ONE VERY common motivation-killer is trying
to deal with too much at one time and feeling overwhelmed. The
two solutions to that, as weve just covered are:
1. Prune your goals
2. Make a list, and put it in order
Those two work because they help keep your
challenge level just right. If the challenge is too great, it
produces stress and demoralization in other words, it
is demotivating. If the challenge is too small, however, it makes
you feel bored and that is also demotivating.
To keep your motivation high, to keep your
interest, to keep your concentration engaged, youve got
to keep your level of challenge in that middle place where your
skill is just about even with the skill required. That's difficult
sometimes. But youre getting the tools here to make it
The first step is to understand what makes
a goal challenging.
Whether or not something is a challenge
is determined by how much skill it requires to do successfully.
If something is very challenging, it requires a lot of skill
or capability. If it is not very challenging, it requires very
little skill or capability.
example, in an experiment, every day for four days, two groups
of women did as many situps as they could in 90 seconds. This
was a challenge. This was a test of their physical capability.
But the purpose of the experiment was to test two different ways
to deal with a challenge, and it gives us an insight into how
to keep the level of the challenge just right.
The first group was merely told to do their
very best to do as many situps as they could.
The researchers gave the second group specific
targets, such as do ten percent more than you did last
Which group do you think did more situps?
The first group averaged 43 situps, and the number didnt
change over the four days. The second group averaged 56 situps
by the last day. They had become more capable as the experiment
went on. Why? Because they managed their challenge. Doing
your best is almost impossible. Its too vague. If
youre doing situps and your muscles are hurting, can you
do one more situp? Probably, but you might hurt yourself. So
where do you stop? If your life depended on it, you could probably
do even one more. Its a challenge that is too open-ended.
There is really no way to succeed, and that isnt very motivating.
On the other hand, doing ten percent
more puts the challenge within reach. It is still challenging,
but it is such a small improvement, it seems within reach, so
it isnt an overwhelming challenge. And they could succeed.
They could accomplish the goal of ten percent more. A target
that seems challenging but within reach is motivating. The challenge
level is kept just right.
Last week I had been editing my web site
all day, so I took a break. It was early evening, and I was going
to sit down and edit some more, but Id had enough. My brain
felt drained. I was fairly close to finishing one page, however,
so I thought, I could just finish that page and then call
it a day.
Instantly I had plenty of motivation. Why?
Because I put the challenge within reach. It wasnt all
or nothing. Working for some unknown length of time made
me tired just to think of it, kind of like the instruction to
do your best. But the possibility of working for
a limited time to finish a specific page was motivating, and
I was able to squeeze a little more from myself.
You can manage your challenge in many different
ways, and it will have a good influence on your motivation level.
Youll get more done and youll get it done faster,
and the whole thing will feel better.
You keep the challenge just right by aiming
for goals that are difficult but within reach if you really try.
Difficult but attainable goals keep you
at the upper edge of your skill level, and when youre in
that zone, your concentration and motivation is at its highest.
You get a lot done and you feel good doing it.
Computer game programmers have mastered
the technique of always keeping the player at the upper edge
of his skill. The game carefully manages your challenge for you.
As soon as you master one level, you get to go to a slightly
more challenging level. People spend hours at a time totally
focused, totally motivated, and they do it voluntarily
they do it for fun. It is so motivating, some people often feel
they shouldnt be doing it, but they do it anyway because
the feeling of being in that zone of a perfect level of challenge
is very pleasurable. Its almost addicting, it feels so
If you manage the challenges of your goal
with equal care, your goal can become very pleasurable, and even
addicting. If you manage the challenge so it stays in that place
between stressful and boring if you can manage to keep
yourself at the upper edge of your skill your goal can
become totally engrossing and intensely attractive. And of course,
as you do that, your skill level increases, so you have to keep
adjusting your challenge upward to keep you motivated.
MORE THAN TIME SPENT
Scientists have tried to figure out why
some people who spend a lot of time doing something, like golfing
for example, get very good at it, while others, who also spend
a lot of time, never get much better. What theyve discovered
is that it isnt time that counts but what they called effortful
study means a person tries to push herself to the upper reaches
of her skill (playing against people slightly better than she
is, for example) and when she beats them, finding someone a little
bit better than that, etc., all the while concentrating on improving;
studying if necessary, watching films of her strokes, etc.
