Positive perspectives and practices for personal growth.

Have a Nice Day!

I have been increasingly berating myself in many areas of my life over the last couple of weeks. I’ve found myself dragging my feet with work, with exercise, with routine; all of which has created an underlying sense of frustration, as well as growing sense of urgency and anxiety…and the consumption of one too many glasses of red wine.

‘Why do I feel so lacklustre; so drained?’ I have continually asked myself. ‘Why do I feel nothing but demotivation; as if everything’s such as chore?’

Apart from the obvious self-destructive futility of such self-criticism, the answer to my lack of motivation is simple: – I have turned these things into work.

I have placed such excessive importance on everything I do that my usual Stoic care-free indifference to just about everything (a mindset that has taken me years to nurture) has been abandoned to the wolves almost without realisation; replaced with a sense of pressure, of urgency, of necessity to perform.

Even my real passions – reading, learning, playing my guitar – have felt as far removed from passions as they could possibly be – they have transmuted into things that ‘had to be done’…which ironically has led to them being done less and less.

‘You haven’t got time to waste…come on, you have to get this done, to succeed…or else!’ has been the foreboding, incessant mantra of the drill-sergeant in my head.

Whilst I haven’t exactly ground to a halt under the strain of this self-inflicted performance anxiety, I do know that left unchecked that is ultimately…and probably very quickly, what would happen.

It’s the stress fuelled mindset that led me to underperform for years; to spend most of my days (and nights) compulsively smoking one cigarette after another, stuffing my face with Big Macs and pizzas and staring blankly at the TV instead of just getting on with things; all done with the single goal of escaping the intolerable burden of life.

Of course, life is not a burden; neither should it ever be made into such. If it’s a perception you ever find yourself lugging around, it’s one to unceremoniously jettison as quickly as you possibly can.

Yes, life can present many a difficulty and challenge; but if we treat those challenges akin to matters of life and death, they mutate like malignancies into far more destructive foes. They engulf us with fear and worry; and everyday challenges become a cancer of the soul – intolerable burdens not necessarily of reality, but of the mind.

So what’s the solution; after all my own recent advice on beating procrastination and chirpily pushing ahead through the help of an optimistic mindset doesn’t seem to have done the trick?

What Motivates?

Well, it is the source of my motivation that has become subconsciously corrupted in the last few weeks; and therein lies both the problem and the solution.

I have become engulfed with the desire to achieve various tangible outcomes – to perform at a certain standard and to realise specific goals; and consequently my actions have fallen down that slippery slope of becoming a means to an end as opposed to an end in themselves.

I Don’t Do the ‘W’ Word…

The above is of course, the very definition of ‘work’. And as the chase of external reward has increasingly become the source of my motivation, so too has a psychological can of worms regarding success and failure stripped me of my raw enthusiasm, my creativity, my interest and curiosity…even my peace of mind. All the things in fact, I rely on to get ahead.

The real irony is that I know how vital intrinsic motivation – doing something simply because it stirs your curiosity and interest – is to human performance; and how a focus on external incentive can absolutely crush that intrinsic drive.

In an oft quoted landmark study Undermining Children’s Intrinsic Interest with Extrinsic Rewards, psychologists Lepper, Greene and Nisbett prove the point well.

They took three groups of young children, all of whom had routinely displayed a keen interest in drawing during their school playtime breaks. Out of these three groups, the children in one group were promised a ‘Good Player’ certificate – personalised with their name and adorned with a blue ribbon – which they’d receive if they agreed to draw. The second group weren’t lured with a reward beforehand, but were treated to an ‘unexpected reward’ of the same blue ribbon embossed certificate if they had decided to partake in the drawing session.

The third group, just like in life…were promised nothing beforehand…and they got nothing after.

It was when the psychological dust had settled a couple of weeks later that things got interesting. Secretly observing the entire collective of children two weeks later during a school playtime break, the researchers noted that out of all the children, those who had previously been promised a reward for drawing had become pretty much disinterested in spending their leisure time engaged in the same activity.

The reward, at a subconscious level, had excised the ‘fun’ aspect of drawing for these kids; it had turned a previously pleasurable and intrinsically satisfying pursuit into work…into a chore.

