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Why Motivation Doesn’t Work

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A Zen master and his student were sitting in the garden of the monastery contemplating the view. Suddenly, they see a rabbit being chased by a fox. The student quickly points out: “I think the rabbit has seen his last day”. Whereby the master replies “That depends on what is stronger – the hunger of the fox or the rabbit’s desire to live”.

In order to get anything done we need motivation. Motivation is what gets us out of bed in the morning, what makes us go to work, what gets us to go out into the world and touch other people and so on. We need motivation for anything we do.

What is Motivation Anyway?

According to Wikipedia, motivation is defined as:

“a psychological feature that arouses an organism to act towards a desired goal and elicits, controls, and sustains certain goal-directed behaviors. It can be considered a driving force; a psychological one that compels or reinforces an action toward a desired goal. For example, hunger is a motivation that elicits a desire to eat. Motivation is the purpose or psychological cause of an action.”

So motivation is our driving force and the reason behind our actions.

There are basically two forces which get us motivated: pleasure and pain. This means that we either do the things we do because we expect to get a good feeling in return or we do it because not doing it would imply too much discomfort. Both are equally important in the motivation process.

Just think about your own life and you will find plenty examples.

Perhaps you go to work because you want money to pay the bills and have a roof over your head. The fear of being poor or homeless is what drives you to discipline yourself to do your job every day.

On the other hand, you might do your job because you know what a difference it makes in other people’s lives and you love the wonderful feeling you get from knowing you have contributed to making the world a better place.

Why Positive Motivation is Overrated

Negative motivation doesn’t have to be discredited. In fact, I believe it’s more powerful than positive motivation. Often times we will only get moving towards our goals when we will feel that we have no other option.

The most impressive changes are achieved by individuals who were fed up with their conditions and made a vow never to have such an experience again. They used negative motivation as an incentive to get them going and to aim as high as possible.

Being motivated positively feels good. But I believe positive motivation alone only widens our options. It doesn’t actually push us to move in the direction of our dreams.

We like what we can achieve, we feel good about it, we have a compelling vision, but we also risk being trapped in comfort. The place where we’re right now feels good. Achieving our dream would feel much better indeed, but we’re comfortable where we are right now too.

I’ve fallen into this trap a few times in my past. I wanted to pursue my passion and the idea of doing that felt really wonderful. I did start taking action towards my dreams, but it was always inconsistent. I kept finding other priorities which held me from dedicating myself completely to my goals. That was because I was pretty content with where my life was and I didn’t feel a sense of urgency attached to achieving my goals.

Well, negative motivation is the opposite of this. It gives you that pressure you need to get moving on a regular basis. I don’t think it’s necessary to mention that my progress during the time in which I used solely positive motivation wasn’t impressive. I did have the vision and it kept me going, but I took action at my leisure and only if I didn’t have any other “important” or interesting thing to do.

After some time, I started developing a sense of urgency attached to my outcome. That happened when I began to feel increasingly dissatisfied with my life conditions.

The same conditions that were comfortable at first, started confining me. I was outgrowing them and I felt that as a growing discomfort. It was time to act and the pain was starting to push me towards my goals. I started refusing to settle with what I had and I needed to do something about it.

That’s when I understood the real power of negative motivation. While positive motivation is all about “it would be nice to have and I really like the perspective”, negative motivation is about “I need to accomplish this, I have no other choice”.

The Right Type of Motivation for You

Some individuals are more inclined towards motivating themselves through pleasure, while others (the majority of people, actually) motivate themselves through pain. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s simply the way in which our brains are hard-wired to work. The smartest thing we can do is to identify our preferred motivational system and use that one for our success.

Motivating ourselves positively when we know our preferred system is negative motivation is really counterintuitive. It will only backfire.

Just because it’s a trend to advocate that you need to feel good about your goals and get into a great state and then start taking action doesn’t mean it’s a method which works for everyone and should be used by everyone. I personally have used negative motivation in the past and it has helped me tremendously from repeating mistakes.

If you are into the Law of Attraction thing you may find this idea a bit difficult to digest, because you’ve been told that you need to use your positive feelings to attract anything you want in your life. You believe that you should take action because you feel inspired by the outcome and it makes you feel good, not because you are afraid of losing something. Feeling pain will only attract more pain.

That’s very true. Your outcome should inspire you and make you feel compelled to take action. It should be a goal which makes you feel excited and eager to get to work on it every single day. So yes, you need to hold positive feelings towards your goal. Working on something while being motivated exclusively by fear will not lead you to a very promising result.

Still, no matter how inspired you feel and how good your desired outcome looks like, you are human. This means that you will inevitably fall from time to time into doubt or temptation. Even if you have a rock-solid faith, you are still prone to getting sidetracked.

On the path to our goal, we may at times lose sight of our beautiful and inspiring vision. And when we do find ourselves in such a situation, it’s the negative motivation which will most likely keep us on track.

We may feel tempted to make an exception from our rules from time to time, because we feel we deserve a break from all our hard work. Still, we know that it may not be a good idea to take that break, because we may lose a lot of what we’ve accomplished up to that point.

