A few years ago I ran across something written by Angela Duckworth, the psychologist who is well-known for her research and writings on “grit.” (Her work is much more encompassing than that and worth exploring.) She wrote in a NYT article in 2016, “So rather than ask, ‘What do I want to be when I grow up?’ ask, ‘In what way do I wish the world were different? What problem can I help solve?’ This puts the focus where it should be – on how you can serve other people.”

This made me realize that goal-setting is but one way to frame and increase one’s motivation. Dr. Duckworth’s focus on problem-solving resonated with me; I had a stronger and more positive emotional response to problem-solving than to setting goals.

So, here is my attempt at considering the different ways we can frame the pursuit of activities we desire but that are challenging enough that increasing and maintaining one’s motivation is a crucial part of the process of achieving them.

First, an important distinction to make is between internal and external motivational strategies. The importance of this distinction lies in helping to avoid focus on one category at the expense of the other, which more often, is the external strategies category. I define them as follows:

  • Internal Strategies: these are strategies whose direct focus is on altering our mental states, such as our thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and objects of attention.
  • External Strategies: these are strategies whose direct focus is on altering environmental conditions in ways that will shape our behaviors. In effect, we make changes to our environment that then ‘coerces’ us to maintain our commitments over the long haul.

Note that the strategies below are not mutually exclusive and, in fact, often have synergistic effects on motivation when stacked.

Internal Motivational Strategies

  • Focus on Personal Goals: In this commonly used strategy, the person focuses on and plans for meeting important personal goals, such as losing weight, working less, making more money, investing more systematically.
  • Focus on Other People: This is also a goal-setting strategy but here the focus is on, as Dr. Duckworth said, serving others. “Serving others” can have grand connotations but it applies also to a person who resolves to live in more healthy ways so they can be there for their grandchildren. Cutting out sweets or high-sodium foods may be easier when the focus is on grandkids rather than on one’s self.
  • Focus on Problem-Solving: This strategy can be seen as a category of a goal-setting strategy, and it is. However, for some people the persistent presence of a problem is so irritating that it sustains constant and high levels of motivation to resolve it. Thinking about a future desired goal can be less motivating because that future state is not currently experienced, it is abstract, and it can more easily be put out of mind. A problem is there to be faced daily, taunting in its continued irritating presence.
  • Focus on Mastery: In this strategy, the motivating factor is the dissatisfaction with one’s current lack of mastery over whatever it is they seek to master, such as playing tennis well, acquiring another language, writing well, or being socially confident. This strategy is powerful when the desired mastery is important to that person and there is regular opportunity to experience one’s current lack of competence. Additionally, making regular headway in relevant knowledge and skill acquisition can maintain motivation.
  • Focus on Daily Production: There are times when a person needs a break from pursuing goals or problem-solving but wants to maintain their progress towards a desired change. This can be done by simply committing to and meeting daily self-imposed quotas. For example, for a person seeking to learn a new language, they can resolve to learn 5 new words a day in that language. Or for a person wanting to write a novel, they can resolve to write for 90 minutes per day or to write 500 words a day.
  • Focus on a Life Discipline: Some goals, when seen in isolation, may not be particularly motivating. For example, the goal of learning a new language or of reviewing 5 new words a day, may become boring and start to lose its larger meaning. In a case like this, it helps if the person learning that language has a deeper and broader goal: they wish to move to a country where that language is spoken or to become an expert on the literature of that culture. Thus, one can tie daily activities and shorter-term or smaller goals into life-encompassing ones, to a pursuit of one’s calling or vocation. I call this developing your personal discipline, as in an area of deep commitment, study, and mastery.

External Motivation Strategies

  • Deadline-Driven: An effective strategy is to impose deadlines on oneself. When a person imposes a deadline on oneself randomly and without consequence of not meeting it, it tends to be an ineffective strategy. A more effective approach is to impose a deadline with consequences that matter. One example is to commit to present a lecture on a certain topic in six months. This commitment both focuses the topics that need to be studied and mastered and the time available in which this must be done.
  • Accountability Coach-Driven: Another approach is to pay for an accountability coach. Personal trainers fall into this category. Their benefit is partly to train their client on exercise routines that are effective and lead to less injury, and partly to hold their client accountable to their commitments. Various levels of shaming are allowed and called for. (Haha.)
  • Reward and Punishment-Driven: In this strategy, a person can set up rewards and punishments for themselves. To make this strategy more effective, a person can set them up to be imposed from without. For example, there is the strategy of setting up an escrow account, with its moneys going to the anti-charity of one’s choice if one does not achieve their goals in the designated time. An anti-charity is a cause that a person abhors or despises. One outfit that lets a person manage these self-contracts and payments is stickk.com (with 2 k’s).

Thanks and take care.

Dr. Jack

Language Brief

“Enthusiasm is common. Endurance is rare.” – Angela Duckworth

“It soon became clear that doing one thing better and better might be more satisfying than staying an amateur at many different things.” – Angela Duckworth

“I have a feeling tomorrow will be better is different from I resolve to make tomorrow better.” – Angela Duckworth

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” – Abraham Maslow

“A problem well put is half solved.” – John Dewey