question, and it gets to the heart of my book, my research – my life, really. I’m all about creating sustainable behavior change: How can we get motivated to permit ourselves to make our own self—care a priority, and how can we stay motivated to keep it that way? Because I think everyone has had the experience of saying, “Oh, I have to get off the couch and get some exercise or …..“Yeah, I did really well for a while, I was going to the gym every day, but my life just came crashing in on me . . . “I’m so lazy. . .” But I refuse to believe that we are “lazy” or “bad” or “hopeless” when we have had troubling adopting new habits.

In my research I’ve been especially interested in why we fail to adopt behaviors and habits, even those that we desperately want to change and end up spending big bucks for special clothes, programs, gym memberships. I’ve found that our cultural context —— “Exercise will make you thin.” “Do it ‘till it burns” and “No pain, no gain” —— plays a huge part. There’s even a new message now, “Exercise is medicine.” Through socialization, these become our beliefs about exercise, especially how exercising will benefit us. But many of these beliefs actually poison our motivation and prevent us from sticking with it over time. So as much as we try to break our “bad exercise habits,” we fail over and over again and just end up feeling bad.

My research and other science suggests that our primary reason for initiating a new healthy habit, like exercise or dietary change, strongly influences our motivation and ultimately our ability to stick with it over time. If our motivation feels like a “should” – we should try to lose weight because our doctor said so, or we should go for a run because we need more exercise —— we start off feeling under pressure and that’s a recipe for short-term motivation.

So if the wrong kind of motivation just doesn’t last, what does science show is the best motivator for a lifetime of fitness?

In general, on a day-to-day basis, we are not motivated long-term by logic, or at least not for very long. So you can tell yourself that you need to exercise to lose weight, for your appearance, for your health, because your mom said so, whatever – but that’s not going to keep you going to the gym forever, sweating off the pounds, especially if you don’t like high—intensity exercise or you hate to sweat. Logic often motivate us to start, but for many of us, these pragmatic or pressurizing purposes for exercise are not compelling enough to maintain.

Here’s the basic example: You want to lose weight, so you go on a strict diet. But eventually, you find that you really want that bag of chips. So you think you’ll just try one, but it’s so good you eat the whole bag. Then, of course, you feel like a failure. But wait, here’s what’s really happening, and how you can use it to your advantage.

We tend to make decisions on the basis of how things make us feel in the moment, and we especially respond to immediate positive reinforcement: If it’s supposedly “good” for us but we don’t see the result for months or years, we lose steam. If it makes us feel amazing right now, if we enjoy it in the moment, our brains flood with happiness chemicals and we’re going to keep coming back for that great experience again and again.

Apply this to doing exercise that feels good versus working up a sweat because you think you should, and Voila! You’ve changed your behavior for the long term. I detail the full method I use with my clients to achieve this shift in No Sweat.

Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits?

Well, spending a summer with my cousin many years ago actually helped me develop the habit of flossing every night! But as an adult I would say my husband has influenced me the most. When I get deeply involved in a large project or many smaller projects, I make piles of materials and papers all over the floor. I am a very visual person and I want to see all the resources that I’m using for any given project. That makes for a very messy office, which can leak into the rest of our house. My husband has done a great job of helping me become more aware of when I do this so I can course correct and not reinforce this habit with more piles.

I am a big believer in setting up systems to support and maintain our desired behaviors, and in taking a step back to understand the undesired behavior so you can overturn it. So, in talking to my friend about this challenge, we came up with a new system for me. I now have magazine racks across the walls of my office, which supports the visual—based approach that works for me but also keeps my papers neatly organized, vertically, instead of all over my floor.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

That’s an interesting question! In my personal life I’d say that I rely on being able to negotiate the challenges that arise more than I do habits. I call it “dancing with my challenges.”

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits?

You might be surprised by this, given the focus of my work, but scheduling regular bouts of physical activity is not one of my habits. My schedule varies wildly day by day — sometimes I’m in the office, sometimes I’m teaching, sometimes I’m attending a seminar out of town, sometimes I’m working at home. So I can’t just decide that Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I’m going to take a 45-minute walk, even though that’s what really replenishes me.

