What Motivates Us?
Did you ever wish you could hack your motivation to start things you don’t want to do? Have ever tried to set a goal and found that after a few days, you didn’t have the motivation to do it? This common experience usually takes place about 2 weeks after New Year’s Day, when everyone’s motivation for their resolution dissolves away and they go back to their regular routines.
What motivates us to do something instead of not doing it? When faced with decisions like writing in a journal, starting that book we have been putting off, painting the bedroom, or beginning a new exercise/nutrition program, our perceptions on the difficulty and ease of the particular task greatly influence our motivation. But there is a way to hack your motivation – to give yourself a slight boost by understanding the inferences you make about things that are easy or difficult.
Everything we do in life can feel, at least in some sense, either easy or difficult. And when we think about the things we do, we often infer something from our interpretations of these feelings we have. What do ease and difficulty imply about the things that we do in life?
Perceptions of Ease and Difficulty
We understand that thinking involves two primary qualities: the “content” (the information on our mind) and the interpretation of that content – what it means for us. Additionally, research shows that we commonly make inferences based on our interpretations of ease and difficulty and that this inference happens in one of four ways:
- People experience ease as implying possibility. When we approach ease with this implication, we think about easy tasks as things that we can actually do. In our interpretation of a potential task or activity, we consider ease in terms of possibility as opposed to its perceived value.
- People experience ease as implying triviality. In contrast with ease-as-possibility, sometimes when we interpret ease, rather than possibility, we infer triviality. If it’s easy it must not be worth much. Here, we move to thinking about it in terms of value instead of possibility.
- People experience difficulty as implying impossibility. Similarly to ease-as-possibility, in some cases when we think about difficult tasks, we imply the idea of impossibility. Something difficult means something we cannot accomplish or something outside our abilities or reach. We think about difficulty in terms of possibility.
- People experience difficulty as implying importance. Again, in contrast to difficulty-as-impossibility, at other times when we think about difficulty, we infer a high value. We generally believe that difficult things are important things – we think in terms of value as opposed to possibility.
We might think of this as a value/possibility matrix. When thinking about ease and difficulty, sometimes we consider the value and other times we consider the possibility. Easy things can be interpreted as either possible or trivial. Difficult things can be interpreted as either impossible or valuable.
Interpretation and Motivation
When it comes to motivation, our interpretation of ease or difficulty and the inference that we attribute to that interpretation is important. For example, the likelihood of being motivated to do something increases when we consider it as important and within our abilities (possible). It makes sense. We are more likely to be motivated to do things that we feel we can accomplish than things we believe are out of our reach or impossible. We are more likely to be motivated to do things that we believe have value for our lives as opposed to those we consider trivial.
The struggle comes in our interpretation. When it comes to ease, we can either interpret it as possible or trivial – something we can actually do or something not worth doing. When it comes to difficulty, we can either interpret it as important or impossible – something worth doing or something we can never accomplish. We can recognize that one interpretation allows for greater motivation while the other prevents it. We generally have greater motivation to do things we believe we can accomplish over those we think are impossible and we generally have greater motivation to do the things we believe are important as opposed to those which we believe to be trivial.
Unfortunately, we usually make those interpretations subconsciously. They just kind of happen outside of our awareness. We look at something and think – impossible. Or we look at another thing and think – important. The reasons why we make one interpretation as opposed to the other aren’t so simple and have to do with a large set of variables which include our past experiences, our cultural biases, and our social constructs among others.
Our nature and nurture – our genetics and experiences – contribute to provide us with a growing and evolving interpretive framework which our brains rely upon when doing the interpretive work we need to live and operate in the world. Past experience tells us, for example, that something on the stove could be hot. So we approach a pot on the stove with care. This interpretation usually takes place without us being aware of it – it just happens.
These interpretations happen about everything including ideas of ease and difficulty. The good news is we can hack our motivation to a certain extent.
Hack Your Motivation
Even though interpretations happen a lot of the time on autopilot, one thing you can do to hack your motivation is to try and be intentional about choosing your interpretation. Our control over how we interpret things exists to the extent that we can choose what meaning we want to attribute to the “content” of our thinking. In other words, we can assign meaning when we do it consciously. So, to hack your motivation, you deliberately attribute one meaning instead of another. Here’s how it works:
- When approaching a difficult task, raise your awareness of its importance. This strengthens the motivational bias we have in thinking about difficult things as important.
