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Monday, September 10, 2012

The Problem with Motivation

It has seemed to me in my practice that I am dealing with more and more persons, particularly over the age of 50 but sometimes far younger, who are having significant problems with a lack of motivation.  Sometimes these are people who have been quite active in the past and accomplished a lot.  Now they find themselves not being very active, and it bothers them.

The Problem

This blog is written mainly for people who have been motivated in the past to do things and who, due to age, depression, or some othe reason find themselves in a temporary state of not being motivated.  The techniques I discuss here are not likely to work in cases of what I might call "primary motivational problems" in which the brain was never very motivated (as in some cases of Autism Spectrum Disorder) or in which some fundamental change has occurred in brain function (as in frontal lobe dementia).  This blog is aimed at persons who have had motivation and find themselves doing less than they did in the past.  Their motivation may wax and wane. Some of these techniques are also likely to help persons with ADHD who have always had some problems with it but who at times can be highly motivated.

So first of all, a definition.  Motivation is the drive that comes from within us to do things, accomplish things, create things, impact our environment, and be active.  It is not simply the same as energy, but it is certainly linked to it.  If one has little energy, then there is likely to be less motivation.  If there is more energy, then it is easier for us to motivate ourselves.

Motivation is linked to the capacity to experience pleasure, but it is again not exactly the same.  If there is no pleasure from doing things, then there is less motivation.

But even without energy and without pleasure, persons who have been active in the past may still have a type of motivation.  They may at least "want to want to do something."  That is, they may be dissatisfied with doing very little and at least wish the situation were different.  They want to be more active and motivated but just don't know how to get there.  In conditions I referred to as "primary" motivational problems, the person no longer wants to be more motivated, and/or they may never have experienced the desire to do more.

Part of my fascination with motivation comes from watching my grandson, who is almost a year old. Motivation is never an issue with him. Never. He always wants to do something. He always wants to climb or explore, or pry the cover off an electrical socket. Ouch. So motivation is not a problem for him. But many of the clients I work with have been motivated in the past but have lost that some time during their lives.

Possible Causes for the Problem

Where does the problem come from?  Well, all emotion and behavior is rooted in the brain.  (We now know that there may be some exceptions to this, but they are not the point here.)  The brain is certainly the culprit for much of our lack of motivation.  Motivation can come from the serotonin system, the domamine system, and the frontal lobes.  For more information, see   .

There are undoubtedly psychological problems which interfere with out motivation.  I think that poor parenting can interfere with our motivation.  All children have to be told, "No, don't do that, don't touch that," etc.  But too much scolding, punishment, and cautioning of children creates excessive inhibition and guilt.  It is likely to carry into adulthood, creating a condition where we are more focussed on minding the rules than exploring and trying new things.

Clearly, for some if not most of my patients, depression has been a problem. It drains motivation. That is one of the symptoms of depression.

And then there is the role of natural aging.  A lowering of motivation appears to be part of the life cycle.  When I look around the assisted living center where my mother stays, most of these people are tired and seemingly not very motivated.  Clearly, there are physical changes in brain and body which have led to their inactivity.  Changes in the white matter of the frontal lobes of the brain may be partly responsible for low motivation in later years.  But on the other hand, we all know that some older people stay mentally and physically active and alert.  My mother reads a book a week.  At 86, she can hold her own in any discussion.  She is not as motivated as she used to be, but she is very inquisitive. 

It is not clear that we need to accept decreased motivation with aging.  Perhaps we do.  But I am of the same mind as the poet Dylan Thomas who wrote,  "Do not go gentle into that good night--rage, rage against the dying of the light."  I don't believe in dwindling away. We don't have to be rocket man over the grand canyon to stay active. (If you don't know what I'm talking about here, you really need to see the video on Youtube of the man flying  over the Grand Canyon. ).

But age undoubtedly has some effect on us.  Chuck Yeager, the famous test pilot is reputed to have said, "There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots."

Our Environment Changes Too

There is a scene in the movie Chariots of Fire where they are entering Cambridge, and there are a variety of activities the freshmen can join in  It's a scene that reminded me of my own high school and college years.   That type of cafeteria of available activites is usually not spread before us in later life.  And we don't have the energy to pursue all of those activities.

But maybe it would be nice if there was a "high school" or "college" for us to attend our whole lives long.  There would be plenty of people to meet and associate with and plenty of activities to engage in.  There might be less premature aging and fewer couch potatoes among us if we had more choices. Some large churches provide this type of atmosphere.  This kind of social setting can give us social and intellectual stimulation. There would always be clubs to join, and things to try out.

Then there is the issue of feeling like what we do matters.  When we work at a job, there is often an overall sense that no matter whether we like our job or not, it matters to somebody.  A customer's roof gets put on and protects against the weather, or it doesn't get put on and the customer suffers.  Somebody's clothes get cleaned or they don't have the clean clothes to wear.  A customer at a restaurant is served, or they don't get fed a meal.  Once we retire, we are mostly doing things for ourselves.  Our behaviors don't necessarily "attach to" or relate to the outside world.  As a result, there is no boss who is going to be pleased or displeased and there is no issue of whether we get a paycheck or not.  Who is going to care and who is going to be affected if we clean out the garage or just watch TV instead?

