Don’t Rely on Motivation

Dad: My blood circulation is getting worse, seems like I’m getting old haha.

Me: Do you know how to fix it?

Dad: Yeah, I need to start exercising.

Me: So why aren’t you exercising?

Dad: I have no motivation.

One thing I’ve been beginning to realize is how much of an unhealthy emphasis we put on motivation, this internal force we believe we need in order to start doing anything. However, this mindset is burdensome because it requires us to be in a certain mental state before we can actually get anything done. Our moods and emotions are always changing too. You can have a newfound motivation to start going to the gym after making your New Year’s resolution in front of all your friends, but this resolution hype will only last you so long. So instead of the usual mental over physical mentality most people talk about, here’s a new theory I’ll go along with in this post.

Be physically present

That’ll get you halfway. Back in my junior and senior year of high school, I was commuting to San Francisco from the Peninsula almost every day to work. Everyday, I would leave the office at around 9:30pm and be pretty tired, definitely not in the right mentality to hit the gym to workout. My brain was tired, I just wanted to go back home and watch YouTube or talk to my friends before heading off to bed. So my mindset became sort of a pair of mental crutches I was trying to support myself on, and they sure as hell wouldn’t be able to bring me to the gym. After a couple weeks of going back in forth in my head, debating whether I should push off the gym or not (ultimately with nothing actually happening), one thing I started to do was just taking the BART (public transportation) directly to the gym, not stopping at home. I was tired as hell, but I walked into the gym. Bright lights shining at me, everybody else was working out. Well, I’m already here right? Being physically present is half the battle. Just being there was more than I could have ever done wasting time debating in my head whether or not I should just go home and rest. Just showing up there took away the “motivation prerequisite” that was holding me back so much. I thought I needed some form of motivation to get pumped and work out, but all I need to do was just show up.

Make rituals

Before walking into the gym, I would drink a cup of black coffee or a pre-workout juice to let my body know that for the next hour, I would be focused on working out. Having a ritual like this made working out into a sort of daily habit that I would do, sort of how many people in the military make their beds every  morning as a way to feel organized and start their day. To post in this blog more frequently, I’ve started a ritual where I would take a shower before writing a post. Writing this now, I’ll try making my bed every morning starting tomorrow to start getting in the habit of meditating every morning I wake up. You should think of a good habit you want to get into too, and start to make your bed as a ritual to get into it together with me!

Setting a physical place is to do accomplish other things that don’t necessarily have a designated place (like a gym) also helps a lot. I know for doing work, I go to the common area in our Science Center on campus to get homework done. For writing blog posts at home, I sit on the couch in the living room.

Motivation doesn’t have to be a prerequisite for us to achieve our goals. In fact, thinking that motivation fuels action can be harmful because we can’t always rely on our mental states – they are always changing. The most reliable way to achieve a goal is through good habits, and the first step many of us forget to take in developing those habits is just being there.

Parenting: Malleable Mindets

For my cognitive science class, I was reading about classing personality traits like happiness, resiliency, and helplessness into two mindsets derived by how people thought of themselves. There’s the fixed mindset, when somebody believes that their qualities are carved in stone. It can create an urgency for that person to prove themselves over and over. The second mindset (which in this context is the advantageous one) is the malleable mindset. People with malleable mindsets believe that cherished qualities can be developed through effort and dedication.

Also, there was an experiment done gauging the effects subtle linguistic cues in praises could have on children’s motivations. Imagine that you had kids A and B, who are instructed to draw a picture. Kid A is given a generic praise, “you are a good drawer.” Kid B is given a more specific, non-generic praise, “you did a good job drawing.” The study showed that children like kid B who were given non-generic praises had less extreme emotional reactions to criticism and were motivated to correct themselves. While when children like kid A were criticized, they started to cry and gave up drawing. I feel that what contributed most to those outcomes is that giving generic praise, or even too much praise, implies to children that they have a stable ability that underlies their drawing performance. They become emotionally attached to that identity that they are stably good drawers. Mistakes then reflect on that stable ability, and can demoralize their perception of their ability. However, what makes the non-generic praise not so generic (haha) is that it comments on a specific instance of drawing, not the child’s skill of drawing itself. ex. “You did a good job drawing that yesterday” vs “you are such a talented drawer!” so the child doesn’t attach as strongly to this identity as a “good” drawer. They can then continue along with their lives drawing, still motivated to correct their mistakes and become better.

I thought it’d be interesting to bring these findings together and think about how I would raise my own kids to develop malleable mindsets. So that in the long run, they won’t be overwhelmed by emotional distress and will be able to jump into any field (whether it be academic or not) with the confidence that they can master it. When a child receives a lot of affection from, let’s say, a mother, the child will naturally grow close to her and come to her in times of loneliness and stress, kind of like a secure base.  There was a study discussing the behavior of these securely attached infants. In an experiment, a group of infants A were conditioned to not see their mothers as secure bases, and the scientists recorded how their behaviors when their mothers left the room they were in (how long they would at her after she left). The group A of infants made no discrimination to their mothers when they left the room; they even showed signs of surprise when their mothers came back. These infants had different expectations about caretakers than babies who were trained traditionally to go to their mothers in times of stress. I think this relates to the idea of attaching to an identity in the second experiment. However, rather than attaching to an internal identity, the child can become attached to an external entity (in this case, a parent). And if a child is pampered heavily, he or she will become dependent on somebody else, which I feel will perpetuate a fixed mindset. So how should we go about parenting? Do we have to sacrifice some of our attention for the long-run goals of independence and malleable mindsets?