Hacking Emotions to Kickstart Motivation



Here is a great hack to kickstart that list of goals for 2014. It is based on the most widely researched branch of clinical psychology (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – CBT) and is sure to help in implementing your to-do list. Before we get there, let’s briefly talk about motivation as a habit.


What is motivation, anyway?

Many people mistake motivation as a source of action. They wait for the ‘right’ moment to start a project, a ‘right’ mood to tackle a challenge, or the ‘right’ energy level to finally start going to the gym. This perspective leaves us vulnerable to a whole list of excuses, obstacles or distractions that we can rationalize as reasons not to take action. But more specifically, this perspective results from a misattribution of what motivation really is.


Motivation is a not an emotional or psychological state per se, but a label we apply to the successful repetition of a behaviour.


Think about this for a second. When you first start a new behaviour – learning to meditate, designing your first website, tackling a new project at work – are you really in a state of motivation, or are you focused on the outcomes of the action? For many of our biggest goals, we put up with short term uncomfortable feelings in pursuit of a long term vision. This is because creating value in the world takes time. Occasionally, starting a new behaviour is coupled with a sense of enthusiasm, but this too is primarily tied with the longer vision of where the action will lead.

The takeaway from this is not to wait until you feel motivated, but to restructure your thoughts around a new behaviour to take action, then use strategies to make that action into a habit. When people look at us, they’ll see a continuity of action towards a goal and call us motivated.


How do we change our emotions to help kickstart a habit?

The first thing you need to do is view the thought “I don’t feel good to take action” as a cognitive distortion – an irrational thought that your mind is using to justify your current state and protect against potential uncomfortable feelings at some point in the future. In CBT this is called Emotional Reasoning and has been shown to be a primary cause of inaction that is often experienced with depression. It’s based on the idea that emotions are reactions to thoughts, which always precede and elicit how we feel. As such, changing your thinking can go a long way to changing how you feel.

Next, re-evaluate your distorted thought and replace it with a rational one. For example, “I’m not in the mood to meditate” might become “I might not feel great at the moment, but learning to meditate is important to me. I know the value of it on my well-being and know that it is capable of changing negative moods into positive ones.”. The key here is to try and remove the block by telling your subconscious mind that actions are elicited for their desired consequences, not because an emotional state propels us to behave.

This exercise can be performed in your head, but to get the most out of it try writing down the distorted thought, the name of the distortion (i.e. Emotional Reasoning), and the rational response to it. This will help feed the information into your subconscious and go a long way to disrupting the thought pattern.

The last step – you guessed it – is to take a small action towards the new habit. If you’re learning to meditate, stay where you are and take 3 deep breathes or do a minute of square breathing. How does that make you feel? Better than before? Is it easier for you now to now sit down and focus on your breathing for 5 minutes?

If so, congratulations. You’ve just created the start of a new habit and motivated yourself into action.

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