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Nail New Year’s Resolutions By Understanding Motivation

Nail New Year’s Resolutions By Understanding Motivation

It’s resolution o’clock. Many of you are either setting New Year’s resolutions, thinking about them or already have the ball rolling. Whether you’re trying to break a habit, form a new habit, create a new routine or anything else, you’re going to have to deal with the M word: motivation.

Looking back on my intentions at the start of 2016, I see a real mixed bag—plenty of goals fulfilled, but plenty others left by the wayside. I launched my website, but fell short on my language-learning goals. I learned how to measure my progress with projects, but the projects themselves had mixed results.

One reason for my mixed results was simply that my priorities changed as the year progressed. Things that had felt incredibly important at the start of the year kind of faded in significance, meaning that certain goals were simply dropped.

But this wasn’t the only reason for my mixed results. In addition to changing my priorities, I also failed to properly motivate myself.

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This year, I’m feeling far better prepared. By taking the time to understand motivation fully, I’ve figured out how to structure my goals to maximise my motivation.

Motivation 101

In his book Drive, Dan Pink identifies three key sources of motivation:

  1. Our desire to survive (‘animal’ desires)
  2. External rewards (extrinsic motivation)
  3. The enjoyment, satisfaction and challenge inherent in a task (intrinsic motivation)

We mostly end up focusing on number two—extrinsic motivation. We spend a lot of time doing things in order to earn rewards—a bonus, complements, admiration or praise.

The key to maximising motivation seems to be to maintain a balance between number two and number three (intrinsic motivation). Although it might feel like the enjoyment of a task is insufficient to keep you going, it actually forms a vital part of maintaining motivation in the long term. If you’re going to stick with a resolution for a whole year, long-term motivation is key.

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The logic behind maintaining a balance of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation can be broken down into two key reasons:

Ego depletion

It can be tempting to simply provide yourself with a steady chain of external rewards, creating a new reward whenever the current reward is earned. The problem, however, is that forcing yourself to do something purely for a reward takes willpower—you have to constantly remind yourself that it’s really worth it. ego depletion theory suggests that we only have a limited pool of mental resources to power our willpower—eventually they get used up. However powerful the reward, you might run out of willpower.

Although questions have recently been raised about ego depletion theory, it kind of just makes sense intuitively. Constantly forcing yourself to do something purely for a future reward is tiring. The more tired you get, the harder it gets. Eventually you might give up. It’s as simple as that.

Achieving flow

When Hungarian Psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi introduced the concept of flow, he began to explain a phenomenon that many people had experienced. It’s the feeling of being totally absorbed in any activity so much so that you feel “strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of [your] abilities.”

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Flow can be achieved during any activity, as long as it’s neither too simple nor too demanding. You must constantly be aiming for goals that are achievable but challenging, with immediate feedback on your performance. You could be playing a sport, attempting a puzzle, solving a problem at work or reading a book.

The power of flow is that in contrast to the tiring, willpower-sapping effects of forcing yourself to chase a reward, flow is rewarding in itself. It is the purest form of intrinsic motivation and can actually create a sense of increasing your energy reserves. You’re not forcing yourself to complete the task—you’re doing it because you enjoy it.

To put it simply, flow can provide the long-term source of motivation that is vital for resolutions. If you can identify tasks, projects or goals that can lead to flow, you can make the whole process of motivating yourself a LOT easier.

The solution

Ultimately, the key to maximising motivation is to achieve a balance between extrinsic motivation (rewards) and intrinsic motivation (enjoyment or challenge). When setting resolutions, this can be achieved through the following simple steps:

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  1. For each resolution, consider whether you can utilise flow for achieving your goal. You’ll need to create the following two conditions:
    1. A level of difficulty that is neither too hard nor too easy, constantly challenging you without feeling impossible
    2. Immediate feedback on your efforts (either electronically, from someone else or through your own assessment)
  2. If you can utilise flow, structure your efforts for achieving the resolution purely around intrinsic motivation—make achieving flow the goal and results should come
  3. Regularly (either weekly or monthly) reflect on your progress and levels of motivation
  4. Only use external rewards as your backup when either the resolution doesn’t lend itself to intrinsic motivation or intrinsic motivation doesn’t seem to be working

By moving the focus from external reward to your own personal enjoyment, you can create an unlimited source of motivation for your resolutions. By creating a personal challenge with regular feedback, you can create a state of flow that can turn in to a long-term source of motivation.

Most importantly, using intrinsic motivation is fun! Why force yourself into a structure that requires willpower when fun can help you stick with your resolutions?

