It seems like a silly question, right? I mean, of course motivation works. If you have motivation, you get things done, you accomplish your goals, and you lead a productive and satisfying life. If you don't have motivation...well, you should probably spend a lot of time feeling bad about it and trying to figure out what you're doing wrong. Right?
Motivation doesn't actually work the way we've been taught.
Let me give you an example. Let's say that there's something important in your life--maybe your doctor is worried about your health and suggests that you try to cut back on your sugar intake, for instance. Let's say you create a plan to change your eating habits, and even look up recipes for new snacks you can make at home so you won't be tempted by the delicious options available at the grocery store. Maybe you even make a few of them, and discover they taste pretty good.
But then what happens? Well, one of two things. You might keep going, and successfully decrease your sugar intake. Your blood sugar and risk of diabetes probably go down, and your doctor probably stops pestering you about your sugar intake.
Or, instead, maybe you end up watching those new recipe ingredients go bad in the fridge, feel guilty whenever you notice the recipes you've got bookmarked in your browser, and ultimately go back to the snacks you prefer. Maybe you're happier that way--and that's okay! But you might also feel bad, maybe even ashamed, because you set out to do something and feel like a failure when it didn't work out.
Now, it would be easy to assume that failure just means that you didn't have the motivation it took to change your eating habits. But that's not actually true. The problem wasn't low motivation; the problem was that the motivation gets spent on something else.
Because really, almost everyone has motivation.
But--and this is a big one--not everyone has access to their motivation because it's already been spent on something else.
To understand this, you need to know how motivation really works. And to understand that, we need to do away with a problematic belief that's infiltrated our way of understanding motivation altogether.
Motivation is about the resources you have available.
That's right--motivation is something you do. Now, bear with me. Let's say you are thinking about making those low-sugar snacks, but you really don't want to. You probably aren't feeling very motivated. But let's say you go anyway. You go work out, and maybe you don't enjoy it too much, but you go. Can it be said that you weren't motivated? What if you do the same thing tomorrow, and the next day, and the next?
See where I'm going with this?
Motivation happens when we decide to do something, and then we do it. We don't have to feel good about doing it--we just have to do it, regardless of how we're feeling. And a lot of the time, we find that we feel more interested in doing it after we've started. The feeling of being engaged in or excited about something actually comes later.
However, you sometimes can't just think your way out the difficulty involved in getting up and doing the thing you know you should do. It's going to be harder to do what you need to if you've already spent your energy on doing something else. What I mean by that is, usually, you're doing something else instead of what you think you should for a really good reason.
What reason could possibly be that good?
Glad you asked. The motivation we've got tied up in other things is usually being spent on something very important...more important than going to the gym, or whatever it is that you're hoping to accomplish.
Let's say that you have a really stressful life. Your relationship may not be so great, or maybe your job just wears you down every day. And when you get home, all you want is something nice or enjoyable to even out the terrible day you've had.
So you have a need for happiness and relaxation. That sounds pretty reasonable to most people, I think. In fact, a need for happiness is probably going to feel a lot more important than a need for fitting into smaller pants or pleasing your doctor. It might even be more important than a need for better health, because what good is better health if you're miserable?
So you sit on the couch and watch netflix or scroll through Facebook, and maybe eat something sweet, and you feel a little more okay for a while until you have to go back to work.
That's the lie about motivation.
It's not about feeling like doing something. It's about identifying what need is being met by the thing you're doing instead of what you think you need motivation to do. In other words, motivation requires that you meet the higher-priority need for happiness so that the need to have good health becomes the highest priority instead.
So to wrap it all up, what would fill that need for happiness? Probably there are better ways than ice cream and movies. Maybe looking into changing careers if possible, or finding effective ways to de-stress during the day. Maybe working on the relationship so that the interactions with your partner aren't so stressful. Maybe practicing Mindfulness Meditation, or doing yoga would help the day feel more bearable.
Or perhaps the lack of motivation is rooted in something deeper like depression. Maybe that depression is signaling a need for larger change, and could be best worked out through counseling.
Whatever it is, motivation isn't out of reach. It's just down a different path than popular wisdom would have us believe.
We are lied to about motivation, but that doesn't mean we have to believe it.