This is in sharp contrast to someone who
really loves to golf and plays every weekend with a buddy who
has about equal skill. Sometimes one wins, and sometimes the
other wins. Niether have much motivation to get tremendously
better because then theyd beat their friend all the time,
and what fun would that be?
The two are motivated, but they are motivated
to hang out together rather than motivated to play their way
into the big leagues. They might both get slightly better over
time, and they might not. But their enjoyment will come mostly
from their relationship, not from the accomplishment of some
goal. The challenge is fairly low because theyre not aiming
at a difficult goal.
Your feeling of motivation will depend
on whether youre aiming too high or too low. For the highest
motivation in the accomplishment of your goal, it has to be just
right for you. Set your sights on the upper edge of what you
believe is within your reach. Then the goal will feel challenging,
but not impossible.
Feeling your goal is impossible, or even
suspecting it might be impossible, will kill your motivation.
Remember the issue of helplessness or demoralization we talked
about in Antivirus For Your Mind? Here's the same issue, seen
from a different angle, so to speak. You might set a goal that
is actually possible for you, but if you dont believe it
is possible, you'll feel your goal is hopeless. You will feel
helpless to achieve it, so your motivation will be weak. Even
if you really could achieve it.
Julian Simon, the author of Good Mood, developed a model of how to manage
the challenge. Its a good way to think about whats
going on. Simon says the actual state compared with the benchmark
state is what determines your happiness.
In other words, what determines whether
you feel good or not is how you compare where you are with where
you want to be. It's how you compare the actual state to the
benchmark state. Let me explain what this means.
The actual state is your real circumstances
and your feelings. The benchmark state is what you want your
circumstances to be, and how you want to feel. In other words,
the benchmark state is how you think you should feel, where you
think you ought to be at this stage of your life, where you wanted
to be by the time you were your age, etc. Its a benchmark.
Its a goal you have decided to reach. Its a state
you want to be in.
With Julian Simons basic understanding,
we can now look at the different aspects of the antivirus for the mind and see them more
clearly. It also casts light on our project here: How to keep
the level of challenge just right.
David Burns, author of Feeling Good, works on the actual state.
His emphasis is on what he calls distorted thinking,
that is, misperceiving the actual state. His method is to dig
up and root out mistakes in thinking. Cognitive distortions (thought-mistakes)
are a misperception of the actual state.
A pioneer in the cognitive therapy field,
Albert Ellis, works on modifying your benchmark state so it's
According to Ellis, nothing is wrong with
goals and expectations. Where we go wrong is demanding that the
actual state matches the benchmark by thinking in terms of should,
ought, and must commanding and demanding that the world
live up to your desires and expectations.
It is unrealistic to insist that reality
should and must match your ideals. For example, is it really
realistic to expect all people to like you all the time? No.
A benchmark like that will create unnecessary suffering. Every
time it seemed someone didn't like you, you would feel bad.
As another example: Is it realistic to
expect your goal will be easy to accomplish? No. A benchmark
like that would make you likely to feel demoralized by even a
Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism, deals with your sense of
hopelessness or helplessness about achieving the benchmark. If
you feel demoralized, you have one of three options (besides
simply getting depressed):
1. Change your benchmark (lower it to something
you truly believe you could achieve)
2. Correct your misperception of your ability
so you recognize you are not helpless about achieving your goal
3. Correct your misperception of reality
so your recognize the accomplishment of your goal isnt
You can see that #2 and #3 are the same
as David Burns work. Your sense of hopelessness is a subcategory
of the actual state. In other words, you can correct your misperception
by asking yourself, "Am I actually helpless? Is it really
hopeless?" Or have you misperceived the real situation?
Do you perhaps have more ability than youve given yourself
credit for? Are the barriers really as huge and insurmountable
as you believe they are?
