We usually think about motivation like this:
I’m at Point A (couch) and I want to get to Point Z (going for a run). In order to move from Point A to Point Z, I need some fuel (motivation) to push me from A to Z.
Let’s call this The Fuel Theory of Motivation. It says that in order to do things, we need this psychological fuel called motivation to push us to our goals.
Whether we’re aware of it or not, this is the theory of motivation that most of us live by. And we think about motivation like this because that’s how it feels.
When we’re sunk into the couch watching Netflix after a long day at work, being on the trail in the middle of a run seems hopelessly far away.
We wish longingly for one of those rare bursts of energy and enthusiasm, but most of the time inertia wins out and we stay on the couch. Then we explaining things to ourselves with metaphors like “My tank is just empty” or “I’m just not feeling it today.”
The assumption being that we’re lacking something, some kind of energy and motivation. And that if only we had more of it, we’d be able to push ourselves to get going.
Okay this is one theory of motivation.
But like any other theory—no matter how intuitive it seems—the only way to know whether or not it’s true is look at how well it performs in real life. In other words, how useful is it?
If our success-to-failure ratio of accomplishing our goals is any indicator, I think we may have some issues with our Fuel Theory of Motivation.
To quote the great Dr. Phil: “How’s that working for ya?”
A New Way to Think About Motivation
In my own life, as well as my work with clients, I’ve found much greater success with a different theory of motivation. I call it The Gravitational Theory of Motivation.
The Gravitational Theory of Motivation says that it’s usually more helpful to think of motivation as something outside of you, not inside of you.
Better to imagine that certain activities and goals are inherently motivating, and as a result, they tend to pull us toward them like gravity. As a result, we don’t need to push ourselves toward our goals, but instead, let our goals pull us toward them.
Wait a second… That sounds nice, but if that were true, why doesn’t going for a run pull me out of the couch and onto the treadmill?
The answer is, going for a run is pulling you. Because it’s something you value and care about, and something that has known benefits to you, it is exerting a pull on your behavior.
The problem is, so are a few other things. And much of the time, those other things win out.
When I’m stuck at Point A (where I am), trying to get to Point Z (my goal), there is a natural pull toward Point Z. I can feel myself wanting to get up and head to the gym because I know there are lots of good things associated with me going to the gym.
It’s not that I don’t have enough energy or motivation that’s causing the problem. In fact, my problem here is too much motivation.
The comfort of the couch, for example, has a really strong pull in the opposite direction of the gym. Combine that with the pull of enjoyment at watching Netflix and together they pretty handily outweigh the pull of the gym.
Turns out, what I really need is less motivation, not more.
How changing your theory of motivation will help you achieve your goals.
Shifting from a Motivation-as-Fuel to Motivation-as-Gravity model will actually increase our motivation and help us reach our goals. Here are three reasons why:
1. Motivation isn’t one thing. When we think about motivation as external and inherent to all sorts of activities, it’s a reminder that motivation isn’t really one single thing that we either have or don’t have. Instead, there are dozens if not hundreds of motivations acting on us all the time.
2. More Agency. A Major flaw of the Fuel Theory of Motivation is that it encourages helplessness. When we think of motivation as a quasi-mystical energy source that happens to strike us from time to time, it erodes our sense of agency and control over our behavior and encourages a pattern of waiting around for motivation to strike.
The Gravitational Theory of Motivation, on the other hand, says that motivation is wonderfully environmental. Because we can change our environment, we can to a large extent control which motivations exert pull over us.
3. Less Negative Self-Talk. When we think about motivation as something external to ourselves, it decreases the likelihood that we start beating ourselves up for “being lazy,” “not having our Sh!t together,” “never sticking to our goals,” etc., which of course only make us feel worse about ourselves, and as a result, less likely to take action toward our goals.
Putting it All Together with The Environmental Motivation Assessment
The Environmental Motivation Assessment (if anyone out there is an expert in copywriting or marketing, I could definitely use a little help with that term!) is the best way to apply our new theory of motivation to help us better reach our goals.
Here’s how it looks in practice:
- Pick a goal you want to be more successful in moving toward. Let’s say it’s Remember to compliment my spouse more often.
- Picture the environment where you’re having trouble reaching your goal. For me it might be at my house in the evenings immediately after getting home from work.
- Think about that environment and all the aspects of it that have some kind of motivation pull on you. For me, when I listen to podcasts on my way home from work, I often get engrossed in the ideas of the podcast, which causes me to forget about my goal of complimenting my wife when I get home from work in the evenings. I also know that my kids are an opposing motivational force that pull me from my goal as soon as I walk through the door because they want me to start playing with them.
- Neutralize counter-productive sources of motivation. I know that for me, getting lost in a podcast and playing with my kids as soon as I get home can easily distract from my goal of remembering to compliment my wife. To lessen or even remove those counter-productive sources of motivation, I might put a sticky note on my work bag each day that says “compliment.” Now, when I grab my bag out of the car before walking into the house I’m reminded of my goal and not distracted by the podcast. Similarly, the sticky note might have a little reminder underneath “compliment” that says, “Wife first, kids second.” This would nudge me to try and prioritize my wife first thing after getting home.
Try this out in as many areas of your life as possible to get practice with it. Whether it’s sticking to a diet, going to bed earlier, flossing, or making time to practice guitar, understanding where your competing sources of motivation are coming from is essential to sticking with your goal. Because often the best way to reach our goals is to stop pushing harder and get smart about removing the things that are pulling us in the opposite direction.