More Research on Staying Motivated

I read an article in Scientific American the other day (Nov 2012, Daisy Yuhas) that I thought I’d share. I talk a lot about motivation primarily because I think it’s an interesting concept, but also because I’m always trying to find it and hold onto it myself. The article outlines three elements identified by research that are important for sustaining motivation. I figure they’re worth knowing, so I’ll share them here:

The first one is Autonomy. This one was interesting to me because I had never really thought about it before. I talk a lot about the importance of finding or developing an intrinsic vs. extrinsic payoff for sticking with a task – which I still believe to be true – but I’ve learned that that’s not the whole story. It turns out that regardless of whether you engage in an activity for the internal or external reward, the more important thing is that you feel a sense of control over the task. You need to feel that you’re in charge.

The second element, according to the article, is Value. This one wasn’t a surprise: I think it just makes sense that the more you believe in or value something, the more willing and able you’ll be to see it through.

The final element mentioned is Competence. To me this speaks to the cultivation of an intrinsic reward system: the better you get at something, the more rewarding is to do it. And the more rewarding something is, the easier it is to stick with it. We all like doing things we’re good at; the key is doing something long enough to develop a sense of mastery over it.

Think about the elements outlined above, and how they might apply to you and your own motivation. How can you gain a sense of autonomy in everything you do? What parts of the task can you identify that align with your values and beliefs? When you’re feeling unmotivated, can you remind yourself that the better you get at it the easier it will become to stick with it?

The important thing to remember, though, is that things like Autonomy, Value, and Competence are just words until you really make the effort to discover, create, manipulate, and use them successfully wherever you need a motivation boost. Often times this means creating a shift in perspective and being willing to see things in a new way. It’s about digging, stretching, and seeing the bigger picture. Every action you take, whether a one-time thing or a sustained effort, adds up to something bigger. Also know that this will always be a work in progress and that motivation has to be reinvented every day, with every endeavour.

Judging Others

I recently heard something that stuck with me as a good little adage to remember about judging others: “Logic doesn’t equal fact”.

I think this is an important thing to remember in every aspect of our lives; but particularly in regard to how we might unwittingly treat other people because of the assumptions we make about their intentions and abilities:

When we to try understand someone’s behaviors, we tend to base our explanations on what we think we see. We make a quick assumption given the limited data we have, and if the assumption seems logical we accept it as fact.

In one of my old social psychology textbooks, the authors (Brehm, Kassin, and Fein) explain that when judging another’s behaviors, our explanations come in the form of us making either personal or situational attributions. In other words, we make assumptions about whether the success or failure of another’s actions were do to his own skill and ability, or whether he lucked out or got burned because the environment had set him up for automatic success or failure.

The authors note that where we typically err in our attributions is through the use of cognitive heuristics (rules of thumb that allow us to make quick, but often erroneous assumptions) and the fundamental attribution error, in which we overestimate the role of personal factors on the impact of a situation.

In other words, the assumptions we make based on our own logic is often wrong. So the next time you’re in the position to praise, acknowledge, condemn, or dismiss the results someone’s actions, ask yourself whether you might be making an inaccurate assumption, and why. If things went well did you overestimate his contribution because you like him? If they didn’t go so well did you so for unfair reasons?

Personal Growth and Development

I’ve been reading some Ken Wilber lately; refamiliarizing myself with his theories after some time away. If you’re not familiar with his work I highly suggest checking it out. It’s really fascinating stuff.

Here’s a snapshot of a couple of his ideas that you can think about in the context of your ongoing personal growth: The four quadrants and the lines of development…

One important thing to keep in mind when we’re doing our internal work, according to Wilber, is that the intentional world of the individual (i.e., what’s happening on the inside) needs to be taken in context with the behavioral, cultural, and social worlds.

Each of these four quadrants, as he calls them (intentional, behavioral, cultural, and social), interacts with one another and cannot be separated. In other words, what you feel, think, experience, etc. is directly impacted by what you do; as well as by the expectations and norms of the culture and society in which you’re immersed – and vica versa.

Similarly, no one quadrant can be reduced to the other; as modern science tries to do (according to Wilber) by focusing only on the directly observable world at the expense of the subjective world of the individual.

Another piece of Wilber’s view is the idea that development takes place along numerous, relatively independent lines; and that some lines might be more developed than others. For example, he writes, a sociopath might be highly developed cognitively, but not so much morally. Similarly, we here stories all the time about men of the cloth who are presumably quite developed along the line of spirituality, but not so much in other areas important to ethical behavior and impulse control.

