Don’t Boost Motivation: Just Ride the Wave

Have you ever been forced to sit through a presentation by a “motivational speaker” — someone who’s been hired to squeeze more work out of you by whipping you into a frenzy of positive emotion?

If so, how long did your motivation last?

I’m betting that it was just long enough to look at your to-do list and see some things that you really didn’t want to do. It was then that the frenzy faded and you sank back into your emotional status quo. 

So long, motivation.

Pete Seeger described this experience in song: “My get up and go has got up and went.”

This is where so many self-help “experts” try to sell us a bill of goods. They treat motivation as a problem to be solved. They work like mad to boost our motivation or help us ramp it up by ourselves.

But notice what happens when we internalize the gurus’ messages, do everything they say, and still feel unmotivated: We’re likely to see ourselves as failures.

Well, I have good news from Stanford University psychologist BJ Fogg: All the frenzy and shame are unnecessary.

Lack of motivation is not a problem to be solved. Nor is it a character defect to eliminate.

When you don’t feel motivated, in fact, you’re just normal. And starting from this premise gives you a much more effective way to solve the “problem” of motivation.

This is the big idea from a presentation by BJ Fogg, who developed a powerful and unique system for habit change.

Remember that motivation is a wave

The first thing to notice, says BJ, is that motivation is slippery. More precisely, it’s a wave. 

Motivation rises and falls. It peaks and ebbs. This is something that any of us can verify by simple self-observation.

A second insight flows directly from the first: When motivation peaks, we temporarily feel like doing hard things. And when motivation ebbs, we gravitate toward easy things.

These are insights that we can apply to behavior change.

Match your behavior with your current level of motivation

Consider an example related to a key health habit — exercise. There are at least two ways to lay the ground work for this habit:

  • Do something easy, such as simply picking out a pair of running shoes. At this point you don’t have to go for a walk. You don’t even have to put the shoes on. You simply choose a pair that you intend to use in the future.
  • Do something hard, like finding a list of personal trainers, calling one up, and committing to working with this person on a regular schedule.

When your motivation is low, go for easy. Give yourself permission to just pick the shoes. If you instead try to schedule a trainer or go for a run, then you have to deal with the inner gremlin who says: Naaahhh. I just don’t wanna.

If you try to squelch that gremlin by artificially ramping up your motivation, you’ll just compound the problem.

When your motivation is high, do the harder thing, such as scheduling the trainer. If you instead settle for simply choosing a pair of shoes, you squander an opportunity to accomplish something worthwhile and challenging.

BJ sums up the big take-away: Don’t worry about motivation. Just choose the most desirable behavior that matches your current level of motivation — whatever that is.

In other words, ride the wave. When motivation peaks, do something hard while you still have the chance. And when motivation falls, go with the flow and do something easy. (For many more ideas about the latter option, enroll in BJ Fogg’s free course on Tiny Habits.)

Harness high motivation in three specific ways

High motivation is temporary. It can disappear in a matter of days, hours, or minutes. So, seize the precious opportunity that high motivation presents.

According to BJ, the most valuable things that you can do when highly motivated are:

  1. Structure your future behavior. Structured behaviors are presets — default options. For example: If you want to reduce your spending, then cut up your credit cards. If you want to stop eating junk food, then remove all that stuff from your kitchen and throw it away. This strategy is powerful for a simple reason: Reversing an earlier commitment forces you to exert extra effort, such as calling a personal trainer to cancel a scheduled appointment.
  2. Reduce barriers to future behavior. For instance, go to the grocery store and buy a lot of vegetables. Then go home, wash them, cut them, and put them into serving size containers. This reduces a barrier to making healthy meals when your motivation to cook is low. You’re less likely to choose the easy option — going out to eat.
  3. Increase capacity. When your motivation to cook a healthy meal is high, for example, then take that opportunity to learn a new recipe. This is harder than going out to eat or chopping vegetables. But as you practice making the new meal over the coming weeks, you’ll find it easier to do — even on days when you don’t feel like cooking.

Note that I’ve numbered these options in the order that BJ recommends. So when motivation peaks, start with #1 before trying #2. And opt for #3 after experimenting with #2.

Don’t motivate change — facilitate it

Riding the motivation wave is especially crucial for people design programs for behavior change.

Is your job about helping people to exercise more, eat better, or adopt some other desirable habit? Then forget about boosting their motivation to do hard things, says BJ. Change your job title from motivator to facilitator. Start guiding people to surf their natural waves of motivation.