Growing motivation

Psychology columnist Chris Johnstone explores how cultivating motivation can increase our satisfaction in life

If I were to run a course on ‘having a brilliant life’, one of the first areas I’d look at is motivation. When you hear the inner voice that asks, ‘why bother?’ you need an answer more compelling than any objections. Otherwise apathy can empty your life of energy and meaning. The good news is that motivation is something we can grow, and learnable skills can help us do this.

Evidence that motivation is growable comes from the addictions treatment field, where an approach called Motivational Interviewing is of proven benefit and widely used. In one research study, alcohol dependent clients given just two sessions of motivational interviewing before starting residential treatment showed higher levels of motivation during treatment and were more likely to benefit from it. There have now been hundreds of research studies showing Motivational Interviewing helps people make positive changes, not only with addictions recovery, but in a wide range of other areas too. So what happens in Motivational Interviewing, and can we learn to do it ourselves?

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A central insight is that when we hear ourselves express the reasons why a course of action is important to us, we effectively talk ourselves into doing it. By making our own argument for a change, we reinforce our motivation. Practitioners using this approach are trained to be curious about the reasons why someone might want to change, moving away from trying to persuade them and instead listening with interest to what their clients say. The skill here is to become a ‘motivational listener’ by drawing out the motives that inspire and energise determined action.

Is there a change you’d love to be more motivated to make? If so, you can interview yourself in ways that reinforce your motivation. A simple starting question might be ‘why is this important to me?’ You could write a whole page in response, seeing what words naturally follow a sentence that starts: “This is important to me because…”. Whenever you seem to run out of words, start the sentence again and see what else comes.

Dealing with mixed feelings

Motivation grinds to a halt when there are also convincing reasons for not doing something. Being stuck between competing agendas saps our energy and makes it difficult to move forward. But this is something we can work with. When there’s ambivalence, you can explore this and often find a way through. If different parts of you want different things, listen to the competing pushes and pulls to work out what is calling you most strongly. A useful image here is a set of scales, with reasons for change on one side, and reasons against change on the other. How do you feel on balance?

“If you want a brilliant life, become interested in the purposes that call you”

Once you’ve decided what you want to do, it’s common that your enthusiasm is sapped by a lack of confidence that you’ll succeed. In order to move towards any goal, two things are needed: having the will and finding the way. Will is about motivation while way is about ability. These two influence each other. For example, discovering a better way of doing something can boost your enthusiasm for doing it. But you’re unlikely to look for a better way unless you have the will to do this.

It is motivation that starts the journey of moving in the directions that make your life more satisfying. If you want a brilliant life, become interested in the purposes that call you, make space for them, and see where they take you.

Chris Johnstone is author of Find Your Power, and co-author of Active Hope.

Photo credit: © Steven Depolo

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