Now I am a big kid for sure; I know that I’m particularly vulnerable to the above psychological trap. In fact, there is no better way to ensure I don’t do something than to tell me that ‘I must do’ it or promise me a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

But it’s not just children and big kids in their thirties who are liable to fall prey to the demotivating effects of extrinsic reward. The behavioural psychologist Edward Deci profoundly surmised the extent of this human vulnerability in a 199 meta-research paper that stated:

Careful consideration of reward effects reported in 128 experiments lead to the conclusion that tangible rewards tend to have a substantially negative effect on intrinsic motivation.

Nuclear Fusion…

The fact is we all have an extremely powerful internal drive; it’s part of human nature.

I have quoted a billion and one times Abraham Maslow’s inspiring insight into the human psyche, but it makes the point so well here, I shall do it again:

Humans have a higher nature which…includes the need for meaningful work, for responsibility, for creativeness, for being fair and just, for doing what is worthwhile and for preferring to do it well.

In other words, we don’t need to be coerced – by ourselves or anyone else – into doing ‘worthwhile things’. It comes quite naturally to us to want to achieve and excel.

Unquestionably in fact,  the most effective way of corrupting that powerful internal drive is to shift the focus to the external…to live with the attitude ‘I will do this in order to get that’.

Goals, Goals, Goals…

I know what I’m saying is likely to open up a can of worms regarding the pursuit of goals.

Am I saying that we shouldn’t have them; that we should never pursue anything for external reward? Most of what we do after all, often has an ulterior motive at some level or another: – be it increased wealth, influence over others, a need for approval and respect, to look sexier to the opposite sex (or the same sex if that’s the side your bread is buttered on), the desire to advance our careers…or to live in a bigger house and have a faster car.

That would be to entirely miss the point though. It would be to suggest that without the pursuit of those extrinsic rewards you would lose all motivation to do anything; that you’d instinctively prefer to sit in front of the TV stuffing your face with Doritos and Pepsi day-in-day-out, 16 hours per day.

The point is, those external rewards don’t help you to achieve anything; in fact they hinder your instinctive higher nature – as you’ve seen above, the science above backs up my claim.

Our human nature is the opposite: - to reiterate the great words of Maslow yet again, to do ‘worthwhile things…and to do them well’. External rewards, despite our own (and societies) obsession with them, don’t even enter into the motivational equation; in fact, they’re often a bad thing.

The moral of the tale…

Strip away your desire for external rewards, be free of them. Focus instead on the intrinsic worth of what you’re doing: – the sense of purpose it gives you, the natural curiosity and interest that it evokes within you.

Paradoxically, that shift away from the pursuit of extrinsic goals will better increase your odds of achieving them – because acting simply through purpose and passion provides an unquenchable source of motivation that an external reward can never emulate.

It’s when your actions are directed purely by purpose that, to coin the immortal lyrics of Mark Knopfler that, “You get your money for nothin’ and your chicks for free”. :-)

I have developed something of a penchant for quoting Bon Jovi lyrics of recent, and so as to not break that tradition, here’s another one that right now, is helping to drag me back out of the wilderness of performance anxiety and stunted motivation back into the self-perpetuating oasis of internal drive:

If there’s one thing I hang onto
That gets me through the night
I ain’t gonna do what I don’t want to
I’m gonna live my life

Shining like a diamond, rolling with the dice
Standing on the ledge, show the wind how to fly
When the world gets in my face
I say….

Have a nice day!


Nods, Winks and Interesting Stuff…

Thank you Pauline…

Pauline at Reach Financial Independence has selflessly mentioned my work on her blog several times over the last few weeks, which really has been appreciated and deserves top mention…and I even have to thank her for this idea. I have to admit, I’d usually prefer watching paint dry than either read about someone’s day-to-day life or anything remotely related to finances but…I like Pauline’s blog a great deal. Updates about her trials, tribulations and successes as she carves out a new life by the shore of a beautiful Guatemalan lake are almost as good as East Enders. And whilst my concentration does start to wane when she devotes blog space to banking stuff (sorry Pauline) I still have to say, it’s always very level headed advice. She offered some interesting food for thought about the perils of selling yourself short this week, which although was about selling your work short online, is pretty much applicable to any aspect of life…most definately worth a read.