Instead, I do what I tell my coaching clients to do, and what I suggest in my book: I aim to move for a reasonable amount of time, not necessarily all at the same time, on most days of the week. At the beginning of the work week, or even at the beginning of the day, I preview when I can fit my walk in, but I never count on it — I know that life is likely to throw a curve ball and my plans will get challenged. So I always leave room to improvise by doing less, or doing it a different time or place, or even giving myself permission to miss that planned walk if there really is no time for it. And there’s no guilt because I’m in it for the long haul, so missing one or a few walks every now and then simply doesn’t matter.

What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

As soon as you asked this question one of my favorite things popped into my mind: My nightly bath! It’s a ritual that helps me relax and quiet my mind so I can transition into sleep mode. In my book, I talk about how important sleep is for me, what I refer to as my “foundational self—care behavior,” the one thing that helps fuel me for all the other things I do in my daily life. (My husband’s foundational behavior is his early morning high intensity workout, but that’s another story!) For me, doing whatever it takes to get a good night sleep is a top priority, and a bath is a pretty delightful habit to have. I take a bath every night, no matter what time I start to wind down, even if I get back from a party at 1 a.m. (not something I do often these days, with a seven year old at home.) My baths feel like a gift I give myself every night.

“Happiness Becomes More and More About Being Content In Our Current Circumstances.”

Happiness interview: Heidi Grant Halvorson.

For a long time, I’ve been fascinated by Heidi Grant Halvorson’s work: she studies the science of motivation.

She has a new book out: Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence. It’s about how to understand yourself and others better, so you can use that information to motivate yourself and the people around you. It’s grounded in science, and very practical as well.

Motivation is an issue that comes up frequently when you’re trying to make your life happier. How do you stick to the resolutions that you’ve decided to make? I was very curious to hear how Heidi would answer these questions about happiness.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?

Heidi: I like to take little breaks throughout the day to find something to laugh about – fortunately, the internet has made this very easy for me to do.  I’ll be in the middle of writing and begin to feel tired or frustrated, and I’ll just take a quick break to watch a funny little video or read something amusing.  I immediately feel both happier and replenished, like I’ve filled up the gas tank when it was getting low. Twitter is a goldmine for quick moments of laughter- Steve Martin’s Twitterfeed alone has brightened my day countless times.  I should send him a fruit basket.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

I am just shy of 40 years old.  I spent last Saturday night at home, in a t-shirt and pajama pants, rereading a favorite novel and listening to the sounds of my husband and children playing video games in the next room.   It was wonderful.

If you could talk to my 18 year old self, and describe this evening that awaits her 20+ years into her future, she would be utterly devastated to learn that her life turned out to be so boring.  That a Saturday night spent reading a book  – not even a new book – would qualify as great time.  “What the hell happens to me?” she would wonder.

Research suggests (and my own experience has shown me) that what it means to be “happy” slowly evolves into something very different from our youthful idea of happiness.   Happiness for the young is largely about anticipating the joys of new accomplishments –  finding love, getting ahead at work, and buying your first home.

As we grow older, we find that happiness becomes more and more about being content in our current circumstances, and hanging on to what we’ve already got – working things out with your spouse, staying healthy, and being able to make your mortgage payments.

Another way to think of this change is as a gradual shifting from the promotion mindset (i.e., seeing your goals in terms of what you can gain and how you can advance) to the prevention mindset (i.e., seeing your goals in terms of avoiding loss and keeping things running smoothly.) For promotion-focused people, happiness feels like excitement, elation, cheerfulness.  For the prevention-focused, happiness is more about serenity, relaxation, and contentment.  These days, I’m much more the latter than the former. [If you want to find out whether you’re promotion or prevention-focused, you can take a free online assessment on Heidi’s website.]

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?

I expect to be able to to “do it all” – and then I get angry and disappointed with myself when I feel I’m falling short.  For example, when it comes to being a parent, I’m very prevention-focused.  I’m constantly on the look out for what could go wrong, and striving to keep my kids healthy and safe.  When you are prevention-focused, avoiding mistakes and careful planning are your strengths.  Having fun, being creative, and taking chances are not your strengths.  (Those are promotion-focused strengths).  So my husband (who is a promotion-focused Dad) is the popular one, because he’s all about adventure and good times, and I’m all about clean underwear and flu shots.