I sometimes wonder if the active, motivated state that we have during a regular work week somehow carries over to mowing or cleaning the house on weekends.  In other words, I think that it is good for our brains to have to do things and work hard; it is my belief that staying motivated and active through the work week keeps our brains "tuned up" so to speak, perhaps through greater use of the neurons and/or through greater blood flow.

The Negative Side of Habits.

As we will see, habits can be a positive effect on motivation; but just for a moment, let's admit that maybe there is a downside to certain habits.  I suspect that building up habit patterns over a life time may interfere with breaking out of ruts and trying new things.   For example, if our habit is to have breakfast with the guys at McDonalds on Saturday, get a haircut, mow the lawn, and then drink a beer Saturday evening, followed by church and watching NFL football on Sunday, could those habits interfere with acquiring new behaviors?  Possibly.  On the one hand, these are good things to do, and it helps us to be able to do them easily without really having to decide to do them.  However, some behavioral habit patterns may also prevent us from trying new things in life.

Some Techniques to Work on Motivation

Here are some possible ways of motivating yourself when you feel like you are not really doing as much as you want to in life.

1. Commit yourself to a goal or action in front of other people--Let other people know what you plan to do.  It motivates some people to follow through when they have made a public or semi-public commitment to a course of action.  ("I am going to build a new deck for my house; I am going to take a course in French. Etc.")

Or similarly, belong to a group that encourages you towards your goal and to whom you report your success. Psychologist M.E.P. Seligman writes about an online group to which he belongs. All the members encourage each other to stay on their exercise regimens through email.

2. Reinforce yourself--Give yourself something out of the ordinary for following through.  The trickiest part of this strategy is not rewarding yourself with the same reward at other times.  For example, if the reward for cleaning out the car is a Starbucks coffee, then it is important to not have Starbucks in the week or so leading up to the time to clean the car.

3. Creative procrastination.  If you just can't seem to set that dentist's appointment for next week, set it up for a few weeks out, or even a few months out.  It may seem easier.  Then when the time rolls around, just keep the appointment.

4. Do a little bit.  Sometimes doing just a little bit of something can be energizing.  After doing a little bit, one may find it easier to take the next few steps.  If not, then at least something has been done.  If necessary, do the simplest, most minimal amount just to get started.  If you need to have an appliance repairman come to the house, put the phone book on the desk in plain sight.  This may lead you to a chain of behaviors that eventually gets the appliance repaired.

5. Get your spouse to give you a nudge.  Tell him or her what you are trying to do, and get them to remind you or prompt you to do what you really want to do.  When they do remind you, don't take it out on them.  They are just doing what you told them to do.

6. Find a different time of day.  This blog on motivation has taken me a long time.  I find that I just don't have the motivation to work on this blog about motivation in the evening.  :)  But it has written itself in the morning.  Find the right time of day.

7. Build habits. While I wrote about the downside of habits above, the upside is probably greater than the downside. If appropriate, find something which is done every day at the same time, or perhaps every week at the same time. If you build a habit, you don't have to make a conscious decision to do it. It is my habit to get on the computer to pay bills, work on blogs, and balance my checkbook every morning. That is a good habit. I don't have to decide what to do; I just do it. And as a result, it gets done and without having to force myself to do it.

8. Become part of a group which has regular activities; this way you stay active without having to plan every single activity yourself.  And there will be people there expecting to see you.

9. Go places that would stimulate you to want to do more.  If you are an amateur astronomer, and there is a company that sells telescopes, go to their showroom.  If you are a sportsman, go to a Bass Pro Shop.  If you are an artist, visit an arts supply store.  See if this stimulates your interest.

10.  Use reminders.  Put up pictures to remind you of things you enjoy doing.  If you have a boat in storage and never use it, put up a picture of it in your office or home to remind you how much fun you have with it.

11.  One of my favorite strategies is taking lessons. But I will admit that it can be expensive. My piano and painting lessons are not too bad, but the flying lessons are killing me.  But not only am I motivated to do my homework and keep doing my hobbies, it makes me feel good that I am learning new things.

12.Schedule activities. Have regularly recurring activities. Again, this way, you don't really have to make a decision to do something. And you don't have to decide what to do; and you don't have to work as hard making arrangements for the activities.

13.  Clear away the negative thoughts that would interfere with trying things.  What kinds of negative thoughts?  Well, I don't know what yours would be, but here are some that people might encounter:
     I'm too old for this.
     I'll fail.
     I'll look stupid.
     I'll never stick with it.
     This is for young people, not for me.
Then there are other negative thoughts that may have some validity that you may need to find a way of solving:
      I don't have the money for this.
     I will pay for it tomorrow with aches and pains. 
     I'm not as mentally sharp as you used to be.
Some of these thoughts may have some validity.  But that doesn't mean that they have to totally dominate your decision making and prevent you from doing some of the things you want to do.  Just make the necessary adjustments to the activity so that maybe it will work for you.