The Cultivation of Motivation

Last January, Tom made a New Year’s resolution to improve his physical fitness. Unlike many others who made similar resolutions, he kept his and is now reaping the benefits. His coworker and friend, Larry, would like to follow Tom’s example, but complains, “I don’t have the motivation. I don’t know how Tom does it. I suppose I lack willpower.”

Many people are like Larry. They are confused about the meaning and nature of motivation and willpower. This lack of understanding prevents them from keeping their resolutions and improving themselves. Since Tom is successful, let’s use him as an example to reveal the characteristics of motivation and willpower.

Tom joined a fitness club and has been working out four hours a week for the last year. As a result of his workouts, he’s lost some weight. No longer carrying excess baggage, he now has more stamina and energy. He has a general feeling of wellbeing. In fact, there is a glow about him that attracts the attention of others. He feels good and is self-confident. And why shouldn’t he be; after all, because of his self-discipline, he is in control of his own life. Twenty-six and single, Tom is also delighted about the single women he’s made friends with at the fitness club. Not only are they attractive, but they also share his interest in good health. Tom is enjoying life and because of his exercise regimen will continue to do so for a long time.

Is there anything surprising about the fact that Tom works out four times a week? Not in his mind. You see, he’s reaping so many benefits he WANTS to continue working out. He is motivated to act because he has a MOTIVE or REASON. The reasons for acting are the BENEFITS and PAYOFFS that he receives.

Now, in our minds, let’s use an illustration to diagram the dynamics of motivation. Pretend we’re in a vacant field and before us is a seesaw. On the right side of the seesaw we will place the obstacles Tom has to overcome to reach his goal of physical fitness. The obstacles include the sacrifices he has to make, the effort he has to put in, and the resistance he has to overcome. Examples of sacrifices he makes are occasionally missing a favorite TV show or turning down an invitation to join his buddies at a nightclub. Going out of his way to travel to and from the fitness club and doing grueling exercises at the club are examples of the efforts he has to make. Finally, overcoming the discomfort of acquiring new habits and fighting the inertia of habitual laziness are examples of the resistance that Tom had to struggle with.

Returning to our seesaw, we will now place the benefits or payoffs of Tom’s workouts on the left side. Let’s start piling them on the seesaw. They include more energy, a zest for life, self-confidence, a slimmer and more attractive appearance, self-mastery, greater happiness, new friends, better health, sound sleep, strengthening of the bones, a longer life, and also greater physical strength, power, endurance, flexibility, and cardiovascular fitness.

Do you see what happened? The benefits were so numerous that they outweighed the costs (obstacles). So, the left side of the seesaw tilted and reached the ground. Seen sideways, the plank of the seesaw forms a line rising upwards. If we were to put an arrowhead on the right side of the line (plank), it would be pointing upward. The arrow is pointing toward Tom’s goal (physical fitness). The line, arrow, or plank represents MOTIVATION. Motivation, then, is self-generating. It is created by the payoffs we get when we perform worthwhile actions. Because of the rewards we receive, we WANT to continue to do more of the same. When viewed in this light, we will soon realize that ‘willpower’ is nothing more than WANT-POWER.

Since pictures are powerful tools to help us understand and remember important principles, here is another image, which comes from a Russian proverb: “It is not the horse that draws the cart, but the oats.” Just to make sure we don’t miss the point, let me break down the proverb into its three components that illustrate the dynamics of motivation. They are as follows: we achieve our goal (drawing the cart) by overcoming the effort, resistance, or costs (horse), which is done by offering benefits, payoffs, or rewards (oats).

By now, the concepts of motivation and willpower may be clearer. To put our newfound understanding to good use, let’s now look at steps we can take for the cultivation of motivation. What is it that you would like to do, but haven’t because of a lack of motivation? Pick a goal and follow the steps below to become as successful as Tom.

1. Begin by analyzing the costs of acting and not acting. Many people wistfully dream about things that they would like to do without considering the obstacles involved. So, if they make an attempt, they quickly give up after striking the first few hurdles. Considering the costs involved gives you power. It prepares you and offers the opportunity to look for resources and solutions before problems arrive. Don’t forget to consider the cost of not acting. Let’s say you don’t workout because you refuse to get off your butt and put down that bag of potato chips. If so, you are giving up what you want MOST (good health) for what you want NOW (beer, potato chips, and TV). Does that make sense?

2. Analyze the rewards you will receive after achieving your goal. List everything you can think of because there will be many that you will overlook or be unaware of.

3. If the benefits outweigh the costs, make a commitment to start working toward your goal.

4. “Hey, wait a minute! I thought you said that motivation (want-power) is generated by the payoffs we get AFTER taking positive action. Since I have yet to act, I haven’t received any benefits, and therefore lack motivation. So, how do I start?” Begin by ANTICIPATING the rewards. Add power to your anticipation by visualizing the advantages of acting in clear, specific terms.

5. Looking forward to success is enough to get you started in taking your first small steps. The rewards you get after taking those initial steps will be enough to motivate you to take additional steps. After all, nothing motivates like success. Each step you take causes motivation to snowball and accelerate.

6. Repetition strengthens outcomes. For example, you feel GOOD after losing one pound, feel BETTER after losing five pounds, and feel GREAT after losing ten pounds. However, motivation won’t continue to grow unless you notice the improvements, so keep records and monitor your progress. Repetition also reinforces motivation and makes it easier to maintain because it becomes habitual.

7. To keep the momentum, don’t deviate from your plan. For as Zig Ziglar said, “People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing — that’s why we recommend it daily.” As long as you keep up the pace, motivation will remain strong. But if you let things slide, there will be fewer rewards, and, therefore, less motivation. So remain vigilant and you will be assured of success.