The Power-Struggle Between Motivation and Instant Gratification
Immediate Gratification sees an opening. It elbows its way past Motivation, to grab the wheel at the helm of my mind.
Sometimes Immediate Gratification it steers me towards a lagoon of lounging around, making ambitious lists of things I never do (which is a very satisfying substitute for actual activity). Sometimes we careen back and forth between small, time-frittering tasks. Sometimes we drift along, chatting with whoever is in the vicinity. Sometimes we go swimming. Sometimes we sail madly for The Emergency of the Day, firing off emails and phone calls in every direction, and that’s very exciting. Sometimes I am marooned on a sandbar of stalled time where fifteen, thirty minutes slide by when I could be something productive but instead am sipping tea and absorbing mildly interesting content from the face of my iPhone.
I am relieved when Motivation finally frees itself from whatever dark corner of the bilge it’s been temporarily trapped in, and strides back in to re-assert it’s authority. Immediate Gratification chews it’s nails and watches Motivation spread the chart out on the table, plot points with sliding rulers, take notes, perform elaborate calculations with sextants and compasses, and then competently steer me towards an attractive destination.
Motivation prods me to get up at uncivilized hours and do important things I’d not otherwise have time to. It compels me to exert myself, tolerate discomfort, set boundaries around distractions and move forward every day. Immediate Gratification pretends to stand respectfully in the distance, but has a long fishing pole with shiny lures on the end that occasionally dangle in front of my face: Online shopping, trip-planning, Twitter-surfing. Motivation swats them away, keeping the other hand steady on the wheel and eyes on the horizon.
Does this sound familiar? I bet — This struggle lives inside us all.
3 Tips to Help You Stay Motivated
Here’s what I’ve learned over the years about how to keep Motivation in charge most of the time:
1) Stay Scared
Tony Robbins (I love you Tony) astutely pointed out that we’re motivated not just by anticipation of positive reward, but by clear understanding of the negative consequences of our actions. This is supported by research in the study of motivation and persuasion. Fear is a powerful motivator. We can lull ourselves into believing that when Immediate Gratification is in charge, it’s really okay. It’s fine. It’s okay to spend an afternoon cleaning out the kitchen drawers or watching three movies in a row or FaceBooking for hours because it’s just fine.
But what’s actually true is that what we put effort and energy into every day creates our future reality. So indulging Immediate Gratification really equals Future Failure to meet our goals. Envisioning Future Failure and then linking that negative vision to something pleasurable (like watching TV) “reframes” the activity.
Remind yourself that: “I’m not just watching TV, I’m loosing the opportunity to [insert important goal here]. Choosing to watch TV means that I’m choosing [insert scary future outcome here].” Watching TV is not a benign activity when it’s a conscious decision to fail. When it becomes associated with danger and failure instead of pleasure, you’ll feel less comfortable with it. Then it’s easier to reconnect with Motivation.
To be a little anxious is a good thing. Go ahead and worry about what will happen if you DON’T follow through. Immediate Gratification will seem less like a laid-back friendly buddy, and more like a flaky, chain-smoking neer-do-well with trembling hands. You’ll run right into the arms of clean-cut, trustworthy Motivation.
2) Don’t Kill Yourself, or Get Confused
I don’t know about you, but I’ve noticed that when Immediate Gratification takes over it’s because I’m either tired, or because I don’t know what to do next. That awareness helps me 1) Not beat myself up for going “off the reservation” once in awhile and 2) Get back on track. Because in the ebb and flow of motivation, sometimes you really do need to rest and re-group before moving forward again.
Motivation will flag if you get burnt-out. Don’t go crazy and try to achieve big huge goals quickly. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Build time for rest and renewal into your day, every day. Just stay the course and keep working towards your goal a little bit every day too.
But you’re not going to be perfect all the time. You can be laser-focused and achieve an important goal and then…. Drift for a little while. And then sooner or later you’ll look around and say “Hey. What am I doing?” and then you’ll have to reconnect with Motivation.
This requires looking at your map again, to see where you are in the arc of progress. This is why it’s so important to have written goals, and a clear plan of action to refer back to. This is especially true when you have a big goal with lots of twists and turns.
You can make a lot of progress, but you will periodically falter. At those moments you need to pause and re-orient yourself as to where you are now and what needs to happen next. Without that clarity Immediate Gratification will jump right in, swing the wheel around and head for Vegas.
3) Do a Little Bit Every Day
In order to keep Motivation in charge long-term, you must intentionally check in with it every day (unless Motivation is already in firm command). The way I do this is by journaling. I just check in with myself: “What’s the most important thing for me to be doing today?” And then write about it for a few minutes. I often re-write my goals in order to keep track of what I’m doing and why. When there’s an ebb in motivation, or when I loose track of The Most Important Next Step, this moment of touching base re-orients me and helps me prioritize my time.
But the single most important thing I’ve found is to create a routine where time for me to work on my goal is blocked out every single day. It is much more important for you (us) to work consistently than it is to do huge amazing things once in awhile. Twenty minutes of jumping around in front of a work-out video every morning is much more effective than a big heroic three-hour work out once a week.
When you work a little bit every day, you know what to do, and you have the time to do it. You don’t have to start over every time you re-engage with a project. You don’t have to re-motivate yourself. You just stay the course.
So: Go forth and cultivate a little anxiety, don’t over do it on any given day, check in with Motivation and “The Plan” frequently, and create routines that support progress. Let me know how it goes! — Lisa