The Motivation to Act: What’s In It for Me?

How do we motivate ourselves to do anything, and I mean anything? Not surprisingly, motivation arises from wanting to do whatever that anything is.

But why do we want to do anything in the first place – what is the root cause of that desire that compels us to act? Well, at a fundamental level, desire simply stems from a realisation (often on a purely subconscious level) that there’s some form of positive trade-off for our efforts.

It’s as simple as that, you’re motivated to do something simply because you like the consequences of doing it. And because you like the consequences of doing it, you choose to do it through your own freewill.

With pleasurable actions, you rarely bother analysing this instinctive ‘what’s in it for me’ mentality. You’ll happily indulge in your favourite pastimes simply because they make you feel good. That experience of pleasure – the joy of doing something simply because it either makes you feel physically or emotionally good (or both if it’s really pleasurable :-) ) – is the sole catalyst and reward driving your motivation.

If I take myself as an example, I’d personally need very little encouragement to while away the entire day reading on the beach, playing my guitar, stuffing my face with pizza, going on holiday or relaxing with a good movie and a bottle of wine. I anticipate the pleasure I’ll experience from doing those things and that anticipation stokes my desire and consequently pushes me to act. Likewise, I’m sure there are a fair few things that you are happy to indulge in and find yourself doing entirely effortlessly, simply because of the immediate, tangible, pleasurable reward.

Of course, it’s easy to understand how the anticipation of pleasure can motivate you to something – I’m hardly being visionary in my mode of thinking here. But (and this is the really intriguing bit) what happens if the reward of doing something isn’t so obvious? Worst still, what happens if you don’t feel as if you have a choice at all, but instead you feel forced to act through obligation as opposed to freewill?

I doubt there’s a person alive who hasn’t experienced the mental turmoil of ‘having to’ but really not ‘wanting to’ do something. From getting out of bed on a cold winter’s morning and going to a job you despise, to paying a parking fine or having a tooth extracted, the feeling of not having any choice in what’s going on can leave you feeling conflicted and resistant to the point of total inertia.

And therein lies the problem; because whenever we feel as if we have to do something, or alternatively, we’re confronted with doing something that we’d prefer not to do (because it’s stressful, difficult, boring…or whatever) we lose (or at least psychologically misplace) that vital ingredient of motivation – the anticipation of a reward. What’s more, whenever you feel as if you have no choice but to do something, you not only approach it without that essential desire to act, but also without that other vital motivational ingredient – the freewill to decide what you’re going to do.

Just stop and think for a moment – when did you last do something that you neither wanted nor choose to do of your own freewill?

Maybe it was paying an extortionate overdraft fine / fee (I know all too well from personal experience that the semantic distinction between ‘fine’ and ‘fee’ makes little difference to the justifiability of such charges), revising or redoing perfectly good work because your hard drive blew up or because your boss threw a spanner in the works (as all bosses have a habit of doing – either out of incompetence or egomania) or unblocking the toilet after a family member’s mysterious and dubious usage.

Whatever that particular task was, I’m sure that your combined lack of desire and freewill probably made the task as easy to face as if I handed you a pin and told you to stick it in your eye.

Just a second…what about willpower?

Of course, some people would say you don’t need to rely on the likes of desire, freewill or choice when it comes to doing anything. They’d say that all you need is the self-discipline of an overly zealous drill sergeant to mercilessly press gang yourself into getting things done.

But in my experience, people who simply rely on willpower to get themselves by tend to live lives just as miserable as the drill sergeants’ rookie recruits. Yes, willpower and self-disciple can get you to act in the short-term, but everything feels like a chore. But what’s more, when the drill sergeant has his back turned, there’s always the overwhelming desire to flunk out. No, relying purely on willpower to constantly push yourself on is both mentally draining and inefficient; you’re swimming against the tide. Moreover, willpower, unlike a sense of motivation based on the fulfilment of a desire, is most definitely a finite resource. When did you last manage to permanently give up a bad habit for example, through sheer willpower alone?

Devoid of Willpower

For me it’s far worse because I have the same levels of self-disciple as a squirrel that’s trying to abstain from eating nuts – none.

Unless I really want to do something I just can’t; it goes against the very grain of my nature. That’s the price I pay for being one of the 10 percent of the population whose genes never adapted to the steady pace of a civilised ‘farmer’ world. I’m a ‘hunter’ – I run on impulsivity, intuition and short-term hyper focus; traits that are great for stalking prey but fall short when it comes to focusing on the often mundane and disinteresting slow monotony of civilised life.

