Updated: Mar 28
We often find ourselves in a position where we're waiting for a surge of enthusiasm to get started on a project. The image of a snazzier self comes to mind but the drive to exercise is just not there. I'm sure we can all think about a course we could've studied more for but opening the textbook felt like pulling teeth. Motivation is a precious resource but many of us don't think about it in a helpful way.
If you're waiting for motivation to take action, then you're working under a debilitating misconception.
Motivation is a force that guides behavior. The forms of motivation in everyday life can look like desires to relate with others, do a job well and be in a controlled space. We can and should take steps towards a goal if at first the motivation for taking action is minimal to nonexistent.
A Mental Filter Holding You Back
The thoughts you have ultimately create your reality. Cognitive distortions are thinking traps that can make tough experiences even more grueling. We've all experienced cognitive distortions to some extent. Being able to recognize them when they appear allows us to challenge them.
One of the most common cognitive distortions is all-or-nothing thinking. We may think that if we can't go to the gym for an hour then we shouldn't bother to exercise at all. Maybe our thought content is more heavy and we think that we're either a genius for proving a point in a conversation or stupid because we mumbled.
A reason why we should be wary of all-or-nothing thinking when it comes to building our motivation is because we may be dismissive of the gray area and its advantages. I often hold myself to a very high performance standard at work and not meeting it sometimes makes me think about giving up. I think I either have to be in the exceptional performance range or find another career. I've learned that having a more balanced perspective that's not so black-or-white like thinking I haven't reached my peak performance yet but I'm doing well enough takes off pressure so that I can take goal-oriented action.
I'll Do It When I Feel Like It
Your thinking traps can directly influence the actions you take, which is why it's important to create a competing thought to cancel them out. But if the reason why you're not working towards a goal is mainly because you think you need to get motivated first, then it's time to rethink.
In the video below, the Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Emma McAdam describes how the motivation cycle works. She explains that we first need to get ourselves to take action even if we don't feel like it, then we'll experience a reward in the form of dopamine in our system and finally we'll feel motivated to take more action.
Celebrate The Wins
Getting yourself motivated after escaping thinking traps and the resistance to take action is worthy of recognition. But don't beat yourself up if you aren't able to get to where you want to be right away. Confucius once said “It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.” Research in psychology has shown that rewards are more effective than punishments when creating and changing behaviors. Give yourself proportional pats on the back for the baby steps and the giant leaps.