Continuing along the topic of motivation, I have identified within myself five forces that make up the substance of motivation. They are:
You see, motivation is easy to sense when we have a great deal of it. But when we are seeking it out, it can feel ephemeral and unattainable. And the more grasping of it that we do, the harder it is to hold onto. So, in trying to better understand this phenomenon it was important for me to understand what really lies beneath this blanket sentiment we call motivation. If I could understand its finer particles, perhaps I could better sense its source.
Capability isn’t just a hopeful vision of what is possible. It is built upon context, on the experience of previous achievements. Your brain knows you can do it because it has had success in the past. Or perhaps, even if you haven’t personally experienced success, you know of others like you who have, and you therefore believe that you, too, can achieve such a thing.
Before I changed my relationship with alcohol, I only had a very black and white definition of what it meant to be a drinker. You were either a person who drank with control and moderation, or you were an alcoholic that shouldn’t drink due to some internal flaw. It wasn’t until I started listening to the stories of people who inhabited this “grey area” of drinking that I was able to see myself in this equation, and to understand that I didn’t have to be a “black out drunk” to seek a healthier relationship with alcohol. In essence, I saw that I was capable of living an alcohol-free life even if I didn’t fall into the (false and problematic) category of “problem drinker.” This freed me from the limiting belief system that only “problem drinkers” needed to quit, and it showed me that people are in fact capable of living and thriving without alcohol and they do not have to experience a “rock bottom” in order to come to this realization.
I also knew that I was capable of drinking less or not at all because there was a time in my life that I wasn’t a habitual drinker. Before I had begun the habit of daily drinking, life had held interest and awe and beauty without the fancy wine membership and refrigerator full of IPAs. If I was capable of so thoroughly enjoying life without alcohol then, what was keeping me from doing so now? This is venturing into another topic of learned dependence, which I will get into another day. But it’s important to acknowledge that there is a non-drinker inside of you, already complete with all of the tools necessary for enjoying your life and managing he ups and downs inherent to it. That person just needs to be found again – the tools dusted off and sharpened.
So, when you find yourself in the ebbtide of motivation’s natural cycle, the first step is to tap back into your sense of capability. Keep your successes in mind, no matter how tangential they may feel. Write them down and make them visible to you. Reflect on the times you have accomplished your goals (or even made minimal progress toward them). Write down HOW you achieved your actions in the past – what were your best tools? Also, note how those successes made you FEEL. Recall those positive and empowering emotions. Science is showing us that those feelings are really the key to behavioral change.
If you can’t cite any successes, listen to other people’s stories, learn about their journey. Let this remind you that it is possible, and you are not an exception to the rule. This is the beauty of memoirs. They allow us to see another person’s life and see, in their story, a glimmer of our own.
Finally, if you still cannot bring to mind a time that you were able to accomplish your goal, and the tales of others bring you no inspiration, you must start building these new successes this very moment. Do the thing you are aiming to do, even in the smallest iteration, despite all the feelings you have about not wanting to do it. Do it anyway. Do a day without alcohol. Imagine yourself as that non-drinker and fully embody that person in your daily life. Start using those dusty tools again. Allow yourself to recognize this as a success, no matter how painful or boring it may feel (because I promise it won’t always feel that way). You don’t have to feel motivated or even capable in order to accomplish something. It helps, but it’s not a requirement. Once you’ve logged that one little success, you build up from there.
It sounds obvious, but you’re much more likely to achieve something if you’re willing to do it. And this doesn’t just mean “willing to reap the rewards.” It means you must be willing to experience all of the things that such a change requires: the discomfort, the longing for old ways, the fear of loss, the pain of fitting into new shapes, the wariness of not knowing what your next step looks like. Though you can never know what your path will hold, you can prepare yourself at the outset for a bumpy road. As you imagine your goal and the journey it will take you on, can you bring to mind the challenges you may face? Can you prime your mind and body for these barriers – and visualize the ways you will overcome them? If you are already on the path and you feel you are losing your way, look back at the barriers you have already overcome. You likely didn’t see those coming, but you dealt with every single one of them. As you look forward, bring to mind the awareness that there will be other road blocks in your way. Are you willing to face these? Is your goal worth the discomfort and pain that you will surely face?
It isn’t going to be easy, and you must be willing to do it anyway. But this doesn’t mean you have to suffer the whole time. To stay in this place of discomfort, you must also keep in mind your original “why,” the core reason you set out on this journey in the first place. We tend to be very aware of WHAT our goal is, but as time goes on it is easy to lose sight of WHY we set out to achieve this thing in the first place. If you lose touch with your WHY, you will lose your way, because it will feel like you are aiming for something that is no longer yours. Why do you want to live alcohol free? What would your life look like without it? What have you gained from being alcohol free, if you have done so for some amount of time? Make sure this is part of your WHY list as well.
Keep your WHY list updated and relevant – it will change over time, and it MUST change with you. The reasons why you decided to stop drinking 6 months ago may be very different from the reasons you live alcohol free today. But if you’re still working off of an outdated list of WHYs, it makes sense your motivation may be lagging.