Everyday observations and life lessons…

CJ and Tammy at The Great Jolly Hoombah always offer an eclectic mix of interesting, sometimes abstract perspectives derived from their everyday lives. What do you do when your medical cover sky-rockets out of control and yet you can’t find an alternative provider? Well CJ and Tammy were not gonna take it and looked for proactive alternatives in order to mitigate the loss. What do you do if you’re on the receiving end of unwanted darts lessons from an overly forward stranger whilst you’re trying to enjoy a relaxing night out at the pub? If I didn’t find them attractive, I’d be tempted to snatch the dart off them and stab ‘em in the eye; CJ fortunately showed a little more good spirit…at least until he got home and wrote about it. :-)


How many times do we do this?

Tony at We Only Do This Once always offers some nugget sized words of wisdom about everything from dealing with debt, to minimalist living…to topics in a similar vein to my own. I particularly enjoyed Be Willing to Look Stupid which nicely highlighted the limitations we place on our own advancement through our irrational need to always look competent; as well as the importance of enjoying the process, as opposed to focusing all your attention on the end result, when it comes to achieving goals.

Comments

  1. Gareth, I was hanging out with some friends the other day saying the same thing. I’m burnt out! They pointed out to me that March is a notorious month in that regard; everyone is fried, tired, and cold. Something tells me that when th sun comes out, we will re-energize. Hang in there, my friend!
    Tony recently posted…How to Call a “Timeout” During Your DayMy Profile

    • Tony, as observations go, they don’t come more astute; you pretty much hit the nail on the head. Although I’ve gradually and uncharacteristically found myself drifting to the dark side of the motivational force in the last few weeks, the time of year has undoubtedly contributed to that change. I’m not great during the winter months for sure, a prime candidate for Seasonal Affective Disorder – and that certainly skews my outlook on life to a degree. Everything seems to become a means to an end…leading inevitably, like you say, to burnout. As far as I’m aware you have pretty inclement winters in NJ too; so if nothing else, it’s good that we know where each other is coming from on this one. I will hang on mate…although snow has just unbelievably engulfed the UK again. You do the same…think it’s time for us both to hit those Easter / Spring reset buttons. :-)
      Gareth Mitchell recently posted…The Art of OptimismMy Profile

  2. Hello Gareth! I can always count on your posts for the Yes! Yes! factor, little chuckles, and some great Bon Jovi lyrics.

    I’m so with you on the external reinforcement. I worked with elementary-age children for the past 14 years, and it is always fun to get through the first lesson and they tell me, “Mrs. So and So, my other tutor, had a prize box. Do you have a prize box?” to which I politely tell them that I do not and that, I am sure, they will begin to love writing very soon. They look at me as if I have just sprouted two additional heads. After a month, the prize box – or lack of one – is long forgotten, and they are trying to wow me with a zinger of an ending to their pieces of writing.

    I would love to develop that Stoic indifference. I’m happy to be at the point where I’m not paralyzing myself with fear and inaction. I am rather “in a high” many days, and I find this suits me well as long as I don’t let it get out of hand. I am more productive, and I temper my energy with exercise. It usually works.

    I like how you mention acting through purpose and passion. When we first started our book last July, we have to admit we had dreams of super-stardom. Today Show interviews, book signings, and the like. What happened is most interesting. The more I wrote, the less I cared about the monetary reward or my delusions of grandeur. I kept wondering, Will my words help someone else prevent themselves from living one more minute in mediocrity? Can I get them to put down the Dorito bag (Oh, how I loved them!) and live the life they want to live?

    Thank you, Gareth, for another stellar post and your infinite words of wisdom. Much appreciated!

    • What a thoughtful comment Tammy, thanks for sharing all those experiences.

