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?

The Secret to Success in Life

We know that there’s no true secret to success in life; but we’re all searching for a way to make it happen. Success can be defined in many different ways; and it’s our personal value system that defines it for each one of us. However you define success, though, there are some things we know to be true:

One is that in order to be successful you have to work at it consistently; there is no quick and easy road. Another is the fact that opportunity plays a big role: it doesn’t matter how hard we work if there is nothing for us to capitalize on. (Often times these opportunities are hidden from our direct consciousness; but they are there nonetheless.)

The other big thing we need to be successful is the willingness and ability to focus on our strengths.

I think this is a tricky one because we’re not always taught to do this. As kids in school we were expected to become proficient in many different areas; whether we showed an aptitude for them or not. (Granted, I realize that a child needs to be exposed to a broad array of knowledge in order to function well in society – but why does he have to struggle year after year to learn something he’ll never use? Wouldn’t his time and energy be put to better use through learning and practicing in the areas of his strengths and talents?)

But that’s a philosophical discussion for another time. My point is that fostering success through focusing on our strengths doesn’t always come easily: we’re not always given the opportunity to learn to know our strengths so that we can act upon them.

So to help this process, here are five cues from the research of Donald Clifton and Paula Nelson for identifying your strengths or true talents (as found in their book, “Soar with Your Strengths”):


Yearning: Which types of activities are you naturally drawn toward?

Rapid Mastery/Quick Learning: Which types of activities do you seem to pick up quickly?

Flow: In which activities do the steps come to you naturally and automatically?

Glimpses of Excellence: What were you doing when you did something extremely well and asked yourself “How did I do that?”

Satisfaction: From which activities do you derive the greatest amount of pleasure?


Think about these questions seriously. Are these the things you’re focusing on in your work and/or life? Are you putting in the time needed to gain expertise in these areas? Would an increased focus on these things cause you to feel more contented, balanced, and successful?

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!

Honoring Your Personal Evolution

Who I was twenty years ago is certainly not who I am today. Or so I used to like to think…

When I look back at myself at that time I see someone with a pretty different set of ideals, values, beliefs, and ways of being in the world. And quite frankly, I like today’s me much better. But what I’ve learned, through lots of self-reflection, is that trying to deny who I was back then was causing me to be inauthentic. And as a person who values authenticity, I’ve had to reexamine this practice:

How we internalize things dictates the formation of our beliefs and values; and consequently how we show up in the world at different times in our lives. Said another way (to borrow from Claire Graves’ Spiral Dynamics research), our experiences and the way we process them continually shape and reshape our psychological structures, value systems, and modes of adaptation.

So who we are today doesn’t differ from who we were yesterday: we’ve always been the same person wrapped in ever-growing layers of our own evolution. As philosopher Ken Wilber points out, human beings – like any other organism – develop in a holararchical fashion: meaning that each new level of the organism transcends and includes it junior. In other words, we’re not designed to disown parts of ourselves. Like atoms to molecules to cells to tissues, each previous part is not discarded, but reconfigured and integrated into the new more evolved whole. This works the same way on all levels that make us human; not just the physical.

If we try to disown any of these layers, or aspects of our selves, we find ourselves having to recreate the past in order to keep a cohesive story. Because as human beings we’re always trying to piece together the Gestalt of our lives: we need continuity in order for things to make sense.

And of course we do this all the time: when we tell the story of who we are and how we’ve arrived, we naturally embellish some parts, readjust others, and completely exclude the rest. Naturally a bit of this doesn’t hurt, but too much makes us inauthentic: when we tell these stories, even as we come to believe them ourselves, we’re not living as our true selves when we’re drawing from a false base.

Granted, it can be wise to forget about certain pieces of our past – but only if you truly see them as toxic experiences that attempt to derail you from being your happy and authentic self. For example, if someone has treated you badly in the past, one of the most helpful things you can strive to do is forgive, forget, and move on (however you can make that happen). This might be the best strategy if you find yourself ruminating about it to the point where your anger or fear does not allow you to find happiness or move forward with your life in a healthy, satisfying way.

On the other hand, if you can acknowledge the hurt and anger but identify that the experience has moved you in a stronger direction, you might not want to try to dismiss it. It might be healthier to see the experience as a piece of your past that’s helped shaped the person you are today. Maybe it’s allowed you to be stronger and wiser in some way. In this way, and if appropriate, you could remember and honor the you in the past who carried and managed this discomfort; so that the you of today can continue to carry out the work you do, live the life you live, and share the things you give back to the world.

