The Motivation Myth
With January and a fresh start on the horizon, my next blog post was going to focus on sorting the wheat from the chaff when it comes to the annual deluge of self-help and personal development books and articles. In brief, my advice was going to be that you should spend your precious time (and maybe money) learning from genuine experts, academics with real bona fides and a talent for sharing their knowledge and wisdom with a popular audience through their books, podcasts and courses.
Want to become happier? Listen to The Happiness Lab podcast with Professor Laurie Santos, or sign up for her free course ‘The Science of Well-being’. Want to know the best way to create positive habits? Well, obviously (given the focus of this website), I think you need to follow behaviour design expert Dr BJ Fogg of Stanford University. Ignore the other best-sellers on the topic of habits (most of which are not written by academic experts, and some of which recycle out of date information) because all you really need is BJ’s book Tiny Habits. You could even skip the book for now and just sign up for his free 5-day email programme. Or, if you’re really serious about making significant changes, find a Tiny Habits Certified Coach for one-to-one help.
But a fully developed post on this subject will have to wait, because I’ve just been stopped in my tracks by a best-selling author who’s definitely not an academic, and who sometimes even uses the phrases ‘motivational speaker’ and ‘life-coach’ to describe what she does.
Mel Robbins (no relation to Tony Robbins) shot to fame with one of her previous books, The 5 Second Rule. I haven’t read the book but I have watched a number of her videos. What struck me in those is the tough love approach she doles out to her (often young) audience. ‘Your life isn’t a Disney movie; no one is coming to rescue you.’
But the latest book starts out on a very different note. The High Five Habit is about accepting, celebrating and encouraging yourself – with all your flaws and imperfections. The habit she wants us all to embrace, and which will sound particularly ridiculous to my mainly British readers, is to look at yourself in the mirror first thing in the morning (before you’ve even had a chance to make yourself look presentable for the world) and give yourself a high five. Literally. Slap hands with your image in the mirror.
What interests me here is the shift in focus from tough love to celebration. One of the keys to the Tiny Habits approach is the idea that people change best when they feel good about themselves, not when they feel bad. In her latest book, The High Five Habit, Robbins embraces this insight. Much of her advice focuses on overcoming feelings of guilt, unworthiness, and low self-esteem, because they are not helpful in moving you forward towards your goals.
What stopped me in my tracks, though, was an idea that first appears in Chapter 12: ‘Motivation is complete garbage!’ Robbins tells the backstory of what led up to her blurting out this opinion in an interview with Tom Bilyeu (after he had introduced her as a ‘master of motivation’.) As I listened to this chapter of the audiobook, I suddenly thought of an intellectually brilliant friend from my high school days who rarely did any homework, and often didn’t crack open a single book before an exam. His raw intelligence allowed him to coast through his education, even maintaining a position on the honour roll, up until the last year or two of school. At that point, Paul (not his real name) realised he needed to change his approach. ‘I’ve got to get motivated,’ he would say. It was the image in my mind of Paul, castigating himself for not being sufficiently motivated, that made me stop listening to the audiobook and start writing this post.
Back to Mel Robbins: the word motivation, she explained on the show, sometimes makes her ‘want to vomit’. The problem with motivation, she says, is that it’s never there when you really need it. Accomplishing anything of significant value entails overcoming obstacles, doing difficult things, and making big changes, but our brains are designed to keep us in safe, familiar territory. Rather than relying on motivation, she advises, you need to develop habits of thinking and acting that will keep you moving towards your goals, even when your brain is supplying the opposite of motivation.
BJ Fogg puts the case in a less extreme way, but the lesson is the same: don’t rely on high levels of motivation to accomplish your goals, because motivation fluctuates over time. (Something that anyone who has ever started a new diet or fitness programme, or made a New Year’s resolution, may have learned the hard way.) Instead, create small habits that are easy to do, so that you can do them even when you are feeling tired, overwhelmed or discouraged, and even on those days when you objectively have very little time available. Then celebrate – congratulate yourself every time you do your habit. This approach will set you up to feel successful and gain momentum.
I only wish Paul had known about the motivation myth and the Tiny Habits approach back in the day. Maybe then he could have stopped criticising himself for not being more motivated, and just opened a book anyway.
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 The 5 second rule itself is the sensible idea that, as soon as you become aware of something that you should do right now (e.g. introduce yourself to a particular person at a networking event, get out of bed when the alarm goes off, send a quick thank you to someone, etc.) you give yourself 5 seconds to actually get up and do it. You count down 5-4-3-2-1 and you’re off. The explanation is that if you don’t take action quickly enough, fear, doubt and other sources of procrastination will intervene. BTW, if you decide to try this out, I'd suggest looking for some blast off images to inspire you. Enjoy!