In fact, long before I ever became aware of the Hunter verses Farmer theory I’d always joked (but been quite serious) that I would have made a great caveman. In the midst of an ancient world where a burning fire and a chiselled bit of flint were at the cutting edge of technology and where woolly mammoths dominated the landscape, I can guarantee that I would not only have thrived on the adrenaline rush of pure day-to-day survival , but would have made it to the head of the tribe.

But alas, I missed my calling by a few tens of thousands of years; and resultantly the self-discipline that the other 90 percent of the population evolved to rely on to get them through the monotony of this modern world of ours, is for me an elusive concept I gave up on long ago.

The one thing I have to do is autonomously decide to do everything I do – freewill, choice and desire reign supreme.

How to Live Without Willpower

So just for a moment pretend you’re like me and for you too, relying on willpower alone isn’t an option. Given a scenario where you can’t bring yourself to do anything unless you actually want to do it, how would you even motivate yourself to get out of bed in the morning…if getting out of bed wasn’t on your list of explicit desires for the day?

Well, you could go down the route of pure hedonism: simply doing whatever you fancied, whenever you fancied doing it. Stay in bed as long as you want, indulge in whatever pleasurable whim grabs your attention at any particular moment…ignore everything else.

Sounds kind of tempting on the surface I’ll admit. But, and it’s a big ‘but’, the problem with hedonism is that by only ever seeking out the quick fix of pleasure, everything else such as working, bill paying, eating healthily, exercising, monogamy, mowing the lawn, caring about other people’s feelings, being an upstanding member of the community…all those boring things go straight out the window. :-) To that end, hedonism isn’t a particularly effective real-world motivational tool.

So that brings us squarely back to the crux of the matter; how do you motivate yourself to get on with anything that doesn’t immediately hit you with a quick fix of pleasure? How do you get through all those unpleasant, mundane, tiresome, stressful, inane and difficult things that life constantly bombards us with without relying on your extremely limited (particularly if you’re like me), emergency backup supply of willpower?

Simply, you have to want to do them; because as I’ve pretty much brow beaten you with in this article, the simple, undisputable truth is that desire is the king of motivational tools.

Recreating Desire

Today I’m fasting – it’s half ten at night and apart from a cup of black coffee this morning and a few cups of green tea since, not a morsel has past my lips (nor will it until I get up and have breakfast tomorrow morning).

I quite regularly fast in fact. It takes absolutely no willpower for me to do so; and despite the odd hunger pang, I actually enjoy the process of going the best part of 36 hours without food.

Do I find it easy to fast because I’m not a particularly big eater and as such food just doesn’t really push my pleasure buttons? Most definitely not…go back a few years and I was about 4 stones overweight. Back then, a day without a Big Mac at lunch and a 12 inch pizza with prosciutto ham, mushrooms and mascarpone cheese in the evening was a day not lived.

So how have I created such a strong desire to fast – one that turns what on the face of it a really unpleasant process into something I actually enjoy doing and indeed, get a great deal of pleasure from.

It’s not willpower, I can tell you that. As I said above, I have none. No, instead the desire driving my unbreakable motivation to see the day through without eating – something that for many would be an unbearable chore – is a firm belief in its benefits. I am happily fasting because I have built up such a firm conviction of the positive rewards of regularly doing so that my resolve wouldn’t be remotely threatened even if you wafted my favourite dish under my nose…although I might look at you with an evil eye :-)

It’s that simple – you can do absolutely anything (and do it at least moderately happily) if can keep in mind the positive consequences – if you can fixate on the ‘what’s in it for me’.

Maybe that sounds way too simplistic to really work, but I absolutely assure you it’s not. Everything I do these days is driven by the simple desire created by fixating on the positive consequences of my actions – by developing and reinforcing a resolute belief that my actions are ultimately in my own best interests.

Most days, to give you another example, I eat what many would consider a rather bland diet. In fact, it’s turned into something of a running joke with my girlfriend. When we’re apart and I ring her in the evening she’ll ask me, ‘So what delicious meal have you cooked tonight?’ The answer is always the same, ‘Whole wheat pasta, broccoli and tomatoes.’ That’s what I eat every night (when I’m not fasting) because it’s easy to make, involves little thinking to prepare, is highly nutritious and is virtually fat free.

Bland though it may appear, I’ve fixated on the positives to such an extent I just don’t find it a chore. In fact, it’s turned into such an ingrained habit that it would be near on impossible for me to break. The mere thought of a Big Mac these days turns my stomach, such is my conviction of the positives of a low fat, vegetable rich diet – a conviction that I continually reinforce by reminding myself both of the positives of eating healthily as well as the deleterious long-term negatives of eating high saturated fat, high sodium junk food.