I’m drawn to these models because they offer me a clearer and more comprehensive way of understanding myself and the world. They help me remember that all things are interconnected; a well as identify where I can best focus my efforts at any given time for my own continuing development.

If you decide to check these theories out (or if you already know and love or hate them), I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Always Question Your Leadership

There are many different styles of leadership with varying degrees of effectiveness. A people-centered approach is probably best in general; but only if partnered with sound knowledge and skill, and delivered in an authoritative style (a strong focus on relationship with the ability to appropriately set limits and apply corrective action).

I’m currently coaching someone I consider to be one of the best leaders with whom I’ve had the pleasure to work. I don’t know if she actually knows that she’s as good as she is: she’s relatively new to her position and has lots of questions and doubts about her style. But this type of questioning is common and expected for a new leader, and I fully expect her confidence to rise steadily with experience. I also sincerely hope, though, that she never loses the habit of self-reflection.

I’ve always had the impression that this woman is a strong leader, despite some of her doubts in specific areas. It was when I reviewed the 360 degree feedback from her team, though, that I realized how much of a star she really is. She has mastered that difficult balance between people skills and technical skill; between relationship development and task orientation. She is truly an authoritative leader who knows what she’s doing.

On the contrary, I’m also aware of leaders who appear oblivious to the fact that they’re not particularly great at the people side of things. They may be good at the technical aspects of their jobs, but they tend to rub others the wrong way. They are often closed to others’ ideas and they have difficulty sharing credit.

I think this happens for different reasons: they might be aware of their shortcomings but don’t particularly care; they may be aware of their shortcomings but don’t have the skills to change; or they might actually believe this style is effective. My guess, also, is that these types of leaders are often (but not always) masking a deeper sense of insecurity with an authoritarian style of interaction. Regardless of the reasons for the authoritarian style of leadership, it’s clear that these leaders don’t – at least actively and openly – question their leadership.

We might not all possess the leadership finesse of my client, but we can always continue to grow when we’re willing to engage in honest self-reflection. I believe that my client is a natural leader to a great degree – but I also believe that she’s as strong as she is because she questions herself.

It becomes increasingly difficult to question ourselves as our confidence and competence grows: self-reflection is often done in response to self-doubt and fear of failure. But to be effective leaders we need to reclaim and hold the assumption that we can always be better.

A Healthy Dose of Optimism

I heard a great quote recently that got me to thinking about what it means to be optimistic: “If life doesn’t give you at least a little sugar as well, your lemonade’s gonna suck”. In other words, a positive attitude isn’t always sufficient in and of itself.

So what’s the difference between a healthy and unhealthy optimism? The former, in my opinion, embodies a more realistic perspective on things with a sense of hope and possibility attached to it. The latter, I’ve come to see, is simply a ‘happy-face’ mask designed to hide ignorance, fear, and denial.

A healthy optimism entails the willingness to see the ugly things as they really are – to feel discouraged and angry when appropriate – but also remembering to engage fully with the beauty that does exist. Focusing on what is right and good in the world, without turning a blind eye to the rest, can give us the encouragement and strength we need to make right the things that need to be made right.

Are you typically an optimist or a pessimist? Or maybe you consider yourself more of a realist. Or maybe it depends on the situation. It really doesn’t matter: the point is that it helps to take stock of the assumptions we tend to make, and the ways in which we typically choose to approach the world. We need to maintain a hopeful but balanced perspective in order to lead change effectively.

Are You In The Habit Of Showing Up?

I’ve recently been trying to get ahold of someone to come and take a look at a problem I’m having with my roof. I’ve left three messages with this particular company, and none have been returned. Similarly, a few months ago I needed to get a potential moisture problem in my basement looked at. I phoned two different companies numerous times – one called me back once, but I missed the call and they were never to be heard from again. The other company booked a total of three appointments with me and did not show for any of them. The first time looked like an innocent-enough misunderstanding, but not showing for the second and third bookings I thought was just plain irresponsible.

A friend of mine suggested a service that he uses, and owner was at my house the next day, surveying the problem in a very professional manner. Why wasn’t it just that easy the first time around? Similarly, I recently called a local computer repair service to ask about my recent slow internet connection. I phoned three times over the week and didn’t receive any response. I finally gave up and phoned another service I’d never used before, whose technician walked me through a process on the phone that quickly fixed my problem (with no charge).

Why, I wondered, do some people just not show up?

