Motivation: Struggling to Follow Through and Focusing on the Essentials

Meg LarsenMay 16, 2020

I’ve been on a roll the past couple of days when it comes to home maintenance. This evening, while tidying up the house from the day’s activities of projects, chores, and eating, I caught myself thinking, “Gosh, I wish I were always this motivated to keep the house clean.” We all struggle with this right? We love the feeling of a clean and tidy home, but somehow, despite our best efforts, it gets away from us time and time again.

I used to think it was simply a matter of being too busy, but this pandemic has shown me that regardless of how much or how little time I have at home, I still struggle in this area. This “getting away from us,” of course, exists on a spectrum. As a generally pretty clean person, my version of messy is usually not more than a stack of clean dishes piling up on the drying rack, a collection of remotes, books, and electronic cables strewn about the living room, an unmade bed, and a sink that’s a week or two overdue for a wipe-down. I recognize that for many people, this still falls well within the bounds of a clean house. The point is, however,  whatever your definition of tidy is, and however much free time (or lack thereof) you have, most of us still fail to live up to our own standards when it comes to taking care of our homes and often struggle over the guilt we feel as a result. 

This motivation-guilt cycle isn’t limited to home maintenance. We experience it when we struggle with maintaining healthier eating habits, setting budgets, starting projects, losing weight, reading more, getting frustrated less, and so on and so forth until our heads start to spin and we nurse our failure with a large glass of wine (which reminds us of another failed attempt–drinking less). This train of thought got me curious about motivation–what function it serves, how wet get it, what we need to do to maintain it, and if there’s a way to get off the guilt cycle. I discovered the answers to these questions, but not in the way I was expecting. 

WHAT IS MOTIVATION AND WHERE DOES IT COME FROM?

In an article from VeryWell Mind, motivation is defined as

“the process that initiates, guides, and maintains goal-oriented behaviors” [1].

So it’s important to first note that motivation is intrinsically tied to our goals.  Why do we set goals? Studies show that goal-setting is naturally hard-wired into our brains as humans and provides numerous benefits to us including positive effects on our behavior, job performance, and energy [2]. Goals are natural and they are good for us; motivation is what allows us to pursue those goals. 

If you look back at the definition of motivation, you’ll notice that it mentions three actions tied to motivation: initiation, guidance, and maintenance. This is key because I think most of us imagine motivation as a single force, when in fact, it is not. There are actually three types of motivation: activation, persistence, and intensity.  Activation is the motivation to initiate a behavior, persistence is the motivation to sustain the behavior, and intensity is the degree of “concentration and vigor” with which the behavior is pursued [1]. I don’t think most of us struggle with the activation phase, though it can happen occasionally. In fact, as a society, we might actually be addicted to the activation phase. Isn’t this why we buy planners, set New Year’s Resolutions, go on diets, and erect tiny folded shrines to Marie Kondo?  We love the goal-setting process and the initial feeling of motivation we get when we set a new goal. I daresay we almost get a high from it. 

Instead, where most of us struggle is in the persistence phase.  We struggle to maintain our motivation over long periods of time (or even not-that-long periods of time). We can’t seem to maintain the initial drive that motivated us to set the goal in the first place.  This challenge is what I was lamenting when I questioned my ability to maintain the habits that allowed me to keep the house tidy. 

WHY DO WE STRUGGLE TO MAINTAIN MOTIVATION AND WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT? 

There are a number of reasons why people struggle with motivation persistence. Boredom and lack of self-discipline are common culprits. Alternatively, we rely on quick fixes that don’t develop long-term habits or prescriptive self-help solutions that don’t meet our needs as individuals.  These pitfalls often end up sending us to the self-help section of Barnes and Noble to buy five books on how to reduce clutter in our homes (never-mind where you’re going to store those books in your newly de-cluttered house) or convince us to try those “7 Days to a Slimmer You”-type diets that consist primarily of lemon juice and cayenne pepper. We lack the stamina for anything more sustainable and dream that if it worked for someone else, it might work for us too. Some researchers suggest higher or lower levels of dopamine play a role in our lack of motivation persistence [3], which gives me great comfort because I’d much rather blame my brain chemistry than my own shortcomings. 

​Regardless of the cause, we’d all probably like to get off the guilt train and find a solution.  If I can offer you one piece of advice, it’s that like so many things in life, the simplest (not “easiest”) answer is usually the best.  If we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t really need someone to tell us how to lose weight (spoiler alert: eat healthier meals in smaller portions and get more exercise). Similarly, after doing the research for this article, I realized I don’t really need someone to tell me how to be more motivated.  In “The Science Behind Motivation,” marketing expert Sujan Patel offers three simple solutions: develop solid routines, tackle important priorities first, and eliminate unnecessary commitments [3].  None of these are groundbreaking, but they do work.  In reading them, I realized (quite by accident) my real problem wasn’t that I didn’t know how to motivate myself, but that my motivation was misdirected. I realized that it all came back to essentialism. 

