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Motivation

2 Things You Need to Know: How to Hack Motivation With Avoidance and Approach Goals

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Motivation is a sneaky beast. It can hide in plain sight, and it can express itself when we least expect it. Motivation (and its frequent companion inspiration) can often elude us for days, weeks or years, only to jump out at in an instant with such force that we drop everything in order to capture it before we lose the moment.

Often times, these random “attacks of motivation” happen with little warning, when we are least prepared to take advantage of them. For instance, how many of you have had a moment of clarity or have felt motivated to act on some idea while in the shower? How many of you have perhaps had a similar feeling when going for a run or driving to work? Motivation can come at any time and in any way. Unfortunately, the very randomness keeps us from being able to act effectively to get more done. So what do we do to take hold of our lives and guide our own sources of motivation?

To get more done in less time, we need to understand the power of two types of motivation. Once we explore each of these types of motivation, we must learn to set goals around both to create positive feedback loops. This will make it easier for us to develop stronger motivational habits and take control of what motivates us.

While there are many ways to define motivation, today I will focus on two types: avoidance and approach motivation. The way we will define both types of motivation provides an in-depth look into how we see the world, and ultimately how successful we will be in it.

1. What is avoidance motivation?

Avoidance motivation is part of what makes us human, and it is integral to our survival. This type of motivation helps us avoid negative experiences across psychological, physical, and social boundaries. It’s what told us to run away from saber-toothed tigers or to not dive into shark infested waters looking for food. Clearly, avoidance is a good way of staying safe in a world of unknowns. Unsure about what your boss thinks about your last project? It’s best not to ask to avoid disappointment or emotional trauma. Considering whether to apply for a job in another country? Best to avoid it in case you like the culture.

Unfortunately, avoidance motivation often has negative consequences. It makes us more likely to avoid tasks that we know rationally will be positive experiences for us. It makes us avoid going for that big promotion we aren’t necessarily qualified for. It makes us not get on that airplane to travel to that new new country and experience that new culture.

“Press forward. Do not stop, do not linger in your journey, but strive for the mark set before you.” — George Whitefield

2. What is approach motivation?

Approach motivation is any type of motivation that drives action and forward progress towards a certain outcome or activity. It’s what pushes the nerdy high school kid to talk to their crush in the hallway. It’s what drives the explorer to see what the view looks like from the top of the tallest mountain. It’s the itch the traveller gets when they go too long without taking a trip. It’s what inspired humans to explore outer space. Rather than avoiding certain activities, approach motivation drives individuals to explore and become more productive in their day-to-day existence.

When we consider approach motivation, the most often cited examples relate to feelings of opportunity, fulfilment and exploration. When you see an opportunity to achieve some goal that falls along Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, you are more likely to take action. When you see the opportunity to grow your pool of resources, that may motivate you to take action (strengthening your ability to provide food and shelter to yourself and your family). Similarly, you may see the opportunity to gain recognition or acclaim through appearing on television or writing a blog post. This feeds your ability to achieve self-fulfilment, belonging and perhaps even self-actualisation.

“Don’t watch the clock; do what it does. Keep going.” — Sam Levenson

So how do we take this information and action it? How do we make it useful on a day-to-day basis?

The best way to leverage the lessons of approach and avoidance motivation is to set goals that align with each type of motivation. Take the following approach to help guide you on the path to taking control of what motivates you:

First, understand the difference between avoidance and approach goals. Most people will find that they tend to avoid activities that are unpleasant to them, all the while approaching those activities that are most enjoyable or fulfilling. Let’s think of approach goals as positive (i.e. finishing a project ahead of schedule, finding a new job) and avoidance goals as negative (i.e. avoiding drinking too much, avoiding talking in public).

Avoidance goals are goals for reducing, avoiding or eliminating undesired outcomes. While these goals are powerful, they are often harder to accomplish. You may want to cut down the number of sweets you eat each day, the number of cigarettes you smoke, the total time you spend watching Netflix. These types of goals work, sometimes, but they are much more likely to stick if you spin them to an approach goal with a positive spin.

Approach goals aim to guide someone to reach or maintain a desired outcome. People are more likely to commit to completing tasks and taking part in activities that are positioned in a positive light. Approach goals become more potent motivational goals because they focus on action and activity around what can be done to reach a goal.

If you want to get better at setting and following through on your personal and career goals, make a point of creating both approach and avoid goals and being aware of the subtle differences between both.

Do you have any approach or avoidance goals that have been particularly challenging to reach? Would love to hear about them!

McVal is the founder of We Write For Growth, a platform for businesses to connect with talented writers and researchers and growth hackers. He is also the author of How to Make $2,000 a Month Online and Start Up your Life: Why we don’t know what we want, and how to set goals that really matter. McVal writes about motivation, decision making, and strategic thinking. He graduated from UC Santa Barbara in 2011 with a degree in Spanish, and has since worked as a market researcher and business consultant in Washington D.C., New York City and London. You can reach him on Twitter @mcval or on IG @mcvaliant. 

