Do we really need motivation to achieve our goals?

Photo by AJ Jean on Unsplash

‘I’d love to do that! My problem is that I find it tough to find the motivation’

How often do we hear this phrase?

We treat the idea of motivation as a sacred, finite resource akin to a rare gem. It is our version of the Felix Felicius from Harry Potter, a mysterious potion of unknowable quantity that enables us to do magic things.

Since we see motivation as such a key to success, we find tactics to maximise our motivation. We will go to some motivational speaking seminars (or just Youtube it), get pumped and start strong with our goal. For fitness, we sign up to a gym where we rely on getting ‘motivated’ (read: shouted at) by the gym instructor as a way to make us continue with our goals. Yet, after a short amount of time, this motivation fizzles away. After a month or so, what seemed important to us no longer does, we lose interest and stop meeting the targets we set. After this, we then feel guilty and start seeing ourselves as failures for not being able to do the things we wanted.

Indeed this also goes for a workplace setting too. How often have we seen a new, exciting initiative get set up, only for it to fizzle out and die after a few months? I would get so tired when working in Government at the amount of new, shiny initiatives whereas old ones were left to slowly disappear. I distinctly recall a conversation about bringing in ‘anti-bullying ambassadors’, which while nice in theory, was a half-baked idea with not much substance behind it. Meanwhile, the person running our highly successful reverse mentoring programme had left 7 months ago and still not been replaced, meaning the whole programme was still on pause, and there was little desire to do anything about it.

Most strategies to address this issue look to keep motivation high – surrounding ourselves with cheerleaders or posting inspirational quotes around us. Some of these actually work, so if they do for you, great. Yet I contend whether we even need to be obsessed about the whole idea of motivation in the first place.

Motivation is a concept we have built up within our heads. It is not something we can touch, hold, or pick up. I would argue it is something not far akin to our imagination – a fleeting feeling based upon our subjective living of reality. In other words, our focus upon motivation is a focus upon something that may not even be real. So it is strange that it has such a hold on us within our life.

One of the big problems is that by doing things when we are motivated, we are implicitly saying that there are times we will not be motivated. Spend two minutes looking at your goal and how far away from it you are and it is hard not to feel frustration and anxiety. The game then becomes a see-saw of motivation and demotivation. And once again, this is another concept we have built up in our head. There is no see-saw in reality.

So can we simply rid ourselves of the idea of motivation? Perhaps, perhaps not. I will let you decide that for yourself. But I do believe we can stop focussing on motivation. Instead, we can look to create commitment, with which we are far more likely to reach our goals. Instead of relying on a fleeting feeling of ‘motivation’, we can take the feelings out of the equation and commit to doing something whether we explicitly want to or not.

I am a grand believer in setting a schedule. There are many activities I would not do if I relied on the whim of the moment. After work, I usually tell myself I am too tired to do much more than crash in front of the sofa. Yet if I schedule a call, or put in some time to exercise, I am far more likely to do it. This is because I am willing to do the activity whether I feel like it or not, and I am taking the subjective emotion out of the equation.

So what does this mean for you? I am in no doubt you have some sort of goal you want to achieve – better standard at work, honing a skill, losing weight or whatever else. If you are finding it tough, I sincerely believe you could benefit from reframing this from relying on motivation to one of commitment. How willing are you to commit to doing exercise twice a week? Would you be willing to set a weekly time out for it? Would you be willing to sign up for a weekly class to learn that new instrument?

I do not profess to be perfect, yet this shift in my mindset has benefited me greatly. If I were to sit down and base my desire to learn languages on motivation I would quickly lose interest – I have too many stimuli around me to keep something in my head that long. Instead, throughout the pandemic I booked weekly language classes at the same time each week. My skills have developed exponentially. I booked these classes and committed to them.

Even when I was tired, or not feeling like doing my class, I did them anyway. In the end, the less I focused on how I was feeling and more on what I was doing, the more natural I found it – no longer did I spend so much time worrying about an activity beforehand either, which gave me space to enjoy life, as well as feel the satisfaction of meeting my goals.

So I hope you might look at your goals in a different way. I would love to hear from you in terms of what you have gotten from reading this article.

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