Motivation and forwards flow

When we think about journeying, we tend to think primarily about making progress… moving forward. However, all journeys include times of rapid progression, rest, stalling, stopping, starting, acceleration, observation and change. All of these stages of our travelling have their own importance, and we can embrace them as having purpose; stopping to eat lunch or take in the view can be just as helpful to us as blazing ahead. However, today I do want to focus on motivation and maintaining forwards flow.


What motivation isn’t

Motivation is literally the driving force behind journeying. The push that creates momentum. Motivation is born out of a desire for something specific that you want to achieve or succeed in doing. Since motivation is so much a part of getting things done, reaching goals and creating success, it has been subjected to a great deal of scrutiny by the scientific community.

First let’s look at some popular ‘motivational’ myths. Psychology today ran an article by Heidi Grant Halvorson Ph.D. who has written a book called Succeed – How We Can Reach Our Goals. In the article she identified the following myths that are often expounded when talking about motivation.

  • Just write down your goals, and success is guaranteed.
  • Just try to do your best.
  • Just visualize success.

It might be safe to assume that any statement that begins with “just,” is going to be highly dubious when it comes to creating something as complex as success. But none of these statements actually carry any real truth. Writing down goals has been shown to have no effect (either positive or negative) on achieving success. Setting specific goals and intentions is extremely important in terms of motivation (and success), but large goals, and writing them down (or not) really don’t matter.

Encouragement to try your best significantly reduces performance in comparison to encouragement to set specific and difficult goals. Doing the latter will

“…cause you to, often unconsciously, increase your effort, focus and commitment to the goal, persist longer, and make better use of the most effective strategies.”

Of course it is important to note that there are times in life when all we can muster is our best. And we should never beat ourselves up about that or create unrealistic expectations against which to measure ourselves. Self-compassion is never wasted and it’s not about letting ourselves off the hook.

Visualising success holds some truth, but not if you just visualise effortless success and the end result you are after. This does nothing to help and simply sets you up to fail. However, visualising the work you need to do to get where you want to be, does make a difference:

“You can cultivate a more realistically optimistic outlook by combining confidence in your ability to succeed with an honest assessment of the challenges that await you. Don’t visualize success—visualize the steps you will take in order to make success happen.”


What is motivation?

So having got rid of some on the myths about motivation, what can we do to truly motivate ourselves? Probably the single biggest thing we can do is to learn to practice self-compassion and forgive ourselves for past failures. If we look at it from the opposite perspective – what’s the biggest de-motivator that stops people achieving what they want – then the connection becomes clear. As Jennice Vilhauer Ph.D. explained in her TED talk

“…in general, people have a default tendency to act based on what they expect, not what they want. What someone expects is often very different from what they want… For many people, however, not getting what they want is preferable to trying and being disappointed.

Why is disappointment such a powerful negative emotion that people would rather sacrifice their hopes, dreams, and desires than feel its sting? The answer lies in the meaning that you give to disappointment. The reality is, not getting what you want never feels good to anyone, however, the intensity to which you feel the emotion of disappointment can be exponentially magnified by your interpretation of it.”

So working with yourself to overcome globalising disappointment (“I never get what I want. Everything always ends badly for me.”) and personalising disappointment (“I don’t get what I want because I am not worthy of good things. I am not good enough.”) will move you towards a more constructive generalised view, that everyone faces disappointment at times, and that it doesn’t mean you can’t go on to succeed. Indeed, success often comes on the back of disappointment as we re-group with ourselves and grow.

All previously alluded to, motivation does involve setting specific goals and visualising the effort needed to achieve them. For instance, if your goal was to get out of bed at a specific time each morning, you would then visualise yourself doing this, and exerting the effort needed. You could visualise using different techniques, like the 5 second rule, or placing your alarm clock and phone away from your bed. You would then begin to feel what it would feel like to successfully get up on time and what could help you achieve the goal, that you can then put that into practice.

You could also think more widely about the goal and consider whether there are other goals that might work to increase your chances of success with this one. An obvious one would be, to be in bed by a specific time each night, which would allow you a good number of hours asleep.


Interestingly, meditation is also linked to motivational success, because it changes the way the brain works. Research has shown that regular meditation improves focus, attention, decision making, information processing, mental strength, resilience and emotional intelligence. It is apparently rare to meet a highly successful person who doesn’t meditate. If you need to be convinced about these benefits and more – there is an amazing article about the science of meditation here.

The business dictionary has this neat definition of motivation: Internal and external factors that stimulate desire and energy in people, to be continually interested and committed to a job, role or subject, or to make an effort to attain a goal. Motivation results from the interaction of both conscious and unconscious factors such as the (1) intensity of desire or need, (2) incentive or reward value of the goal, and (3) expectations of the individual and of his or her peers.

I find this helpful because it makes sense then, that anything which increases these factors – such as accountability and support for (3) – will help increase motivation. The specific things that motivate an individual may vary depending on their passions, interests, mindset, energising responses and so on. What matters is to know what works for you and to open yourself to those things. While we can’t expect continuous forward flow, establishing flow at all, requires effort and commitment to our goals. Finding support on the journey helps considerably to help maintain flow. Good journeying…