      Not surprisingly, your experiences tutoring young children piqued my interest straight away. I find it surreal that well documented facets of human motivation still haven’t percolated universally through teaching methods. The study I mentioned was conducted in 1973; and though no one disputes its findings or its implications, even a generation later that advice is more often than not ignored. It’s as if there’s a divide between theory and practice that even the informed fear to cross. It warms my heart to know that you resisted the urge to succumb to the incentive of the prize box; hopefully you will have helped those kids out more than they will ever appreciate.

      I have had periods when I have lived by harnessing the motivational power of living on a ‘high’ too Tammy. The problem with it for me is that living on an emotional base is an absolute recipe for disaster – one where those powerful highs can collapse into equally destructive ‘lows’ with little warning. Saying ‘F**k it’ provides for me, a far more consistent peace of mind conducive to action. But ultimately it is the end result that matters, and it sounds like the ‘high’ approach is equally effective for you.

      Purpose is all important like you say Tammy. That you transformed your thought to “Will my words help someone else?” beautifully illustrates the power of purpose in action. As long as purpose and passion are the driving forces behind our actions though, a little dreaming about fame and fortune can’t hurt. :-)
      Gareth Mitchell recently posted…Have a Nice Day!My Profile

      • It is always good to have that F*** it handy when necessary, Gareth! It only took me 10+ years of watching CJ model it until I actually started living it more myself. Definitely not my default setting yet, but I certainly like aspiring to it!

        Thank you for your thoughtful response, and I’m hoping you and Tony come out of the March Madness rearing to go! It is great that Tony recognized this and was able to talk to friends about it.

        I really do think that living in a place where I can get outside most days and have lots of sunlight has helped me. I lived my first 27 years of life in Upstate New York, so I definitely know the wicked ways of winter. It’s nice to think that Houston does have some perks as it’s definitely not our Dream Places to Live list!

  3. You really wrote an interesting article!
    You also have a nice day!
    sandi recently posted…Buzz Aldrin’s 1969 guide to landing on the moonMy Profile

  4. To add to what you and Tony were saying earlier in comments, I have noted a tremendous drop off in online activity, a sharp decrease in my guitar student’s energy and practice, and a general malaise nearly everywhere I go. I assumed it was me and that I was in a bit of a mood or the like. What ever it was , it felt overwhelming.

    Perhaps we sometimes underestimate the affect our environs have on us. Society teaches us to just press on with grim determination. But it seems there would be no better time than now to turn to our intrinsic motivators, especially if so much of the feedback we are getting is negative.

    Thank you again, for the mention in your post, Gareth. It is much appreciated and so is the heart that you put into your posts;)

    • Good to hear from you CJ – well maybe it’s just the case that all three of us are in uncharacteristically bad moods at the moment. :-) You’re undoubtedly right. We are just programmed to push ahead regardless; and I have a suspicion too that that may be one of the key underlying issues. With my intrinsic motivation flat lining (probably due to the drawn out winter) I think I may well have subconsciously flipped a switch to extrinsic sources of motivation as a means of compensating. But instead of helping, that focus on the external reward has just exacerbated the problem – because I’m simply not psychologically geared towards the pursuit of tangible goals.

      All three of us will ride it out, of that I am sure. Until then CJ, just keep of saying ‘F**k it’ and mandatorily teaching ‘Wanted’; I can’t think of a more perfectly melancholy song for our current mood. :-)

      • Eff it to all! Except you of course, Gareth. And if “Wanted” is not cutting it, then I am switching to “Diary of a Madman”. Let us see how the little laggards like 7:4 time and octatonic/diminished riffs!

  5. Thank you very much for the mention Gareth. Interesting story about the kids, I was spoiled like this after a few years of writing for travel blogs, the writing took the fun out of traveling, even though it was supposedly the best job I could ever dream of, getting paid to travel…
    I hope the lack of motivation is temporary, spring is here now, time to lift up the moods!
    Pauline recently posted…Little House in Guatemala, week 20-21My Profile

    • Really interesting example Pauline; I don’t think anyone, until they’ve experienced it first had can appreciate how a passion can so mercilessly be turned into a chore simply because it’s metamorphosed into a ‘have to’ activity.

      No need for thanks for the mention; the list I put up was torn down when I got a grasp of reason and realised I had done it for external motive. Your link was moved over to this article because I really have appreciated your help.