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  • Bridget Friedman, LICSW

The Problem with Motivation

The problem with Motivation is that she is a fickle friend. On the days when she shows up, it’s awesome! You feel energized, invigorated, focused, and ready to conquer the world. But the sad truth is that she is not a terribly reliable friend. There come days where you THINK you’ve made a date with Motivation, but she never shows up. On those days, you find it hard to muster the energy or drive to do the things you had planned and committed to only yesterday.

All of us lack motivation at times, but it is especially common when one is experiencing depression. In fact, it’s one of the common symptoms of depression. We know that we should get out and socialize, or exercise, or meditate. We know that it will probably help us feel better in the long term. But in the short term, we…just…can’t…seem…to…find…the…motivation…to…do…it.

One of the great things about being human is that we don’t actually REQUIRE motivation in order to take action. There is a common phrase in therapy: “Action precedes motivation”. We may believe that we need motivation in order to take action. This is not true. Often taking action (even when we don’t feel like it) is the magic button that starts to build motivation.

One technique that I find incredibly helpful when I am lacking motivation is the “Act As If” technique. It’s very simple and yet quite powerful. There are four steps:

1. Imagine a person who routinely does the behavior that you want to be doing. Brainstorm a list of ALL of the things that you can think of that this person might do.

2. Rank the activities / behaviors in order from easiest to most difficult.

3. Pick the easiest one on the list and do it.

4. Congratulate yourself for taking the first step, no matter how small!

5. Continue to work your way down the list.

Let’s take a concrete example. Many of us at one time or another have had a goal to become more physically active and “get in shape”. Yet this resolution is one that people often have a hard time getting started with or sticking to. Using the “Act As If’ technique, let’s develop a plan even if motivation is lacking.

Step 1: Brainstorm a list of things that people who exercise might do (this is kind of fun and the options are endless). Here is my quick list:

  • Go for a walk around the block

  • Buy a Fitbit

  • Go to Target and pick out a pair of sneakers and a workout outfit

  • Tour the local gym to see what amenities and classes they offer

  • Schedule a physical with a doctor

  • Hire a personal trainer

  • Go online and check out exercise apps

  • Make a list of activities that involve some degree of physical activity and pick one out to explore (golf, dancing, rowing, community sports teams, yoga)

  • Ask a friend if they would like to be an “exercise buddy” with you

  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator at work today

  • Park on the far side of the parking lot at the grocery store

2. Rank order all of the ideas you brainstormed from easiest to most difficult and pick the one that seems most achievable and most interesting to you TODAY.

3. Complete your selected activity within 24 hours.

4. Yay! You did it. Great job for getting started!

In most cases, simply doing the activity will start to build motivation and confidence. You have walked down the street and met Motivation half way rather than waiting for her to show up at your doorstep!

Beware the pitfall of minimizing the victory by telling yourself that it was really just a tiny step and therefore doesn’t matter. Every major goal ever achieved started with a small step. It is much better to pick a small step to start with then to pick an extremely challenging one and become discouraged because it is too difficult. Celebrate each little step along the way. Life is too short NOT to celebrate and rejoice in all of the little decisions we make that put us on the path to creating lives we love.

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