I get frustrated with myself for not being able to “lighten up” and have fun with the kids more, but the truth is we really can’t be good at everything – every way of looking at your goals at work and in life has it’s upside and downside.  And I’m giving my children something they need just as much as they need fun and adventure – whether they realize it or not.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Enjoy the fun of failure.”)

I like to say “Don’t visualize success – visualize the steps you will take to make success happen.”  But I think that applies to happiness equally well.   It’s tempting to spend a lot of time imagining what it would be like to be happy, but we don’t spend nearly enough time thinking about what we can do to create more happiness in our lives.  This is why I’m such a fan of The Happiness Project and Happier at Home – both are guides to making happiness happen in your own life. [Aww, thanks Heidi!]

If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost? Or, like a “comfort food,” do you have a comfort activity? (mine is reading children’s books).

I’m a mystery novel junkie – it’s my brain candy.  It all started when I was 10 years old with Encyclopedia Brown, and I’ve been hooked ever since.  I like the old fashioned kind of mystery – Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, P.D. James.   They give me a chance to disappear for a while into another world, but still be puzzle-solving.  And since I’m a scientist, puzzle-solving is pretty much my thing.

Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness?

I think that there are so many of us who are hard on ourselves, who don’t understand why they are good at some things but not others, who are convinced that they can’t improve, and who wonder why the things that motivate other people don’t seem to work for them.   A big part of why I wanted to write Focus was to help people understand that we don’t in fact all “tick” the same way.

There are reasons why some things come more easily to you than others, reasons why being optimistic and upbeat doesn’t “work” for everyone, reasons why some of us are creative and risk-taking, and others are thorough and reliable, but it’s very hard to be both.  Knowing how promotion and prevention motivation work, and being able to identify our own dominant motivation, helps us to not only be more effective and happy, but to be more understanding of both ourselves and others.

 Is there some aspect of your home that makes you particularly happy?

Almost all the furniture in my home came from the home that I grew up in.  I eat dinner at the same table where I shared Christmas and Thanksgiving with my family as a child.  My books fill my mother’s bookshelves.  I curl up in my office in the old leather chair that my grandmother gave my parents thirty years ago. It gives me a wonderful sense of continuity and tradition, and it feels like a hug every time I walk in the door.

Is Pay the Most Important Thing About Work to You? To Others?

Assay: Over the weekend, I re-read a fascinating book, Alfie Kohn’s  Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes.

I was thrilled to find discussion of some research that I’d thought about often, but had never been able to find again; I didn’t take notes on it and couldn’t remember where I’d seen it.

Eureka! There it was.

It’s very interesting research about how people value money and pay.

Now,  it’s clear that when people don’t have enough money to meet their basic needs, or when they’re worried that they’re going to lose a job, they’re very focused on how much money they’re paid. Money is like health: we tend to think about it most when we don’t have it.

And it’s also clear that people are very concerned with being paid fairly. For instance, if someone else is getting paid more to do the same job, that breeds unhappiness.

However–and this is the interesting part–once those conditions are met, money starts to be less important than other things at work. And here’s the really interesting part–although people recognize that for themselves, other values count more than money (though money remains important), they assume that other people find money the most significant aspect of work.

In other words: after a certain point, we don’t think money is all-important, but we assume that other people think that money is all-important.

Kohn observes:

“…it doesn’t follow that most of us think about our work chiefly in terms of the extrinsic rewards [i.e. money] it brings. Several studies over the last few decades have found that when people are asked to guess what matters to their coworkers—or in the case of managers, to their subordinates—they assume money is at the top of the list. But put the question directly—“What do you care about?”—and the results look very different.”

For example, in a survey of utility company applicants over the course of thirty years, “pay” was sixth out of ten job factors (such as “type of work”). But when people were asked what they thought other people would find important, most people listed “pay.”

This observation seems important to me, because if everyone believes that everyone else is most motivated by money, they’ll make many assumptions about work, motivation, and human nature that just may not be true.

Gertrude Stein wrote, “Everyone has to make up their mind if money is money or money isn’t money and sooner or later they always do decide that money is money.” Money is money, but what does that mean? The relationship between money and happiness is one of the most complicated and emotionally fraught subjects within the broad issue of happiness.

What do you think?  How do you think about money and pay–and how do you think others think about it?