Then I thought about what showing up really means, and I realized that it means different things in different contexts – but that the underlying principle is the same. It’s about ‘being there’. For a small business like the examples I gave, the act of not showing up could be a matter of life or death for their success. But what does it mean to consistently ‘show up’ in one’s life?

I’m reminded of something a friend told me recently: he had been working on a project that had inadvertently caused him to start to dig deeper into who he is – to examine his habits and practices as a human being. He informed me that an unexpected side-effect of this inquiry was that he has become more involved and available to the people in his life.

My friend has been honoring his commitments more now than he has done so in the past – consistently following through with the plans he makes with colleagues and friends. He’s apologized for some old hurts and mended a relationship with a family member. He has begun to be more present in his interactions: really listening to others and engaging in more meaningful levels of conversation.

In other words, my friend is learning what it means to “show up”. He’s discovered the importance of really ‘being there’ in all the areas of his life: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Being more consistent and reliable, open, present, and engaged, he says, has afforded him many benefits on many levels. And he just feels good about his life.

So as a leader, a business owner, a parent, a friend… are you in the habit of showing up? Do you meet your commitments? Are you reliable and dependable? Do you listen well and speak carefully? Do you treat every encounter as if there is something important to be both shared and learned?

Being Real

After a meeting with a client today I was struck at how positive my mood was. I reflected on why this was, and I came to the conclusion that it really boiled down to authenticity: to the opportunity for both of us to just ‘be real’. We both took advantage of that space that coaching affords – the space to just be able to speak openly and honestly, and to join one another as human beings sharing the human condition.

I thought about how important ‘being real’ really is, and about how difficult it is to define what this really means.

How often do we actually show up as our authentic selves? This is a difficult question, because it’s true that we often need to adapt our styles to suit our audience and the purpose of our interaction. So if we’re speaking and behaving one way to one person or group of people, and a different way to another, does that mean we’re not being authentic? How much can we change before we’re not being our ‘true selves’ any longer?

I think the answer lies with integrity. It’s a wonderful skill to be able to adapt and adjust our personal presentation to fit the need, but are we continuing to act with integrity with each role we assume? In other words, are we living true to our own beliefs and values? If I need to act more assertively in a given situation, for example, can I do it while still honouring my belief about the importance of respecting the rights of others? If I need to be diplomatic in another situation, can I still honour my value of self-expression?

The product of examining our beliefs and values is, hopefully, that we continue to be mindful of being real. And when we’re being real, people know exactly what they’re getting: they have a choice to build something more with us or not – but nobody’s time (including our own) is wasted. We can spare one another the disappointments that sometimes arise when true colours after the ‘honeymoon’ are shown. Authenticity also garners trust in the relationships we do build – and trust is the cornerstone of every productive interaction and win-win situation.

Are you clear about your beliefs and values? What are those ideals and understandings – about yourself, others, and the world at large – that you hold more closely than anything else?

How were these beliefs and values shaped? Are they operating consciously or unconsciously? In other words, do you really know why you do what you do – or do you often act out of habit only to regret it later? Can you make a point of acting in accordance with your adaptive, helpful beliefs and values – and revisit and challenge the outdated ones that may no longer be serving you well?

When we can do this, we can truly be our authentic selves – despite the adjustments we need to make in different situations. And it’s when we’re ‘real’ that we can build the kinds of relationships that help to get our needs met in a way that’s good for ourselves and others.

Planning For Life

Most of us plan reasonably well: we easily decide what to wear in the morning, what to have for dinner in the evening, what route to take to work. We also plan without too much difficulty the tasks of our jobs: how we prioritize our to-do lists, the most efficient ways to get things done…

But how much time do we spend planning for life?

Many of us fall short when it comes to taking a longer-term view of our lives. Granted, this doesn’t apply to everyone: some of us are better than others with this level of planning – but if you were to ask around (and people were completely honest with their responses), you’d likely find that a lot of us really are lacking in this area.

A friend of mine, who had worked in a nursing home, told me once that she had come to realize an important difference between the happy tenants in the home and the ones who seemed depressed: the unhappy ones failed to plan, she said. Not just financially, but in any way.

So what is your strategic and tactical plan for creating a fulfilling life? In other words, what is your long-term vision (for your health, your relationships, your financial situation, your legacy…) – and what goals do you need to set out to help realize that vision?

Operationally, what do you need to be doing now – what habits, skills, and relationships do you need to cultivate? What resources do you need to accomplish your goals?

