THE MOTIVATION/WILLPOWER DILEMMA
“I don’t understand…………Why can’t I [lose weight, stop smoking, stop yelling all the time, cut back on drinking, smile more – choose one or any one of a thousand other possibilities you are looking to change]? I’m so motivated to change but I just can’t seem to do it.”
Whether from clients or students, we have heard this question time and time again: “I’m motivated to change. I want it so badly but I just can’t make it happen. Why?” If you ask yourself the same question and find yourself in the same dilemma, it might help to recognize that you are implying your inability to change some undesirable action is something outside your control, and you really shouldn’t be blamed for continuing the bad behavior. You want to change so much that it can’t be your fault for being unable to do so. You’re eager to pass along the blame because it makes you feel so much better.
The problem here is that you are deceiving yourself about how motivated you are. You are giving casual lip service to motivation and making things easier on yourself by being able to place blame for your failure elsewhere. Next time you find yourself down a blind alley because you don’t seem to be able to accomplish your behavior goals, and you plead innocence because you are so motivated to change (let’s use smoking as an example), challenge yourself with the following scenario:
You’re getting ready to light up again when suddenly God appears right in front of you. God speaks: “I’m fed up with you. You’re always praying about holy you are and how you’re going to quit that filthy habit. I give you this magnificent body and all you want to do is poison and defile it with toxins. Well, the party’s over. I have blessed you with a wonderful spouse and three beautiful children. Here’s the deal — Beginning right now, right this moment, if you have one more cigarette, just one more, I’m going to take your children from you and bring them to their heavenly eternal home. Have another butt and you will never see them again.”
Would you be motivated to forego lighting up? Would you be motivated to toss the whole pack away? We certainly hope so!
The point here is you may think you are motivated, but you’re probably kidding yourself. So drop the lame “I’m so motivated” routine, face up to the hard work that’s involved in changing your actions for the better, and begin to focus on the difference between wanting to do something and having the will to do it.
It’s easy get caught up in procrastination, willpower, motivation etc., to tell yourself that you want something so badly, and then express disbelief that it doesn’t happen. It helps to remember that there is a huge disconnect between “will” and “want.” You may indeed “want” to change your behavior, but you can’t quite muster the “will” to make a step towards that new end. Smoking, weight loss, exercise, and getting in shape all fit this distinction quite well. You may “want” to be able to fit in your clothes better, but you also “want” to sit on the couch and watch Netflix. There is a real push (get off your duff!) vs. pull (I need to take it easy!) inside you, and unfortunately the pull (in this case Netflix) generally wins. So how do you move from focusing on the push rather than the pull?
Find a specific motivator and place it squarely in front of you. “Summer is coming and I want to be able to look decent at the pool”; “That wedding I’m in is only a few weeks away and I need to look sharp”; “The boss invited me to join in a jog last week and I nearly died of exhaustion. That’s no way to get a promotion. I have to be able to keep up.”
Summer, the wedding, a promotion……….finding that specific motivator will spur you to put actions that will move you toward your goal at the top of your list; irrelevant actions will be sent to the bottom. “I will get off my duff and do an hour of solid exercise!”
Remember that you can bring yourself to the point when a “want” shifts to a “will.” That point is highly personal and varies from person to person, and even moment to moment. But it’s only in that window when “want” shifts to “will” that true change in your behavior can begin.
There is, of course, another side to this coin: You may be one who doesn’t wonder why your motivation seems to get you nowhere, but instead one who admits to a total lack of motivation. You tell yourself and others, “There’s no way I can possibly work hard to change any of my lousy actions. I have no willpower, no motivation.”
It’s ironic how people make comments about procrastination and willpower when the simple truth is that it is usually only in a given area that they don’t have sufficient motivation. We see people all the time who work hard at their job, pay their bills, take care of their home and kids, etc., but who totally lack the motivation to exercise routinely, eat healthy, cut down on their alcohol consumption, quit smoking, etc. These folks apparently lack sufficient motivation concerning only particular actions in certain situations; their problem is not a general lack of willpower. If this description sounds like you, the key is to work on increasing your motivation and identifying specific situations for the desired specific actions.
Also, you must remember that you may need to change your thought patterns with respect to motivation. You may need to confront thinking that is inconsistent with your actions: You put off investigating diets (an action) that may work for you even though you say, “I care about my health” (your value); you put off joining a gym (an action) even though you say, “I want to get in shape” (your value); you put off spending more time with your kids and spouse (an action), even though you say, “I value family” (your value); you put off signing up for a course at the local community college (an action), even though you say, “I want to become more educated” (your value).
Ask yourself, “How do I really see my motivational conflict, the disconnect between my actions and my values?” Don’t put the focus on what you are against; put your emphasis on what you are for. Your task is to identify those things that you really value, the things that are important to you. You must then coordinate those things you value with specific actions that are compatible with those values. Once you identify with and begin engaging in those constructive actions, they will tend to become a part of your routine; they will become automatic and it won’t take much effort to maintain them.
Share a comment with us about when you found a specific event that moved you from wanting to do something to willing yourself to do it.
Comment on what you should do if your values are not consistent with those of someone close to you?
“I’m going on a diet.” “I’m going to stop eating when I watch TV.” Which strategy do you think is more likely to result in weight loss? Why?