ESSENTIALISM AND MOTIVATION

All three of Patel’s recommendations are also fundamental principles to essentialism, one of several varieties of minimalism. Minimalism comes in many flavors, and I am a fan of most of them, but essentialism is something I hold as a fundamental value, one I truly believe leads to a more fulfilled life.  Essentialism at its core is the disciplined practice of focusing on less in order to focus on what’s most important, resulting in a better life.  So, how does this relate to keeping my house clean? Well, it’s all about mindset. 

Essentialism begins with re-aligning priorities. You must begin by asking yourself what your core priorities are and whether or not your goals align with them. For me, this meant honestly asking myself, “Is keeping a spotless home one of my core priorities during this season of my life?” I realized my answer to this question was, “Not really.”  I do want to have a mostly clean house, but in actuality, it doesn’t need to be perfect all the time and the amount of time I spend tidying up or cleaning after I’ve let things slip a little doesn’t interfere with any of my other priorities. It doesn’t even take very long. In this case, it turned out my issue really had nothing to do with motivation at all. Instead, it has to do with acceptance and grace for myself.  I have to learn to realize that it’s okay if dishes didn’t get put away before I went to bed or the laundry didn’t get folded, because those aren’t on my list of essential priorities. 

For your goal, you may have a different answer.  Maybe you need to lose weight, drink less, or quit smoking because your doctor told you it was affecting your health or maybe you or your spouse is one of the many people struggling with unemployment in this pandemic and you need to re-evaluate your budget.  Whatever it is, if you decide that your goal is part of what’s essential for you in this season, then go back to what Sujan Patel recommends: develop a solid routine, tackle priorities related to this goal first, and eliminate unnecessary commitments (in other words, learn how to say “no”). If you focus on what is essential and use that to drive your motivation, I think you will have an easier time maintaining the persistence you need to be successful. Alternatively, if you’re like me and you realize your goals aren’t really essential right now, don’t give up, but learn how to let go of what’s unnecessary, so you can focus on what is. 

HEART CHECK: WHAT’S REALLY MOTIVATING YOU?

One last point I’d like to make has to do with the different types of goals we set.  Goals are tied to achievement and they fall into two categories: mastery goals–whereby we desire to develop some level of competence in a particular skill, and performance goals–whereby we desire to perform well in comparison to others [4]. Reading that was very convicting for me because I know that as much as I am motivated by mastery goals, I also struggle deeply with comparison.  I think many of us, especially women, struggle in this way.  

When you think of your essential priorities, it’s important to consider this added layer.  Are you setting a goal because you want to master a particular skill or enrich your life in some way? Or, are you setting a goal so you can measure up to what you see around you?  I can promise you that if it is the latter, you will never find lasting fulfillment, regardless of whether or not you manage to overcome motivation persistence.  I struggle most with the worst version of this: the pursuit of an unrealistic ideal. I don’t just measure myself against those around me, I also measure myself against made-up standards of perfection that are both unrealistic and unattainable, and whenever I fall into this trap, it interferes with both my contentment and my self-confidence. 

CONCLUSION

We all have goals; they are a natural part of the human experience that drive us to do better and be better.  Motivation helps us initiate our actions to pursue those goals and sustains us on the journey toward accomplishing those goals and experiencing lasting change. Although there are many pitfalls we can get stuck in when it comes to sustaining motivation, we can overcome them by re-focusing our priorities on what is truly essential for the enrichment of our lives, and by letting go of useless comparisons or ideals of perfection getting in our way. Though this journey has no quick fixes, it does have simple solutions. By eliminating the clutter of the unnecessary, hopefully we can move toward increased motivation as well as increased acceptance and contentment.

References:

  1. Cherry, K. (2020, April 27). What is motivation?. Verywell mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-motivation-2795378
  2. Riopel, L. (2020, April 26). The importance, benefits, and value of goal-setting. Positive psychology. https://positivepsychology.com/benefits-goal-setting/
  3. Patel, S. (2015, January 9). The science behind motivation. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/sujanpatel/2015/01/09/the-science-behind-motivation/#2cae80a949d9
  4. Murayama, K. (2018, June). The science of motivation: multidisciplinary approaches advance research on the nature and effects of motivation.Psychological Science Agenda 2018(June). https://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2018/06/motivation

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