Motivation is Overrated: Here’s What Works Instead On the power of showing up and behavioral activation


Conventional wisdom says that positive thinking, enthusiasm, and inspiration are key to living a good and productive life. But that’s not entirely true, at least not according to the latest psychological science. A more accurate representation of the relationship between motivation and action is this: you don’t need to feel good to get going — you need to get going to give yourself a chance at feeling good.

You cannot control your thoughts or feelings. Though many people think otherwise, it is impossible. (If you need proof, close your eyes for the next thirty seconds, try hard not to think of a pink bear, and see what happens.) What you can control, however, is how you respond to your thoughts and feelings — that is, your actions. And it is your actions that give rise to your moods, not the other way around.

In the scientific literature this is called “behavioral activation,” and it is backed by hundreds of studies. In practice, behavioral activation is a central tenet of groundedness, the ability to stand strong amidst all kinds of weather, and the dynamic between inner and outer strength.

In the rest of this piece, we’ll discuss how to skillfully respond to negative feelings, proceed with how to skillfully respond to negative thoughts, and wrap up with a unified theory for living a deep and meaningful life.

Working With Negative Feelings

If I had to feel motivated to start a workout I would have done 23 workouts last year, not 230. If I had to feel inspired to start writing, well, there’d be hardly any writing. No doubt, the days you feel great are great! Ride those waves. But it’s not the end of the world if you don’t feel great either.

The extreme example of clinical depression is useful. For many people, it manifests as a feeling of nothing mattering, an intense apathy, fatigue so bad it is painful. But depression hates a moving target. The best way out is to force yourself to get going, even, and perhaps especially when you don’t want to. What makes states of mind like depression so challenging and insidious is that inherent to the condition is a brain that says, “I can’t get going,” which is precisely why therapy and medication can be so important.

It is not easy to force yourself to get going, whether you are experiencing depression, in a rut, or merely feeling a bit off, wanting to hit the sleep button on life. Behavioral activation takes a whole lot of self-discipline, which means it takes a whole lot of self-compassion too. Not one or the other, but both.

Self-discipline takes you to the hard places. It offers the firm persistence to keep going. Self-compassion is what gives you the courage when you are at the gate, and what helps you get up when you are down. And then, self-discipline gets you moving forward again.

Working With Negative Thinking

Intrusive thoughts are tough. Especially against the backdrop of a culture that in one way or another always seems to be saying some version of “think positive.” I can speak from direct experience: trying to control your thoughts never works. What does work is engaging with the good ones and ignoring the not-so-good ones.

There is a difference between resisting intrusive thoughts and ignoring them. Resisting them takes energy and gets you tangled up in the thoughts, especially if you are trying to push them out. Ignoring them means letting them be there but not engaging in them. You don’t learn this growing up, but thoughts are not facts. You can simply leave them alone.

Ignoring the voice inside your head is a start. The next step is taking action. Your brain can think “I’m not going to get started on this task” but you can get started anyways— and by getting started thoughts of apathy slowly fade on their own. The work of the psychologist Steven Hayes has shown this to be effective in many settings, from therapy to relationships, to sports.

In other words, you cannot replace negative thinking with positive thinking. But you can replace negative thinking with positive action. You do not wish or fight away negative feelings. You create space for them, don’t judge yourself for having them, and then take them along for the ride.

At this point, two things ought to be clear:

  1. Thinking and feeling in certain ways are separate from acting in certain ways.
  2. Acting in certain ways is the best mechanism to improve your thinking and feeling.

What, then, are the certain ways to act?

Enter: groundedness.

A Grounded Approach To Life

Groundedness is internal strength and self-confidence that sustains you through ups and downs. It is a deep reservoir of integrity and fortitude, of wholeness, out of which lasting performance, well-being, and fulfillment emerge. Groundedness does not eliminate passion, productivity, or all forms of striving and ambition. Instead, it is about ditching omnipresent and frantic anxiety to begin living in alignment with your innermost values, pursuing your interests, and expressing your authentic self in the here and now. When you are grounded there is no need to look up or down. You are where you are, and you hold true strength and power from that position.

It looks across modern science, ancient wisdom, and daily practice to identify ways of acting that are most productive in diverse contexts. It comes up with qualities like presence, patience, vulnerability, community, movement, and so on.

But perhaps most important, groundedness says consistent doing that is in alignment with a set of core values leads to inner strength and consistent being. It offers a path to excellence with less angst and genuine confidence, which emerges from the ability to respond to all thoughts and feelings — the good, the bad, and the ugly — with skillful actions.

Groundedness does not eliminate pain or fear. It asks you to accept these parts of being human and gives you the skills and resolve to keep living fully anyways. Some days feel better than others. That’s just how it goes. Groundedness simply asks that you know your values and then show up and live them. But just because something is simple doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Groundedness also says that you don’t need an unwavering purpose. If anything, it is helpful to realize that sort of stuff comes and goes. Embrace it when it’s there, but when it’s not, focusing on the right action is more than enough. As they say in addiction recovery, “Do the next right thing.” Get good enough at this and the result is likely to be a deep and meaningful life.

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