Prepare to dive deep into the inner workings of your mind, uncovering the secrets behind why you can’t get yourself to eat your veggies and why you’d rather watch the last 3 episodes of The Mandalorian instead of building lean muscle at the gym.
With every action we take there is some benefit we seek that, to us, outweighs the cost of doing it. The problem is that we do not always use our logical and analytical part of our brain to make this judgement. As moral and social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, explains in his book The Righteous Mind, the first principle of moral psychology is that “intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.“
Interestingly enough, a simple Google search of the definition of the word “motivation” results in two definitions:
- the reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way
- the general desire or willingness of someone to do something
Both definitions involve an action resulting of some sort of intrinsic reasoning: the benefit of the action outweighs the cost of performing it.
So how, exactly, do we perform this cost-benefit analysis. After all, wouldn’t everybody want to be healthy enough to do the things they love in their life? In fact, isn’t everybody’s aim in life to live a life that they love? Wouldn’t that outcome outweigh the cost of us getting there? To answer these questions, we first need to dive into the deep dark secrets of how the brain works to reason with the outside world.
The brain, our thoughts, and our behavior can be extremely complex. We have parts of our brain that respond to visual stimuli in our environment, parts that can detect pain, and other parts that help us feel our emotions.
Honestly, science has not discovered the function of all parts of the brain, let alone answered the question of how exactly our physical brain and all of its pieces interact with our thoughts, behaviors, and motivations (i.e., whether our brain controls our thoughts, our thoughts control our brain, or a mix of both). However, we do have knowledge about which parts of our brains are activated during certain behaviors and thoughts.
Here, we will focus on two parts of the brain: the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system, using the metaphor of an elephant and its rider to illustrate their roles and functions in regards to motivation and logic, as well as how it applies to our health and wellness.
The rider should be able to control the direction of the elephant he/she is riding. However, the elephant is powerful enough that, if it wanted, it could go wherever it wanted, leaving the rider powerless to change its course.
Our prefrontal cortex can be thought of as the rider. It plays a crucial role in our reasoning and logical thinking. We should be able to do/not do XYZ (e.g., exercise consistently, not eat the cookies, not stress out over something so small, get to bed on time, etc.). In our minds, it just makes sense.
Our limbic system is our emotional side of the brain. It’s activated when we are stressed (which isn’t always bad), when we seek pleasure and instant gratification, and when we are motivated to reach a certain goal (e.g., satisfy a craving, relax, etc.). This part of the brain is like the elephant. If it is activated in a situation, it is likely it may trump our more logical and rational part of the brain.
This can lead us to eat, even if we know we don’t want to.
We may sit on the couch and watch Star Wars, even though we should go to the gym.
We may have all of the tools and skills necessary to meal prep for the week, but when Sunday evening rolls around, we play some Xbox instead.
This is the elephant (our motivation) trumping the power of the rider (our logic). Motivation will win nine times out of ten. Even if we are able to exercise some impulse control, it can be mentally, emotionally, and even physically exhausting, and we may revert back to our emotional default, even though we know it’s not in line with our long-term goals (once again, the elephant wins).
So what can we take away from this?
Each and every behavior we perform, whether it be consistently exercising or changing the way we eat, requires a mix of both ability (logic or “the rider”) AND motivation (emotion or “the elephant”).
Expert on human behavior and habit development BJ Fogg argues in his book Tiny Habits that the right mix of both motivation and ability will result in the desired behavior: the more motivation we have, the more we can do harder tasks. The easier the task, the less motivation we need to do it.
Getting clear on your values and priorities creates awareness and helps you to connect with your true motivations and intentions.
Put simply, our values & priorities determine our motivations, reasons, and purpose, which drive our thoughts and actions. This is what we call our “Spiritual Framework,” and you can read more about it here.
When picking an action step that will help you move toward your goal (e.x., eating 1-2 servings of vegetables at every meal), ask yourself the following questions:
- On a scale of 1-10, how motivated do I feel to do this?
- How do I feel performing this action will benefit my life and help me reach my goals?
- On a scale of 1-10, how confident am I in my ability to carry out this action?
- Are there any potential obstacles or roadblocks that may get in the way of me performing this action?
So, what if you really do have the motivation and ability to do something, but you still find it hard to stay consistent? For example, several athletes and individuals recovering from a traumatic injury are definitely motivated to get back to full fitness, but still experience the ebbs and flows of feeling motivated.
To learn more about how to keep going when the going gets rough, click here.