Another category of cognitive therapy
is the whole genre of motivational seminars, success books, and
motivating audio programs. Most motivational material directly
addresses the way you think. Much of the motivational or positive
thinking material aims to bring back your determination
to help you believe you arent helpless that
you can accomplish your goal.
One of the ways the writers of "success
books" help you believe you can achieve your goal is telling
true stories of people who had worse setbacks than you (sometimes
much worse) and who had bigger goals than you (sometimes far
bigger) but who somehow achieved them. Hearing these kinds of
stories puts your own goals and setbacks into perspective enough
to eliminate your feelings of helplessness. It makes you correct
your opinion of your own ability. After reading these stories,
you begin to think maybe youre not incapable after all.
Maybe your dream is not impossible to achieve after all. Your
motivation resurges. And because you feel motivated, you get
off your butt and get back to work with determination.
And what do you know? Usually the motivational
writers were right you really had misperceived the hopelessness!
You werent helpless after all! You can if you believe you
can, they say, which is really another way of saying that your
belief that you cant is mistaken. And that is almost always
a true statement.
Think about the significance of this. If
you actually achieve your goal, then your belief that you couldnt
was a cognitive distortion, a mistaken notion, an unreasonable
and premature assumption. (See a list of the common mistakes people make
in their thinking.)
material is considered by many to be bootstrapping.
That is, the whole enterprise is fake. It is merely giving people
false hopes. You can't pick yourself up by your own bootstraps.
Can you? But the accusation falls on deaf ears because in fact,
it works. Thousands of very successful people will acknowledge
motivational material as being pivotal to their success.
Motivational stuff is a kind of bootstrapping
in the sense that what allowed those people to overcome their
impossible obstacles was nothing more than their
own belief that they could. The human will is a powerful force
and once someone has definitely made up their mind they can and
will achieve something no matter what, they often find a way.
Determination gets those creative juices flowing, and unsolvable
problems get solved.
Another way to look at this (besides as
a kind of bootstrapping) is that the original belief (that the
goal was impossible) was false. The original belief was unrealistically
In other words, the person who had previously
believed the goal was impossible had irrationally jumped to a
conclusion without sufficient evidence and held the conclusion
with unjustifiable certainty. He underestimated his own ability.
Or he overestimated the obstacles in his way.
SUCCESS THROUGH A POSITIVE MENTAL ATTITUDE
I think the motivational material of Brian
Tracy, Napoleon Hill, Earl Nightingale, and others like them
have been under-acknowledged and under-used by academics and
therapists as legitimate tools for overcoming feelings of defeat.
Lets take Napoleon Hill as an example.
His work focuses on removing hopelessness and helplessness by
making you realize the benchmark can become actual with sufficient
determination, and that your degree of determination is within
your power to change (with autosuggestion, for example). His work focuses
on the most important cause of defeat: The belief that the cause
of a setback is permanent.
This same factor is also an important component
of Martin Seligmans work, and one of the elements of David
Burns work. When you decide the cause of a setback is permanent,
it takes the wind out of your sails. It removes your fighting
spirit. You feel defeated, depressed, or demoralized, whether
your goal is getting rich or getting married or feeling happy.
You feel defeated, you feel your goal is hopeless. So you give
And yet, if you are able to argue with
your defeatist thoughts, you can often renew your willingness
to persist, and that often turns the tide. You start achieving
results. The results reinforce your belief that you are not helpless
and your situation is not hopeless. It creates an upward spiral
of accomplishment and motivation.
In other words, to put it in Julian Simons
model, you have a benchmark state you want to achieve. But you
think your actual state (several setbacks in a row, for example)
makes the benchmark impossible to achieve. Both Seligman and
Hill address this issue, but in different ways.
For example, say your benchmark is to have
a good relationship with someone who loves you. But your actual
state, as far as youre concerned, is that you have just
been divorced and your ex-spouse said really bad things about
you, so you're feeling unlovable and you feel nobody will ever
love you. But you want with all your heart to love and be loved.
The actual state and the benchmark state are so far apart, it
makes you depressed. You feel defeated. You dont think
your goal is really possible for you.
