Friday, September 28, 2012

Staying Motivated

A common challenge facing us humans is that of staying motivated in the absence of external forces to do so.

Now, we're not born hypo-motivated. We start out hyper-motivated with wonderful internal motivators such as curiosity and delight. However, over time, these are inexorably displaced by external motivators such as "have to" and "or else."

As mid-teens we select topics of study based on earning potential; the choice of colleges and degree programs comes down to securing one's future, not pursuing one's passion. The path from intrinsic to extrinsic motivators is the path to maturity; we leave behind selfish, childish motivators and acquire responsible, adult motivators.

It's no wonder that we find it difficult to stay motivated in the absence external forces. As adults we never start with intrinsic motivation, so there's nothing to maintain. You lose weight to fit into that wedding dress. You learn to play songs for an upcoming performance. You mow the lawn because of what the neighbors might think if you didn't. You show up at the parent-teacher meeting because you should or to be perceived as a good parent. You write that term paper just days before it's due. You find a personal trainer because the doctor says, "or else."

As a mature adult you bow to the external motivators without question, at least without questions voiced too loudly. Perhaps something inside says, "Is this all there is?"  You do your best to ignore it.

By the time you retire, your daily motivation comes down to the question "where should we get dinner tonight?"

Sound familiar? Don't you fret! You have the power to change everything.  If you've lost the ability to sustain intrinsic motivation outside of say, for sleeping or eating, the first step is to actually become motivated in the first place (otherwise, there's nothing to maintain). Even if it's been so long you can't remember anything that motivated you instrinsically, you can do it.

I Wonder...
The easiest motivator to discover is curiosity. It's easy because, all you have to do is pursue questions that begin with the phrase: I wonder.

I wonder how... I wonder why... I wonder what would happen if...

If you haven't asked yourself an I-wonder question in a while or find it difficult, just listen to your kids. Follow some of their I-wonder questions to the next step. And then the next one. And then the next one.

Curiosity is easy to maintain. All you have to do is pursue I-wonder to the next step and low-and-behold, you'll find another I-wonder.

By far, the easiest motivator to sustain is delight.

To take delight in anything begins with savoring it, slowing down the experience so that all your senses have time to engage and take it in. By savoring, you can learn to take delight in almost anything. Driving to work. Waiting in the doctor's office. Working out at the gym. Preparing your tax returns.

Really, you can.

The key is to fully engage all your senses. Before turning the ignition key, take time to adjust your seat and mirrors. Let yourself sink into the seat as you relax your shoulders. Close your eyes and listen as the engine turns over and purrs. Adjust the temperature or roll down the windows.  If it's smudged or dirty, take time to clean the windshield. Run back into the house and grab that new CD you've been wanting to listen to. Make the time in your car delightful.

Curiosity and delight are great motivators because they're immediate and they're intrinsic to the activity. They're necessary to sustained motivation, but they're not always sufficient, at least not initially. Sometimes you need more. A powerful motivator is vision.

Having a vivid and inspiring vision of where you want to go or who you want to become is powerful; however, it can get a bit tricky to manage because it's subject to the vagaries of belief. If you steadfastly believe in your ability to attain your vision, then go for it. However, if your belief in that ability waivers and you place to much weight on the strength of your vision, your motivation can topple.

Assuming that your belief systems are well in tact, then the strength of your vision as a motivator is directly proportional to the audacity of it. If you want to learn to play the piano and would love to perform, then envision yourself on an international tour playing for packed houses everywhere you go. If you want to start a business, then envision one that is so successful that you have the wherewithal to start other business. If you want to lose weight, then envision yourself in such great shape that you can't wait to throw off your wrap and run down the beach into the sea.

In times where delight and curiosity just aren't working for you, your vision (emphasis on the word "your") can make all the difference.

Although you don't want to become dependent upon progress and goal achievement to stay motivated, it can be really useful take time to celebrate how far you've come. If you pursue something with the consistency of someone with intrinsic motivation, you can't help but make progress. Unfortunately, a side-effect of daily pursuit is that you often don't get to fully appreciate it; each step seems so tiny.

It's important to step back and take time to appreciate all the progress you've made. An easy way to do this is to periodically take snapshots of where you are. A snapshot can be a note in your calendar recording how much or how long or how well or what you did. It can be a photo or a measurement or a audio recording or a video. However you create your snapshots, each one will become a benchmark of progress.

Every so often, pull out your snapshots and take time to savor how far you've come.

Are You Motivated?
In the end, intrinsic motivation is a skill like any other. It can be developed or ignored. It can grow or shrink. It may seem that some people are just innately more intrinsically motivated than others; they're not.

Anyone can become intrinsically motivated.

How motivated are you do so?

Happy Friday,

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