Self-help books often talk about finding motivation. Life coaches advertise themselves as helping to find motivation. People scan social media for motivational quotes. What is this thing called motivation that so many people seek?
WHAT IS MOTIVATION?
Motivation is the ability to take action, to intervene as an agent in the world. The opposite of motivation is passivity. We seek motivation when we feel we are being too passive in a situation, when there is energy that we do not feel we are applying correctly.
MOTIVATION IS NOT EXCLUSIVELY HUMAN
A tree has motivation to grow. That motivation is so strong, that the tree will grow almost regardless of conditions. It will find a way. Nature is full of motivation.
HUMAN MOTIVATION AND OBSERVER JUDGEMENT
In a sense, motivation is an observer judgement. The observer judges, from what they see, that the person they are looking at, whether themselves or someone else, has something ‘inside’ which makes a particular form of ‘good’ action likely.
A child playing computer games may judge themselves to be intensely motivated. A parent wanting them to do homework may make a different judgement.
FOCUS ON HIGHER ACTION
When we feel we lack motivation, we lack a sense, observing ourselves, that we will be able to take the action we want to take. Motivation, when we judge ourselves for lack of it, tends to be very specific. We continue to be motivated to breathe, move, eat, sleep, eat chocolate. But that’s not what we are focussing on. There is a sense that there is a ‘higher’ action we want to do, that we cannot bring ourselves to do.
EVALUATING HIGHER ACTIONS
We had better be sure that this ‘higher thing’ we want to do is worth it. At a lower, more basic level, life is littered with individuals who were highly motivated to do temporary things: seduce another human, access a drug, eat something desirable. Once that thing is accessed, it often loses its appeal. In this way, much ‘motivation’ is simply short-term attraction or appetite. It’s OK, but in a way it’s time-wasting, and may eventually be experienced as shallow.
RESPONSES TO LACK OF MOTIVATION
When we feel we lack motivation, we can do one of two things.
DROP THE AIM – We can review our temporary aim, and realise that it’s not worth the guilt we are applying to it. We can then give that motivation up. For instance, we can realise that loads of chocolate will not make us happy, and give up our short-term pursuit of it. Or we can decide that pleasing an unpleasable partner, or boss, is a waste of our long-term energy.
REAFFIRM THE AIM – Alternatively, we can review our aim, and decide that it’s worth developing further. For this to work well, it is best that the aim is logical, consistent, and in keeping with our highest values.
AFFIRMING OUR AIMS
If our aim isn’t logical, then something will eventually happen to break the spell. We will fall out of love with our aim.
If our aim isn’t consistent, then life will eventually pull us in another direction, and we will be left holding on to the aim like a passenger standing on a platform, holding the outside handle of a moving train. We had better be sure the train is stopping at our station.
And if our aim isn’t in keeping with our highest values, then following it will always involve guilt, since we are sacrificing something better to make do.
WELL-AFFIRMED AIMS ARE LONGER-LASTING
So, although motivation is often seen as an ‘inner’ thing, when well-founded, it is founded on logic, consistency and values. In other words, good motivation (a higher aim) is healthier and longer-lasting than bad motivation (chocolate).
Today I will take some time to think through my motivations. I won’t grab for the first thing that relieves my boredom, indulging in a chain of short-term motivational highs. Instead, I will test my thoughts for logic, consistency, and alignment with my highest values.