This really has to do with honoring all parts of yourself at a “higher level”: a more adaptive, integrated, healthy, and purposeful acknowledgement of who you are. It’s about acknowledging your own evolution, and about integrating and building upon all aspects of your previous beliefs and experiences. It’s about learning to accept who you are; and making the conscious decision to build upon your positive aspects while adapting, adjusting, and integrating in a healthy way the other aspects that are no longer serving you well.

So I’ve learned that I really am the same person I was twenty years ago: just a better, updated version. I’ve also learned that I wouldn’t be the version I am today if I didn’t think what I thought, did what I did, and learned what I had learned along the way!

Communication In The Workplace

Communication in the workplace has to do with how we interact with our colleagues on many different levels simultaneously. It has to do with how we plan and convey the messages we want to give, both verbally and nonverbally; and with how we listen to, interpret, and respond to others’ messages.

And one way to characterize the successful execution of this is to say that we’ve engaged in effective dialogue.

We can call these interactions many things, of course: discussions, conversations, arguments, etc. – but I quite like the term ‘dialogue’ as it’s defined in Clutterbuck’s (2007) book, Coaching the Team at Work. Here he defines it as “approaching an issue with as open a mind as possible, with a view to understanding other people’s perspectives and perhaps creating a new perspective”.

This is a pretty powerful definition, I think. It highlights the fact that we all have our different viewpoints, values, and beliefs that have been shaped by everything we’ve ever experienced – and that we carry these with us everywhere we go, into every interaction we have.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course, but it can be a dangerous thing if we don’t recognize it and deal with it appropriately. It’s important to acknowledge, and even celebrate, the fact that we are coming from a very different place in many ways from the person sitting across the table from us – and vica-versa. With an open mind we can embrace our differences as well as our similarities; and we can identify and capitalize on the unique experiences that everybody brings to the table.

And, as Clutterbuck points out, we have the opportunity to shape these diverse perspectives into a new perspective.

I believe that these “new perspectives” should be the primary goal of dialogue. They can serve as the underlying philosophy that creates and guides a more effective culture for the partnership or team. (Because culture happens everywhere, all the time; with or without our conscious input. So we really should be proactive about it.)

Culture is a word we use to explain how we see and do things together. It speaks to our collective understandings about the explicit and implicit rules, roles, expectations, and protocols that govern how we approach problems together and how we interact with one another. If not handled actively, honestly, and purposefully, we leave the culture that develops to chance. And as we all know, that can be an ugly thing.

So the bottom line is that we can, and should, take charge of shaping our culture – and that we can do so by learning to engage in effective dialogue. It starts with cultivating our own sense of self-awareness; and it continues by keeping an open mind in trying to understand and integrate the healthiest and most helpful viewpoints, values, and beliefs of all involved.

Getting Motivated

Getting Motivated is a tricky thing. Sometimes we experience it, often times we don’t. And when we do get it, it doesn’t seem to stick around for very long.

I talk with my clients about ways to increase motivation, such as making the task worthwhile and keeping your eye on the prize, only committing to bite-sized chunks and building in rewards and consequences, and staying healthy and taking regular breaks. There are many more strategies; some more effective than others.

(There are also a couple of newer books out there on the topic of motivation; which are apparently quite good. I look forward to reading them to see if there’s anything missing in my understanding of the subject).

But more importantly, I think, is something that struck me recently: I think we often use the elusiveness of motivation as an excuse to not get things done.

The funny thing about motivation is that we tend to see it as this “thing” that we can get – and that as soon as we acquire it things will be smooth-sailing. And as long as we don’t “have it”, we’re not really pressured to accomplish: we can easily blame our inaction on the fact that we just haven’t tapped into it yet.

But the truth is that it’s not impossible to act if we’re not feeling motivated. We get caught up in the idea that we can’t move forward unless we’re “feeling it” – but this just simply isn’t true. It might not feel great to take action without possessing this magical thing called motivation – but we’re all capable of doing it anyway.

A saying I quite like is “action precedes motivation”. In other words, like so many other things in life, when you stop looking it will appear. We just need to get started. So put it to the test – or as Nike would say, “Just do it”. Just do it regardless of how you feel, and stop reaching for the magic formula – you’ll be glad you did!