More by this author

Robert Crews

Freelance Writer

Nail New Year’s Resolutions By Understanding Motivation

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Last Updated on August 6, 2020

6 Reasons Why You Should Think Before You Speak

6 Reasons Why You Should Think Before You Speak

We’ve all done it. That moment when a series of words slithers from your mouth and the instant regret manifests through blushing and profuse apologies. If you could just think before you speak! It doesn’t have to be like this, and with a bit of practice, it’s actually quite easy to prevent.

“Think twice before you speak, because your words and influence will plant the seed of either success or failure in the mind of another.” – Napolean Hill

Are we speaking the same language?

My mum recently left me a note thanking me for looking after her dog. She’d signed it with “LOL.” In my world, this means “laugh out loud,” and in her world it means “lots of love.” My kids tell me things are “sick” when they’re good, and ”manck” when they’re bad (when I say “bad,” I don’t mean good!). It’s amazing that we manage to communicate at all.

When speaking, we tend to color our language with words and phrases that have become personal to us, things we’ve picked up from our friends, families and even memes from the internet. These colloquialisms become normal, and we expect the listener (or reader) to understand “what we mean.” If you really want the listener to understand your meaning, try to use words and phrases that they might use.

Am I being lazy?

When you’ve been in a relationship for a while, a strange metamorphosis takes place. People tend to become lazier in the way that they communicate with each other, with less thought for the feelings of their partner. There’s no malice intended; we just reach a “comfort zone” and know that our partners “know what we mean.”

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Here’s an exchange from Psychology Today to demonstrate what I mean:

Early in the relationship:

“Honey, I don’t want you to take this wrong, but I’m noticing that your hair is getting a little thin on top. I know guys are sensitive about losing their hair, but I don’t want someone else to embarrass you without your expecting it.”

When the relationship is established:

“Did you know that you’re losing a lot of hair on the back of your head? You’re combing it funny and it doesn’t help. Wear a baseball cap or something if you feel weird about it. Lots of guys get thin on top. It’s no big deal.”

It’s pretty clear which of these statements is more empathetic and more likely to be received well. Recognizing when we do this can be tricky, but with a little practice it becomes easy.

Have I actually got anything to say?

When I was a kid, my gran used to say to me that if I didn’t have anything good to say, I shouldn’t say anything at all. My gran couldn’t stand gossip, so this makes total sense, but you can take this statement a little further and modify it: “If you don’t have anything to say, then don’t say anything at all.”

A lot of the time, people speak to fill “uncomfortable silences,” or because they believe that saying something, anything, is better than staying quiet. It can even be a cause of anxiety for some people.

When somebody else is speaking, listen. Don’t wait to speak. Listen. Actually hear what that person is saying, think about it, and respond if necessary.

Am I painting an accurate picture?

One of the most common forms of miscommunication is the lack of a “referential index,” a type of generalization that fails to refer to specific nouns. As an example, look at these two simple phrases: “Can you pass me that?” and “Pass me that thing over there!”. How often have you said something similar?

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How is the listener supposed to know what you mean? The person that you’re talking to will start to fill in the gaps with something that may very well be completely different to what you mean. You’re thinking “pass me the salt,” but you get passed the pepper. This can be infuriating for the listener, and more importantly, can create a lack of understanding and ultimately produce conflict.

Before you speak, try to label people, places and objects in a way that it is easy for any listeners to understand.

What words am I using?

It’s well known that our use of nouns and verbs (or lack of them) gives an insight into where we grew up, our education, our thoughts and our feelings.

Less well known is that the use of pronouns offers a critical insight into how we emotionally code our sentences. James Pennebaker’s research in the 1990’s concluded that function words are important keys to someone’s psychological state and reveal much more than content words do.

Starting a sentence with “I think…” demonstrates self-focus rather than empathy with the speaker, whereas asking the speaker to elaborate or quantify what they’re saying clearly shows that you’re listening and have respect even if you disagree.

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Is the map really the territory?

Before speaking, we sometimes construct a scenario that makes us act in a way that isn’t necessarily reflective of the actual situation.

A while ago, John promised to help me out in a big way with a project that I was working on. After an initial meeting and some big promises, we put together a plan and set off on its execution. A week or so went by, and I tried to get a hold of John to see how things were going. After voice mails and emails with no reply and general silence, I tried again a week later and still got no response.

I was frustrated and started to get more than a bit vexed. The project obviously meant more to me than it did to him, and I started to construct all manner of crazy scenarios. I finally got through to John and immediately started a mild rant about making promises you can’t keep. He stopped me in my tracks with the news that his brother had died. If I’d have just thought before I spoke…

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