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Motivation: What to do When You Don’t Feel It

Pat LaDouceur, PhD, helps people dealing with anxiety, panic, and relationship stress who want to feel more focused and confident. She has a private practice ...Read More

One of my clients, Janae, wants to start a new exercise program this summer. “I’m out of shape,” she said. “I know I have to do something. But how do I get motivated?”

Another client, Miles, has a big test coming up, but he puts off studying. “I have the time,” he says, “but not the motivation. How can I get myself to do it?”

I hear this a lot.

Whether you want to lose weight, clean the garage, prepare for a test, or finish a project, you have to find a way to start.

Sometimes motivation is elusive. If you don’t feel it, however, you need to create it.

The essence of motivation

Ray Ewry was motivated. He was orphaned at five, diagnosed with polio at seven, and told he would never walk again. He wasn’t ready to accept his prognosis, and eventually triumphed in a spectacular way.

It takes luck as well as perseverance to recover from polio, and Ewry had both. A doctor gave him some leg exercises to try. According to one of his biographers, his mind was on those exercises, and his vision of himself walking again, day and night.

Part of his recovery was the compelling and positive future he imagined: from the time he got up to the time he went to bed, he saw himself as someone who walks.

Positive and negative motivation

On a day to day basis, most of us struggle with smaller things. There’s something you’d like to do but haven’t managed to get to yet.

You’ve probably imagined an organized garage, breezing through a test, or the compliments you’ll get when you look good in your favorite shirt again. This is one type of motivation – a pull from the future.

Negative motivation is just the opposite – a push from the past. Your might think, “What a disaster this garage is!” “I better not mess up the test like I did last time,” or “I look pretty bad in these jeans.”

Both types of motivation work for some people, some of the time. If they’re not working for you, you need something more.

Why change is hard

When you want to change your behavior, it’s not always enough just to focus on what you want or what you don’t like.

Changing something – whether it’s a significant obstacle or a small habit – takes a serious amount of mental and emotional energy. With the responsibilities and distractions of everyday life, it’s often more than we can manage.

My clients want to get in shape and study for a test, but so far there hasn’t been enough energy behind the wish to motivate them.

Enter: Ulysses

How do you up the ante? One way is to create a goal compelling enough to pull you – or scare you – into generating the energy necessary to make it happen. This strategy is sometimes referred to as making a “Ulysses Contract.”

Ulysses was the king of Ithaca, hero of Homer’s Odyssey. He wanted to hear the famous song of the Sirens on his way home after the Trojan war. But he knew that if he did, he wouldn’t be able to resist their call, a song of such beauty it would lead him to change course and be dashed to death on the rocks, as others had been before him.

So he made a deal. He asked his crew to bind him to the mast of their ship and plug their own ears until they were well past the danger. When they were once again on their path home and he could again think rationally, they could untie his ropes and release him.

In essence, he made a deal in the present to motivate himself to do the right thing in the future, when it really mattered.

A motivating contract

A Ulysses Contract is an agreement that has two features:

1. It’s easy to commit to in the present

2. It provides an incentive for the future that gives you the emotional energy to resist the pull of old habits

The incentive can be positive or negative, as long as it is compelling. A positive incentive is any type of reward that you enjoy and is good for you.

A negative incentive is something you don’t want to happen. A typical example is giving a significant amount of money – let’s say $500 – to a friend. If you stick to your exercise program or study schedule, you get it back. If you don’t, your friend keeps it – or worse gives it to a cause you detest.

Once the contract is made, the energy needed for “business as usual” becomes greater than the energy needed to fall off course. Change becomes the path of least resistance.

The taste of success

Ray Ewry learned to walk, then to run and jump. For Ewry, the future he imagined was so compelling that he became the world’s best jumper, winning 10 Olympic gold medals in the standing high jump, standing long jump, and standing triple jumps in 1900, 1904, and 1908.

Ewry didn’t need a Ulysses contract. He had a powerful vision of recovery pulling him forward, and from behind he was pushed by the specter of living in a wheelchair as an orphan in the early 20th century. His circumstances were compelling enough to provide the energy to change.

My clients were not as pressed, and needed more. Janea could create an enticing reward for herself for getting regular exercise, while Miles might put some funds in trust while he sticks to a regular study schedule.

By imagining a compelling future (or one to avoid), my clients were able to create the energy they needed to move forward.

Motivation is sometimes elusive. But by taking responsibility for your own motivation, you can to create the energy you need to make changes.

Keep Reading By Author Pat LaDouceur, Ph.D.
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