- When approaching a difficult task, find specific ways to see it as possible. This opposes the motivational bias we have against things we see as impossible.
- When approaching an easy task, raise your awareness to its possibility – to your ability to accomplish it. This strengthens our motivational bias toward things that are possible.
- When approaching an easy task, find intentional, strategic ways to assign or attribute value to it. This opposes the motivational bias we have against trivial and unimportant things.
To hack your motivation, you choose interpretations and attribute meanings for the things that naturally function as motivators instead of letting your brain unconsciously choose interpretations that prevent motivation. This basically breaks down to this.
For easy things, think about possibility instead of triviality. For difficult things, think about importance instead of impossibility. Here are the practical steps to doing this.
1. Make it Conscious
The first step in accomplishing this hack involves a conscious awareness of what’s happening during our interpretive process. We need to develop awareness of the interpretive process before our brains work on autopilot to assign a meaning. Why? Because once we have “made up our mind” on a particular meaning, once our brains have assigned an interpretation, it’s harder to change the bias. We have to work against an interpretation that already exists. This doesn’t mean we can’t overcome the bias, it just means that we have a greater obstacle.
The good news is that we can develop a “critical thinking” habit. If we begin to think intentionally about how we think and how we interpret things – a type of “meta-thought process” – we can begin to overcome the auto-pilot interpretations our brains make. This just means developing a habit of asking “why.” Why did I think that? Why did I assume that? Why did I choose that?
If you ever had to talk with a toddler who realized their curiosity through the use of the word “why” you understand what I’m talking about. We need to get back to that questioning of our natural assumptions and unconscious interpretations. This just takes practice and awareness and eventually, you will find yourself thinking of things differently.
2. Overcome Impossibility
The second step is overcoming the perceived impossibility of things. If we realize that possibility increases our motivation and our interpretations of things as impossible prevents it, then one solution involves finding the possible in the perceived impossible. How do you do that? Here’s a couple of ideas.
- Learn How To Eat An Elephant. It’s the old adage – you eat an elephant one bite at a time. The impossible can turn into possible when we break it down into bite-sized pieces. Breaking impossible tasks into smaller, more manageable components gives us confidence and eventually enables us to accomplish the difficult thing.
- Think Positively. Negative thinking about something can shade our interpretation toward impossible but if we can deliberately be optimistic and positive, we can start to see cracks in the perceived impossibility. Here’s an article on how positive thinking can also make you happier if you’re interested in more on this.
- Focus on Importance. As we already discussed, when we see difficult things as valuable, we have greater motivation. So instead of looking at something as impossible, assign it importance and accept the challenge.
3. Overcome Triviality
The final step is overcoming the bias we have against things we don’t think have importance. When we understand that easy things can be interpreted in two ways, we need to find ways to assign value to things we might think aren’t important. Here’s a couple of steps to accomplish this.
- Think Long-Term. One way of assigning value to something involves looking beyond the unimportance of the task to some long-term goal. As an example, eating a healthy meal today may not seem important but if we can think about it in terms of our long-term health, the triviality can be replaced with importance.
- Attach it to a deeper value. Some things we can assign to some of our deeper core values in order to give them importance. We may not think that trivial tasks are worth it, but if we look at those things as contributing to the development of deeper virtues like courage, discipline, and integrity we can view them as more important than what we might originally think.
- Focus on Possibility. Again, if we see easy things in terms of our ability to actually accomplish them instead of as things that aren’t important, it helps us to have greater motivation. We do this intentionally instead of accepting the automatic interpretation.
Finding ways to stay motivated can be challenging especially in the face of things we think are impossible or trivial. Changing our perceptions by intentionally interpreting things in specific ways can be a strategy to hack your motivation and find an edge for winning the battle against yourself. Developing a conscious awareness of your interpretive process, overcoming apparent impossibility and overcoming triviality are three steps you can take to build your motivation for things you don’t really want to do.
Call To Action
If you’re having trouble getting motivated and you’re looking for a way to 10X your productivity in 5 minutes a day, here’s a checklist for a simple routine to get started.