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Alysha

    Apr 19, 2018 at 7:55 am

    I’ve been struggling with this now that i started a remote job. Thanks for the great insight! Going to work on this!

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Motivation

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All my childhood, I studied hard and got good grades because I was motivated to escape my mother’s disappointment and wrath on failure. Others in my class were motivated by their desire to excel and get into a good college. Still, others were doing it to maintain their social status and to be recognized as excellent students. The word “motivation” holds a different meaning for different people, as what motivates you may not be sufficient for me and vice versa.  (more…)

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8 Things You Can Do Right Now to Get Your Motivation Back

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Welcome to our new normal. A time in our lives that a year ago we certainly didn’t see coming that most of us probably wouldn’t have chosen for ourselves; but here we are. As the days away from each other carry on and more and more bad news comes our way, it’s easy to lose your motivation and waste energy doing things that aren’t helpful like worrying and fighting with people on the internet instead.

Nearly half of Americans report the coronavirus crisis is harming their mental health, according to the Washington Post. While many of us had routines set up to deal with stress in the past, the stress we are facing during this time is unlike anything we’ve experienced before. It’s easy to find yourself in a downward spiral, and that’s the most challenging time to stop the momentum and turn things around. If that’s the case, keep it simple and start to reach for little things to help you feel better and climb your way out.

Here’s a reminder of a few simple things you can do right now to start getting positive momentum going your way:

1. Find someone who was in a similar place and made it to the other side

Whether you’ve been unmotivated to workout, eat healthy, make sales calls or simply do anything, you can find someone who has been there and made it to the other side. Look up some great TED talks, go on YouTube and look up people that motivate you, google them to find their websites. There are short speeches and much longer talks all over the internet, you just need to find someone who you relate to that speaks to you.

2. Do something that you love

When we’re unmotivated, it’s easy to get out of the habit of doing what we love. Sometimes just getting out of bed or away from the tv feels like a chore. Think back to a time in your life when you felt great – what were you doing? What do you absolutely love to do that if you had the time, you would do all day and not realize any time had passed at all? 

Figure out a way to do whatever that is, or a modified version of it if it is something that you aren’t able to do at the present time. Spending time doing what you love will get your mind off of anything that is wrong and allow you to find inspiration.

“If something is important enough, even if the odds are stacked against you, you should still do it.” – Elon Musk

3. Don’t overcomplicate it

Keep it simple. When we’re stuck in a rut, we’ll give ourselves every excuse to not do something. Say you’ve gained some weight; you might tell yourself you need to find the perfect trainer and wait until you have time to cook your meals from scratch each night before you do anything else. Stop trying to overcomplicate it and keep it simple by finding one thing you can do right now, however small that may be. You don’t have to wait until the timing is perfect and the stars align for you to start moving in the direction you want to go.  

4. Get up and get moving

This is probably the last thing you want to do right now, but once you are up and moving, your blood will start flowing. The hardest part is getting started. Day one, get up and do anything to get moving. This is the hardest day if you haven’t in a while because getting up is really the hardest part. Day two, do a little more. Once you start, you’ll build momentum and get back in the habit.

5. Reset your focus

It’s so easy for worry to set in and for our minds to wander to places of what we can’t control. This is not motivating or helpful and we always have a choice to redirect our attention. There is always something we can do right where we are, so bring your focus to the solution instead of the problem and figure out the next step of what you can do. 

One step at a time. Step one, take your attention away from what you can’t control and what you can’t do. Step two, ask yourself questions like “What can I do?” and see what comes to mind. Follow through with the answers you find.

6. Listen to your favorite music

Not much can lift our spirits and put us into a positive vibration more than our favorite music. Feel free to sing along. Find a song that pumps you up and make that your theme song. Put it on anytime you feel down or unmotivated.

7. Expand your knowledge

“In times of change, the learners will inherit the Earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” Quote by Eric Hoffer. In times of change, there is great loss but also great opportunity. Continually learning opens you to new opportunities and leads you to paths you may not have otherwise found.  

“Work like there is someone working twenty four hours a day to take it away from you.” – Mark Cuban

8. Meditate

If you’re already a meditator and got away from it, take some time to come back to it. If you’ve never tried, it can be as easy as setting a timer for five minutes (or less, feel free to start with one or two minutes) and focusing on your breath. Listen to the inhalations and exhalations. Silently say to yourself “in” as you inhale and “out” as you exhale. Even taking a few minutes to do this can help you to calm down and allow your mind to refocus.

When we’re unmotivated, our momentum starts moving in the other direction. Slow down that momentum by trying one of the ideas above. Once you’ve slowed down the momentum, get it moving in the right direction and you’ll be well on your way.

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