Burns might say, You are not correct
about your unlovability. If you corrected your assessment, you
would realize it is possible someone could love you. Then you
might act differently, treat yourself and others differently,
and because of that difference, you may be able to achieve the
benchmark state. Burns can go into specifics to find what
mistakes you're making in your thinking, like overgeneralizing
or jumping to hasty conclusions.
Seligman might say, It is not necessarily
true that you are permanently unloveable. Perhaps you could change
your behavior so that you were more loveable.
Napoleon Hill would approach this differently.
He would tell you to imagine your goal clearly and tell yourself
constantly that you can do it, and to take lots of action that
will move you toward that goal, no matter what obstacles you
run into. Overcome them and keep moving. You can do it.
These three different approaches are all
trying to accomplish the same thing if you look at motivation
and demoralization as two ends of a single scale. Strong motivation
is on the high end and depression is on the low end. What the
different approaches have in common is attempting to move you
up that scale.
One of the most important ways to move
up the scale is to keep the level of challenge just right. One
way to do that is to correct your mistaken assumption that your
goal is out of reach. Another way is to make the goal smaller
so it seems more within the reach of your ability. Another way
is to convince yourself you can do it even though it feels out
of reach. Another way is to increase your ability so the goal
feels less challenging.
One of the things all these have in common
is they put the accomplishment of the goal within your own control.
When you feel helpless, you dont feel you have enough ability
to control the outcome. If you feel your goal is hopeless, you
have decided the goal is too big and you cant control the
outcome of it.
A feeling of control that you have
a say in how things turn out, and that youre not counting
on outside forces to make things happen is vital to a
feeling of motivation.
The life raft saga of Dougal Robertson and his family has many
illustrations of this principle. For example, they had been adrift
on their raft and dingy for seven days, alone in the vast Pacific
ocean, hungry, thirsty, and desperate. Then they spotted a ship!
It was only about three miles away. Trembling, Dougal hurriedly
lit flares, one after the other, and they all yelled and screamed
at the top of their lungs, and waved their arms frantically.
Dougal even tried to light their little makeshift sail on fire
(it only melted), but the ship kept steadily on its course and
disappeared on the horizon.
Up until this point, Dougal had been counting
on rescue. He felt the only chance they had of making it home
alive was to be rescued. But as he sat there, exhausted and deeply
disappointed, something happened to him, he says, that
changed the whole aspect of our predicament. If these poor bloody
seamen couldnt rescue us," he wrote later, "then
we would have to make it on our own and to hell with them.
Dougals attitude changed immediately
and permanently on the spot. What had changed? He had put his
goals into his own control. To accomplish his goal, he decided,
he wouldnt rely on the alertness of others or the chance
of a ship. It would be in his control.
Dougal wrote, We would survive without
them, yes, and that was the word from now on, survival
not rescue or help or dependence of any
kind, just survival.
This change in his attitude changed his
motivation immediately. I felt the strength flooding through
me, he wrote of this event, lifting me from the depression
of disappointment to a state of almost cheerful abandon.
His change of mind had an immediate consequence.
Later that very day, a large sea turtle bumped into their raft.
As Dougal says, The day before, I would have said, Leave
it, we cant manage that, but now things were different.
If they were to survive until landfall, they would need to eat.
They managed to catch it and haul it aboard,
all eighty pounds of it. They badly needed food, and now they
had it. But how to slaughter it? Twenty-four hours previously
I would not have had the stomach for such a bloody business...
But his attitude had changed. He was determined now. They would
make it home alive no matter what anyone else did.
The same principle applies to you and your
goals, too. Make sure your goal is within your control. Concern
yourself with what you can do, not what others might do
it raises your fighting spirit and motivates you to act. It keeps
the level of challenge just right. The moment you start to feel
the outcome of your goal is not in your control, your motivation
will begin to fade. If the achievement of your goal is out of
your control it means you feel you either dont have enough
skill yet, or no amount of skill would accomplish it. Either
way spells doom to your motivation.
And keep your attention on what you can
do. If your thoughts stray to what cant be done or what
you feel is impossible, the level of perceived challenge will
rise too high, causing you to lose your motivation.
In all these ways, cultivate your motivation
by keeping the challenge level just right.
This is the third of seven principles of