On a wave of motivation

Cease to resist, give it your best try

Trigger warning for whom the mentions of “grad school thesis” and “theories of behavior change” induce aggressive eye-rolling.

After spending awhile thinking about my lack of consistency in practice, I came to the conclusion that what really needed a closer look was my motivation. In writing about my so-called “lazy perfectionism,” I considered the usefulness but ultimate limitation of extrinsic rewards like receiving high marks or praise, or even mo’ money. And while I recognized in myself a serious sense of drive, I couldn’t help but wonder… what was under the hood?

I couldn’t help but wonder…if there’s a better way to start this article

Which brings me to my grad school thesis. Here was my hypothesis:

“Behavior can be more accurately predicted and more adequately promoted when measurement principle and practice account for the multidimensional factors that influence an individual’s motivation to make a change.”

Wait, what?
Bear with me as I take a step back for second. The foundation of the problem I was addressing was that when the Government Accounting Office (GAO) was evaluating the efficacy of social programs- in this case, the nutrition education course that’s required for recipients of food stamps and WIC benefits- the outcomes were really poor, which of course threatened the program’s continued funding. Because I’d taught some of these courses, I had a sneaking suspicion why this was the case. I decided to dive into understanding exactly how the success of the “intervention” (i.e. the nutrition education program) was measured.

Here’s the thing. The goal, or expected outcome of the intervention was meant to be positive behavior change- developing healthy shopping or eating habits, for example. But the way the outcome was measured was by the participant’s self-reported knowledge of how to make healthy food choices. To me, this seemed to invalidate the program’s hypothesis of behavior change, particularly since there was no follow up to see if and how the participants went ahead making healthy food choices over time.

Just because you know HOW TO do something doesn’t translate to you actually doing it.

To me, there was even more to it. If the aim was behavior change, it was important not only to measure someone’s how-to knowledge, but also to measure the factors supporting or compromising their ability to take action, and their values and beliefs about healthy eating in the first place. I believed that the ways we frame our knowledge into action are based on the relationships in our lives. In other words, what really motivates us to shift or change our behaviors is based on what we truly value.

So back to examining my own motivations. I’ve had to check in with myself and figure out what it is that actually matters most to me, and how that connects to where I derive the energy to invest my time, effort, and focus. Perfection, it turns out, doesn’t make the list but continuous learning does. All along, there’s been a gap between how I was measuring my progress against my goals and how I was evaluating my sense of success or achievement. You’re probably like, “DUHHHH,” right now, aren’t you?

Still, even while I’ve solved my theoretical quandary, there remains the issue of keeping at things and seeing them through. Because I place such a high value on learning, it’s not hard for me to find that elusive state of flow, that completely focused and purpose-driven motivation very early on in a new endeavor. Rather, the question is how to sustain it over time, how to find new dimensions of it, how to multiply and divide it. Kind of like romance, when you think about it.

One little wake up call for me has been decoupling the ideas of mastery and perfection. In short, it’s the journey versus the destination. Paraphrasing Dan Pink, mastery is the goal we pursue in spite of, or perhaps because of its elusiveness. Acknowledging this, I return to the idea of practice, which at its heart is essentially habit formation. And hey! I actually know something about that!

While I was working on my thesis, I assumed that I was going to pivot toward a career in or around nutrition education or program evaluation or some combination thereof. Ultimately I didn’t, probably because the value I placed on stability and financial security motivated me to get back onto the digital design path I’d started a few years prior. Nevertheless, I found myself seeking out projects where I could apply my ongoing interest in behavior change, which is what led me to the work of BJ Fogg.

Fogg’s area of expertise is behavior design, and he runs the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford, where he and his team are focused on how technology interventions can enable positive behavior change. His work was right up my street, having previously done some deep research for designing health tech products, and at the time being focused on designing tools to improve financial habits and behaviors. I reached out to him and was able to spend some time in his behavior design bootcamp as well as inviting him to come work with our design team.

The “Fogg Method” was a big a-ha moment for me. Of course motivation (and all that’s baked into it) is only one part of the equation for behavior change. His model includes two other crucial factors: ability and triggers. Simply put, if motivation is what it is people already want to do (read: the aspirations or outcomes they value), then what’s a simple first step that helps them take immediate action and shows tangible progress toward that outcome. In his words, it’s about “putting hot triggers in front of motivated people.”

Getting the to the essence of what drives us, and then breaking our aspirations down into small and easily achievable steps obviously makes a lot of sense. It’s designing the “hot triggers” that can be deceivingly complex. This is where I’ve been inching toward adding a corollary to my own hypothesis, at least as far getting my own shit together is concerned.

I think we (I?) need a coach.

If you’ve been accompanying me on this journey of introspection shared outward over the past few months, it’s obvious that I’m a strong proponent of an examined life. Yet, for as much as I indulge in the philosophical maxim to “know thyself,” my approach leans more toward the pragmatic than the therapeutic. (But there’s some solid evidence that writing is a form of therapy itself, and I wouldn’t disagree.) What I mean is that not only do I want someone to ask me the right questions, I also want them to help me shape it into a plan, and then check in to see how it’s going and keep me accountable.

No matter how motivated we are, and no matter how simple and straightforward that first step might be, sometimes our own drive just isn’t enough. We need someone to lay it all out in front of us. We need a fresh set of eyes, a guiding hand, a useful tool.

And sometimes we just need a kick in the ass.

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