And what is your control system (i.e., when you get off track, how do you measure your results and get refocused)? Do you have a contingency plan?

These questions may seem daunting – but as they say, “the devil (or God) is in the details”. How specific you get with your plan is entirely up to you: we all have different preferences and needs, and there’s no one right way to tackle this. You may set very clear 1, 2, 5, and 10-year SMART Goals for your life, for example; or you may stay at the visionary level and let the details take care of themselves (perhaps using a Vision Board as a tool).

Or better yet, you might use a combination of these approaches.

It’s very rewarding to find that balance between a disciplined approach to life and not taking the whole thing too seriously. It’s also empowering to be able to take control over what we can in our lives, while understanding the virtues of surrender. The creation of a flexible and evolving life plan helps us to honor and integrate these perspectives, as well as develop a clarity of intention and a stronger sense of purpose and hope.

Who Are You?

Someone asked me the other day if I thought that we really ‘know ourselves’. The surface answer to this question, I thought, is yes. Do you know what your favourite colour is? What you like and dislike? What you value and what you avoid? What you want out of life, for you and your family? If you’ve ever given any thought to these things, then yes, you can safely say you know yourself.

However, there is a deeper level to this: a level where the answer to this question is quite possibly no.

I was reminded of the book “Mistakes Were Made (But Not by me)”, by Tavris and Aronson, which was an insightful reminder about how we come to shape our own perceptions about who we are. If you’ve read any of the theory and research in the fields of cognitive dissonance and human memory (the main topics in “Mistakes Were Made…”), or narrative therapy and Gestalt psychology, you’ll know that this process is done largely through fallible processes.

If you’re not familiar with these areas, the crux is this: memory is highly prone to error, and we as humans always want to put vague, disjointed pieces together to form a logical whole (i.e., we “fill in the blanks”), we justify our actions by reconfiguring our perception of an actual event or its outcomes, and we ultimately believe the stories we create for our own lives – accurate or not.

For years when I was a kid I believed that my older sister had a pet gorilla (where this belief came from, I have no idea). I was able to eventually discount this belief, of course, because of its absurdity. But my memories of this gorilla to this day still seem so real. So what about our memories and life stories that are more feasible than that: the ones that don’t include a 400-pound pet? They may be wrong too – we just don’t question them.

So what does this mean? Well, frankly, it means that we may not actually have had many of the experiences we remember; that our personal history and relationships didn’t likely go down exactly the way we think they did; and that on some level we may not even really be who we think we are! Kind of scary, isn’t it?

The point of this article is to remind and encourage us to look at those things that shaped our lives, relationships, and leadership styles – those specific events, the decisions we made, the conversations we had – and challenge them. Does it all really fit into that neat little package we envision, or were things really perhaps a little more unpredictable, messy, or chaotic than we care to remember?

Thinking about this, even if it stays rhetorical, can help to remind us that we’re all human: we’re all prone to mistakes and misperceptions, and we’re all really quite vulnerable in the big bad scheme of things. We try to do the best we can with what we’ve got – even if it means unintentionally skewing reality to protect our sense of control in this unknowable universe.

We need to remind ourselves to think critically, admit our fallibility and develop our empathy – and to be gentle with ourselves and others along the way.

Know Thyself – And Adjust Accordingly

My son had a bowl of Mini Wheats this morning, and he was absolutely off the wall. My kind, gentle soul of a child turned into a raving lunatic within minutes.

Now Mini Wheats are certainly a somewhat-nutritious breakfast, but one of its ingredients apparently did not agree with his little system. I believe the culprit was artificial colouring (we’ve begun to notice this trend with a variety of foods).

The thing is that this was not very difficult detective work: food in, beast unleashed.

But as adults, we have so many more layers of complexity: when you’re feeling a little off during the day, is it because of that conflict with your co-worker? Is it because you have a thousand impossible deadlines to meet? Or is it simply because you had Mini Wheats for breakfast?

The truth is that what affects our emotional and physical balance is multifactoral: lots of different pieces of the puzzle adding up to the whole picture.

But some pieces are bigger than others, and carry more weight on our sense of well-being or dis-ease.

So when you’re doing your detective work, experiment on all levels: have the difficult conversation you need to have. Go to bed instead of watching that last movie. Learn some better time-management skills. Forego the Mini Wheats tomorrow morning.

Experiment and identify the big pieces of your puzzle. Keep a journal and record your foods, activities, energy levels, and moods – and see what themes arise. You may be surprised at how one simple change can have a domino-effect on the rest of your life!