A final note on Willingness: it is important to be aware of (and avoid) Fading Affect Bias – the cognitive phenomenon in which we are more likely to remember the great things about something or someone and forget the terrible things about them. I liken it to an ex-partner. It can be so easy to remember the good times and forget why we broke up with them in the first place – the pain they caused us, the reasons we ended it. This cognitive bias occurs for people who stop drinking or end another unhealthy habit – usually a few weeks or months into their new behavior. They start to forget how bad things were and are only able to remember the “good times.” This can be a huge barrier to our motivation, making us question why we stopped drinking in the first place. Remember: this is an illusion and a trick of the mind. So, to avoid falling prey to this illusion, you must make it easy to remember the pain that you felt when you were drinking. Make this accessible. Write about the pain, the confusion, the guilt, the struggle. Talk to someone who knows the struggle you went through. Find old embarrassing photographs of times you were so drunk that you only have the photograph to memorialize the event. These things will help you keep your WHY front and center to your mind so you don’t trick yourself into thinking all this work is for nothing.
Can you have a really honest conversation with yourself and ask, “how committed am I really?” It’s ok to ask this, in fact it’s very important. I think that many of us find ourselves in the habit of reaching for something (and never touching it) without asking ourselves how much we really want it anymore. Without an authentic level of commitment, striving for something will feel empty, and even if we achieve the goal one day, we likely won’t even register how wonderful it feels to accomplish it.
Commitment doesn’t just mean wanting something really badly. It means waking up and deciding everyday that you have changed your life and will keep doing the things that maintain that change no matter what you come up against. Commitment means making that decision even when everything inside of you wants to run away and revert back to your comfort zone.
One way I have found to really cement my commitment is through routine. Routine is everything when it comes to sustained and lasting change. Some might even argue that routine is more important than motivation entirely. Building a routine that supports your new lifestyle will make it more effortless, and will help maintain momentum even when your reptile brain is tempting you back to the comforts of your old life.
So, when you’re feeling your motivation on the downslide, and you’ve assessed that you are indeed still committed to this goal, then ask, what structures do I have in place to keep me on track? What helps contain me so I don’t fall too far away from the path? In The Alcohol Experiment, Annie Grace calls these guard rails, also known as the Carrot and the Stick.
Carrots and Sticks
The Carrot and Stick metaphor refers to our tendency to move toward good pleasure and away from pain. The Carrot represents the reward for good behavior. However, this alone isn’t enough to motivate us forward at all times. The Stick balances it out with the threat of negative consequences. It is a simple concept but not always properly executed, because ultimately humans are more complicated creatures and positive and negative rewards tend to lose their power after time. Also, behavioral studies have shown that because we are very social creatures, positive and negative rewards aren’t always as powerful as the pressure that our peers place on us (or the pressure that we perceive to be placed on us). However, when we are trying to maintain or revive our motivation, we must use all the tools at our disposal. So, the take away here is you must incorporate Carrots (positive rewards) and Sticks (negative consequences) into your plan and these must be updated periodically to maintain their power. Also, if you can incorporate a social element into your Carrot and Stick structure, you will tap into your natural desire to be perceived positively in the eyes of your peers (family, friends, colleagues, etc), and therefore add power to your motivators.
What might this look like if you are working to reduce or end your drinking habit?
Do you see how I added in a social element to both the carrot and the stick? This incorporates not only a reward and consequence for you, but also some added accountability because you have brought someone else into this plan, and they have something to gain if you succeed.
Again, the Carrot and Stick cannot stand alone. If we use this tactic as our only plan for maintaining motivation, we will risk depleting our stores of willpower, possibly failing, and then feeling worse about ourselves and our plan, which simply leads to greater dis-empowerment and discouragement.
Drive (toward something greater)
This final point is important but can be tricky. When we are so focused on the minutiae of our daily behaviors it can be really easy to lose sight of WHY we are doing this in the first place. We forget to see the forest for the trees. So, underlying everything, we must have an idea of what all our efforts are for. What is the point of it all? When I was knee deep in my drinking habit, all I knew was that I wanted to drink less. I knew I felt terrible in my own skin, and that I would feel better if I reduced or ended my drinking. But it wasn’t until I actually ended my drinking habit that I was able to see the bigger picture of what my drinking had resulted in. I started to see that alcohol had affected so many small aspects of my life, which all added up to a larger picture of discontentment and disconnect from the things that brought meaning to my life. The underlying result was that I had lost touch with myself, and lost sight of how I was connected to the rest of the world. When we drink (or consume other mind altering substances) we tend to turn our energy inward. It is as though our bodies and brains know that they are being harmed, so they must ignore the outside world to reserve as much energy as possible to stay alive. We become unable to see our place in the world, how we affect others and how other people’s well-being is greatly connected to our own. We lose sight of the forest.
So, when we are setting out with a plan to make change in our life, we need to have a focus not just on each step we take, but also on the horizon. This keeps us connected to the bigger picture, to the things, people, feelings, memories, and creatures that surround us and make up the whole of our life. Some questions you can ask yourself:
This final step may feel intangible, even confusing, if you are at an early stage of trying to create change in your life. That is OK and normal. The point is that you are finding ways periodically to take a step back from your focus on the trees to take in the forest from your new vantage point. As you make progress, your perspective will shift, and one day you will realize that you can now see the horizon, and it is beautiful.