All this talk about fasting and living on pasta and broccoli has the potential to make me sound like a health nut or that I’m trying to extol the virtues of a similar lifestyle onto you – which I’m not. I enjoy a good meal and I enjoy a bottle of wine, and I do so quite regularly (but in moderation). The simple point I’m trying to make is that something that could otherwise become an onerous chore takes me no effort at all – absolutely no willpower – simply because I fixate so intently on the potential positive consequences of my actions.

I used the same approach to give up a 15 year, 40 a day chain smoking habit; I continually use the same approach to exercise on a daily basis. All those mundane daily tasks that my ‘hunter’ brain simply isn’t geared up for – doing the house work, keeping my affairs in order, working, sitting down to write these rather lengthy articles for – all those things I do because I keep on reminding myself of the positive reasons that I’m doing them.

It’s a classic case of reversing our instinctive mode of thinking, which is by nature, negative…to positive.

The fact is, when confronted with a difficult, stressful or otherwise onerous task, our default thought process is to fixate on the negatives involved in performing the actual task – to anticipate the pain we’ll experience in the process. And as a by-product, that natural inclination to focus on the negatives means that we’re quick to forget the positive consequences that we’ll derive from our actions…the ‘what’s in it for me’. But by reversing your mode of thinking – by focusing instead on the benefits or rewards you’ll receive from your efforts – you’ll find the opposite happens: you pretty much forget the pain of the process (which causes so much stress, anxiety and fear) and instead find yourself motivated into action by your desire to achieve the reward.

If I had started writing this article with my mind focused on the actual process for example, the anticipation of the mental challenge ahead, the intense focus required, and the time involved would have resulted in me lying on the sofa, channel surfing for the rest of the night. But I didn’t…I focused on the rewards: the sense of satisfaction I’d feel from doing something worthwhile – something that hopefully will be of help to many others; the peace of mind I experience by creatively expressing my thoughts. The desire created by those potential rewards compelled me to act.

No willpower was involved, I just couldn’t help myself. :-)

Practical Tips for Focusing On the Rewards

I have a very able, creative friend who often gets frustrated with his lack of productivity because he just can’t manage to get out of bed before midday. He said to me recently, ‘Oh…I often think how great it would be to get up first thing, to get a few quality hours of writing done in the morning and to then have the rest of the day free. I set my alarm for 6AM, it goes off as it should…and just as regular as clockwork, I switch it off and fall back into an unconscious slumber until noon.’

I said to him in return, ‘I wouldn’t get out of bed either if the reward was simply to sit down to work.’

In other words, the reward for doing something that you’d otherwise not be inclined to do has to be compelling – it has to genuinely excite you and what’s more, it helps if it’s specific – not some wishy washy fantasy about ‘how great it would be’.

I suggested to my friend that he needed to think of a tangible, specific reward that would be immediately satisfied on completion of the ‘difficult task’ of getting out of bed. Focusing on the immediate reward of a fresh cup of coffee, seeing the beauty of the breaking dawn, experiencing the peace and tranquillity of the early morning, even if need be, the promise of a full cooked breakfast, were all tangible, specific rewards that in the short term could fuel his desire to get up on time (and in so doing override his inclination to stay in bed). Likewise, having a specific pleasurable activity planned for the afternoon, one that could only be indulged in if he got up on time, would add further fuel to his desire to throw off the bed covers first thing.

As I wrote in my last article, sometimes I literally resort to writing down the explicit ‘rewards’ I’ll reap for completing a particularly onerous task (as well as the potentially negative consequences of inaction). Again, the simple act of clearly identifying and reaffirming the specific positive reasons in favour of taking a particular course of action can be a powerful tool for shifting your focus away from the fear of ‘doing’ and instead replacing those fears with a compelling desire to act.

An old NLP (Neuro-linguistic programming) technique takes the above idea further. NLP relies heavily of mental imagery; and to that end it advocates vividly imagining both the rewards you’ll experience, as well as the ease with which you’ll be tackle your dreaded task with the knowledge of those rewards firmly in mind – mentally rehearsing everything from the positive emotions you’ll experience – the relief, the satisfaction, the sense of achievement and so forth – to the positive outcomes you’ll derive.

But ultimately, the specific method you choose to use is on the whole pretty irrelevant – what’s important is the principle: to clearly identify and fixate on the rewards of action – to simply ask yourself and provide a firm, coherent answer to the question, ‘What’s in it for me?’

That simple shift in focus away from performing the task onto the benefits of completing that task can be all you need to transform resistance, apathy and anxiety into a genuine desire to act.

A desire, I should add, that makes willpower redundant; which if you’re like me, is a rather fortunate turn of events. :-)

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