Navigating the Ebb and Flow of motivation

We often think that, once we realize something is important to us, our motivation will remain constant and even grow over time. Sorry to be the breaker of bad news, but it doesn’t always work like that. In truth, our motivation will wax and wane for periods of time (sometimes even multiple times in the same day!). That’s okay! It happens to everyone, no matter how much we want the end result!

However, if we want to stay on track with our habits, goals, and behaviors, we need to figure out a way to be consistent, even if we don’t “feel like it” in the moment. The ability to do (and bounce back from) difficult things is called resiliency.

Consistently going to the gym and working out sometimes isn’t all that attractive. After all, think of all the other things they could be doing instead.

So how can we overcome this?

As human beings, we often crave instant gratification – feeling good now, often times forgetting the long-term consequences of our actions.

We often think inspiration, motivation, and behavior work in a linear fashion – we get inspired, which motivates us to perform a behavior:

However, it more often works in a cyclical fashion – inspiration can lead to motivation, motivation can lead to behavior, and behavior can lead to inspiration:

Therefore, if we are not motivated to act, but somehow muster up the energy to act anyway, it may inspire and motivate us to act more!

So how can we achieve that?

We have a natural tendency to seek out meaning and purpose in our life. These aspects, alongside motivation, are the keys to “keeping on going.”

  • Reason– an event in the past drives us to act in the present (e.g., the memory of a deceased family member may strike an individual to live for or in memory of that person)
  • Motivation – the present feeling of being driven to act
  • Purpose – a desired goal or future outcome drives us to act in the present (e.g., the desire to feel good in one’s body or training to become a professional athlete)

Dr. John Berardi, one of the most prominent figures in the world of health and fitness, put it this way in one of his books Change Maker:

“…when you have a clear sense of why the day matters, when you know how your daily tasks connect to your reason for doing them, when you recognize how your daily tasks are ‘moving the needle’ on something important to you, things get easier. At worst, this connection helps your day make sense. At best, it keeps you enthusiastic, motivated, and inspired.”

Our reasons, motivations, and purpose for our actions stem from our deepest morals, values, and priorities: our spirituality. Getting clear on what those are for us can be extremely beneficial in helping us be proactive in reaching our goals.

But what about the times when we truly feel stuck? Like, really stuck?

Russ Harris, author of the book The Happiness Trap hypothesizes that in order to stop struggling, we need to stop fighting.

Wait, so you’re telling me that if I want to change something in my life, I need to stop trying hard?

Yes. And also no. It sounds counterintuitive, but hear us out.

In The Happiness Trap, Russ Harris explains how we live in a society that demonizes negative emotions and feelings. We often believe that it is not okay to struggle or go through a hard time. The “Pursuit of Happiness” is all about helping ourselves to feel good.

If our main aim is to chase positive feelings, and avoid negative feelings, then anytime anything doesn’t go the way we want it, or we feel the slightest amount of stress, we go into alarm mode, and we spend all of this time and energy trying to “make sure” things go well.

Do you see the trap here? When we get caught in this mindset, we spend so much energy fighting to control things (known as “control strategies”), that we often don’t use that energy on things that matter most to us (known as “values-driven actions”).

Kelly McGonigal, health psychologist at Stanford University and author of the book The Upside of Stress, puts it this way:

“Psychologists call this vicious cycle stress generation. It’s the ironic consequence of trying to avoid stress (or negative feelings): you end up creating more sources of stress while depleting the resources that should be supporting you… The more firmly committed you are to avoiding stress, the more likely you are to find yourself in this downward spiral.”

Other psychologists wrote in the book The Exploration of Happiness that, “the more directly one aims to maximize pleasure and avoid pain, the more likely one is to produce instead a life bereft of depth, meaning, and community.”

Great! So what does this all have to do with being able to get to bed at a consistent time or eating my vegetables?

When we are stuck, the first step to getting unstuck is to relieve the pressure: acceptance.

Often, the only way out is through.

According to Russ Harris, “acceptance does not mean putting up with or resigning yourself to anything. Acceptance is about embracing life, not merely tolerating it. Acceptance literally means ‘taking what is offered.’ It doesn’t mean giving up or admitting defeat; it doesn’t mean just gritting your teeth and bearing it. It means fully opening yourself to your present reality – acknowledging how it is, right here and now, and letting go of the struggle with life as it is in this moment.”

When we mindfully accept things (ourselves, others, our situation, past events, feelings, thoughts, emotions) as they are, letting go of our bias, it releases us from the oppression of those thoughts and feelings. Although we may still feel those thoughts and feelings, we are no longer our thoughts nor our feelings, no matter how negative they may be. This puts us in a place where we can take committed action in the direction we would like to go.

In computer terms, you might say you are “gathering the data and choosing the best course of action (based on that data).”

We only will struggle more if we deceive ourselves and are out of touch with our reality through our biases and logical fallacies (thought processes that disconnect us from seeing the present moment as it truly is).

This will help us to see clearly what is within our sphere of control, and what is not. We can then act accordingly, saving the frustration of trying to change things we cannot.

As Russ Harris writes in his book:

“Develop the courage to solve those problems that can be solved, the serenity to accept those problems that can’t be solved, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

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