In such moments of difficulty and struggle, negative motivation and the pain associated with loss will be the ones who will help us stay focused and continue pursuing the path to our magnificent vision.

Positive and negative motivation should go hand in hand. The most successful people use both to achieve their goals and accomplish their dreams. Together they have a synergistic effect and lead to the best results.

{ 7 comments… add one }

  • Jay Schimke November 10, 2013, 10:46 pm

    Thanks again. For me, ‘motivation’ is linked to ‘what I positively want’. I agree that more than positive motivation is needed to make ‘it’ (what I desire) happen; and I list the Key Resources/Supports needed on my website.

    As for ‘more than motivation alone’, others before me have remarked 1) on the power that ‘faith’ can have in propelling positive action toward desired results, and 2) how securely ‘knowing’ that a desired outcome ‘really can happen’ can powerfully prompt it to unfold/evolve/happen. ‘What it takes’ as a whole to move beyond motivation (or will power) is what I call ‘WELL power’.

    Motivation, when combined with the level of Faith in clearly Knowing, can speed the assembly of other needed resources/supports -*- and enable desired results to fluidly happen. And, despite this fancy string of words, ‘how it happens’ is as elemental, connected, flowing, and far-reaching as life itself (& our own heartbeats).

    As I noted in my recent response to a powerful, heart-connecting video (at …
    The Positive You Cannot Currently See -*- Really Does Soundly Exist (The ‘Sound’ Heartbeat LIVEs On -*-)

    Thanks again for your supportive and valuable contributions as well -*-

    • Daisa Catalina November 11, 2013, 9:19 am

      Thank you for your insights, Jay :).
      I love the idea of combining motivation with faith and “knowing” that a desired outocme can really happen. It does accelerate results.

      Tell me please, how do you succeed in keeping this faith even in the face of adversity?

  • Mihai November 11, 2013, 5:49 pm

    I believe Positive vs. Negative motivation can be associated with “Should” vs. “Must”. If positive motivation can be either of them (should or most, but I think more of a “Should”), usually (if not always), negative motivation it is a “Most”, so is much more powerful.
    Great article and a very nice story. ;)

    • Daisa Catalina November 12, 2013, 9:17 am

      Thank you very much for the appreciation, Mihai :)

  • Jay Schimke November 11, 2013, 6:13 pm

    Thanks again. Regarding your question above to me, while I at times strive to maintain faith -*- and rebuild it as I stumble amidst adversity …, I also occasionally have it restored for me, as if by default. As many others have experienced, I also have ‘joltingly hit the bottom’; and I was somehow ‘supported’ when this unexpectedly happened (as I’ll attempt to describe below). And, while I do still have occasional setbacks, I have survived this … and I have somehow repeatedly regained the perspective and the restored momentum -*- to continue to live and grow.

    For me, an unexpected fall at age 10 resulted in a jarring concussion and apparent slight skull fracture. Although I seemed to recover fairly quickly from this, related neurological symptoms and two resulting surgeries followed across subsequent decades. As I reflect on this childhood fall now, I can sense how this jolt to the head really did powerfully prompt me to seek immediate life support at a deeper level than I and most of my childhood acquaintances had then experienced. While I was alarmed and frightened by this instant blow, it seems I surrendered as I searched for the source that somehow, somewhere … could keep me conscious and alive -*- and somehow I was supported.

    We all have occasional times where we briefly ‘zone out’ in our childhood and adult lives. And rarely do we realize how life seems refreshed and renewed when we wake up or ‘zone in’ again. Given my personal experience, I tend to notice these episodes. And the simple awareness of how the rhythm of life continues to unfold, even when and as I’ve briefly checked out …, somehow serves to restore my faith that something more than my own conscious attention … is at play -*- in keeping me alive.

    So, even when it seems I ‘know’ nothing more than this …, it seems that seed of ‘faith’ continues -*- to supportively assist … to power my ‘motivation’ and my actions -*- as ‘WELL’.

    Thank you for asking. I wish you well -*-

    • Daisa Catalina November 12, 2013, 9:24 am

      Thank you too, Jay, for sharing your story.

      Sometimes I also remember about the higher power that keeps everything alive and this helps me get through tough times. Putting things into perspective is a wonderful way of restoring hope. I’ve noticed that I somehow manage to summon much more strength than I thought I was capable when things aren’t as I want them to be. That strength helps me summon determination and change mysituation.

      Thanks again, Jay. I wish you well too :)

  • Jay Schimke November 12, 2013, 6:41 pm

    Thanks again Daisy.

    We each find support in life in our own individual ways.
    The passage below is from my recent blog article:

    “Where and how you find ‘Life Support’ is uniquely personal to you -*- and is well beyond what others in life can provide to and for you alone. Whether you experience the connection in your heartbeat, through your breath, in the wind, among the cards, with music, across the seasons, from the earth, through the water flow, in the skies, with your Higher Power, or otherwise -*- I_ncrease the Love: You have this Source of Support, for Life.”

    Many in the U.S. (and elsewhere) are feeling disconnected and unheard these days.
    I wrote this article to help us address this. You can find it here:

    Take Care -*-


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