Fact: We don't always want to do the things we know we should. We have developed many habits of behaving and thinking over the years that don't always put us in the best position for success. So, we might want to go to the gym after work or stick to that pre-performance routine we know puts us in the best position to be successful, but we do the exact opposite. There are many reasons why this occurs, but I'll leave that discussion for another time. Here, I want to talk about what we can do in those situations where we need help aligning our behaviors with our intentions.
You likely have heard the discussion about external versus internal motivation where we know that things like rewards (money, trophy, praise from others, etc.) can be useful motivators in the short-term, but are less effective in the long-term than things like valuing the behavior/activity, enjoying it, focusing on the learning value or opportunity to challenge ourselves, or feeling like it's congruent with who we are.
What you might not yet have come across is the idea that how we frame things to ourselves and others matters. For example, you can view things in a way that highlights what you have to lose (called prevention focus) or in a way that focuses you on what you have to gain (promotion focus). To provide a very simple example: you could remind yourself that by going to the gym you will be improving your health (a win) or if you skip out on that sweat session you'll be wasting the time and money you've spent so far (a loss). Many people tout the notion of always being positive, but things are more complicated than that and sometimes it might actually be better for you to focus on what you have to lose by doing or not doing something rather than what you have to gain.
Here are a couple of things to keep in mind to help you decide which focus might work best for you:
1. Behavior needs to be understood in context. So don't just decide to go with one or the other (always focusing on the win or always focusing on the loss) all the time.
2. Yet, we all have tendencies. There are some people that will generally be more motivated by focusing on what they have to lose and others what they have to gain.
3. We are built to self-protect. We do more to avoid pain than to get pleasure. Further, we are more more motivated to do something about a minor loss versus a minor win. So, focusing on a loss may at times be the better choice. However, this self-protection also works the other way. Since we are motivated to avoid pain (even the thought of it), we might protect ourselves from thinking that something bad could happen to us (think about the commercials that try to scare smokers into giving up the habit, studies show that many smoke during or right after watching those horrible stories about other smokers). So make sure if the right choice is to focus on the potential loss that it is personal to you, not just something that generally could happen.
4. We think and respond differently to things that are happening now versus those that could happen in the future. If a goal is long-term, we will be more motivated to avoid working on it now (yes we are all built to be procrastinators). This then has to be taken into consideration when you are choosing what to focus on to try to motivate yourself to do or not do something now.
5. We prefer certainty. If an outcome (the result of us doing or not doing something) is a sure thing, then focusing on what we have to gain might be the better choice whereas if the outcome is less certain a loss frame might work better.
6. We like to take risks and get out of our comfort zones sometimes and not others. When we are focusing on what we have to gain, we might take more risks and be energized by getting uncomfortable. Alternatively, when we are focusing on what we have to lose, we may be more cautious and less likely to try new things.
7. We have a default negativity bias. So be careful with your use of the loss frame. Studies have shown that once people focus on a loss, it is harder for them to switch to focusing on a gain.
8. Finally, we need different things when we are starting versus trying to maintain something. If you are trying to get started on doing or not doing something (it's new, challenging), then focusing on what you have to gain will likely be the better choice because it's going to prompt feelings of enjoyment and accomplishment. However, if you are trying to maintain a behavior, focusing on what you have to lose will likely be more motivating because it will remind you about not wasting all the time and effort you have already invested and you will enjoy what you're doing more because you will appreciate and feel good about all the distractions and obstacles you've overcome while sticking to your goals and new habits.
"Your focus determines your reality." - Leo Babauta