Motivation is Overrated: Here’s What Works Instead

On the power of showing up and behavioral activation

Brad Stulberg

--

Conventional wisdom says that positive thinking, enthusiasm, and inspiration are key to living a good and productive life. But that’s not entirely true, at least not according to the latest psychological science. A more accurate representation of the relationship between motivation and action is this: you don’t need to feel good to get going — you need to get going to give yourself a chance at feeling good.

You cannot control your thoughts or feelings. Though many people think otherwise, it is impossible. (If you need proof, close your eyes for the next thirty seconds, try hard not to think of a pink bear, and see what happens.) What you can control, however, is how you respond to your thoughts and feelings — that is, your actions. And it is your actions that give rise to your moods, not the other way around.

In the scientific literature this is called “behavioral activation,” and it is backed by hundreds of studies. In practice, behavioral activation is a central tenet of groundedness, the ability to stand strong amidst all kinds of weather, and the dynamic between inner and outer strength.

In the rest of this piece we’ll discuss how to skillfully respond to negative feelings, proceed with how to skillfully respond to negative thoughts, and wrap up with a unified theory for living a deep and meaningful life.

Working With Negative Feelings

If I had to feel motivated to start a workout I would have done 23 workouts last year, not 230. If I had to feel inspired to start writing, well, there’d be hardly any writing. No doubt, the days you feel great are great! Ride those waves. But it’s not the end of the world if you don’t feel great either.

The extreme example of clinical depression is useful. For many people, it manifests as a feeling of nothing mattering, an intense apathy, a fatigue so bad it is painful. But depression hates a moving target. The best way out is to force yourself to get going, even, and perhaps especially, when you don’t want to. What makes states of mind like depression so challenging and insidious is that inherent to the condition is a brain that says, “I can’t…

--

--

Brad Stulberg

Bestselling author of Master of Change and The Practice of Groundedness