It’s common to think of motivation as something you either do or don’t have. Similarly, willpower is viewed as a limited resource within each of us, where we are rendered immobile or unable to continue moving towards our goals if it runs out. These beliefs have largely been spread due to the misinterpretation of scientific studies. However, recent science turns this on its head. Which is great news for anyone struggling to make important changes in their own lives!
Our approach to change typically focuses solely on the alteration of outer behaviors, such as eating healthier or working out more. However, true change happens at a deeper level: The core of our identity and the values with which we associate ourselves. Making changes at this level generates natural and seemingly effortless changes in our lives.
The Fallacy of Willpower and Grit
“You don't have to be pushed. The vision pulls you.” – Steve Jobs
James Fell is an author, science-based motivator, and creator of the website bodyforwife.com. He’s one of the most well-read writers of health and fitness in North America and recently published his book The Holy Sh!t Moment: How Lasting Change Can Happen in an Instant. In it, he offers scientifically-backed arguments for how to create change that oftentimes go against conventional thinking.
James points out that the idea that when people fail to make lasting change it is simply due to a lack of will power is all wrong. He recalls a study where participants were told to arrive hungry, are asked to refrain from eating one of two presented foods, then solve an unsolvable puzzle. The group that was required to restrain from the more difficult food (chocolate) gave up on the puzzle sooner.
The experiment lead to the hypothesize and widely accepted idea that willpower is a limited resource that was constantly drained throughout the day. This idea became known as “Ego Depletion.” In a nut shell, the more situations throughout the day where you must exert willpower the more likely you are to make bad choices at the end of the day. So if you spent your whole day avoiding temptations and bad habits the more likely at the end of the day you would be to give in to these desires and often overcompensate for the day of discipline.
Unfortunately, this hypothesis (and the following studies that supported it) was the result of probability hacking and publication bias – which resulted in an improper focus on statistics and the need to “publish or perish”. Recent analysis of these old studies allowed researchers to come to more accurate conclusions.
NOTE: For those interested in publication bias we cover this topic extensively with Dr. Brian Nosek.
The Power of Suggestion VS. Passion
The concept of ego-depletion has been discovered to have little effect, if any, while the power of suggestion was seen to be incredibly powerful. What the power of suggestions means is that telling a person an activity would energize or de-energize them would actually bring out the described effect. Even if what you told someone the outcome of an action would be was not the normal outcome.
Researchers also discovered that what matters most is the individual’s internal drivers, or passions. Sufficient passion will allow a person to engage in an activity to the point of physiological exhaustion. These passions are often generated from the values associated with our personal identity.
The Identity Value Model of Self-Control
James brings up a 2016 study which suggests the irrelevance of willpower and that attempts to increase willpower have never shown measurable effects. Alternatively, people who engage in activities that directly align with their identity (such as those they are passionate about) are more successful in sustaining and working hard at those activities.
Rage to Master
James recalls a time in his past where he was compelled to leave a well-paying job he didn’t like to pursue writing, something he was passionate about. He worked harder to become a great writer than he ever had before, which is a concept he calls the “Rage to Master”. This happens when you feel you have an innate talent that you must become better at.
This innate talent is viewed as part of your identity, which warrants a deep change to how you behave in the world. He discusses the futile efforts people make to quit smoking. They see instant results if they make the simple change to their mindset from being an “ex-smoker” who still craves cigarettes to being a “non-smoker” who lacks any temptation whatsoever.
Happiness VS. Flourishing
“There's a saying that goes, ‘Inspiration favors the prepared mind.’” – James Fell
Matt asks James what his perspective is regarding people who are passionate about sitting around and watching TV all day. James’ response is that they should look deeper into themselves than their surface. He expects that they’ll find discontent and the desire to get up and do more with their lives. This leads him to the difference between ‘happiness’ and ‘flourishing’.
Happiness is largely a state of mind, but flourishing is what really drives people. It has more to do with your capacities, talents, and callings, then using those to find a purpose in life that contributes to the wellbeing of you and of others. Our purpose changes alongside our identity, oftentimes revealing multiple purposes across a lifetime.
How to Alter Your Core Identity
“I didn't have to struggle with my motivation. It came built-in.” – Chuck Gross
James discusses how epiphanies and other experiences can cause a long-term change in our identity and values, which then spills over into our behavior. While these can be caused by a health scare or a breaking point caused by a culmination of many small problems, he recalls the story of an overweight man, Chuck, who changed his life the day he found out his wife was pregnant.
Chuck had failed to lose weight many times, but the day he found out his wife was pregnant was the day his identity changed from “Not a Father” to “Father”. He valued the idea of playing with his kids, living a long life, and being a high-energy dad who was always there for his kids. These changes in his values came as a direct result from his change in identity.
People are like Onions Too
James refers to the model of personality by Milton Rokeach, a social psychologist, where he observes the layers of human personality. From the outside to our core, they are:
· Behavior <- Beliefs <- Attitudes <- Values <- Identity
Your behavior arises as a result of your identity, so trying to change your behavior will be a long and slow process of suffering if your identity doesn’t change accordingly. While a change in your identity will be followed by appropriate changes in all of the outer layers. Often times this inner change happens in a flash – an epiphany or moment of “Eureka!” These epiphanies cause a powerful shift in your mindset.
Creating Mindset Shifts
“You have to believe that it can happen.” – James Fell
If you’re trying to create a shift in your mindset, then you must realize that it happens all the time. And while a third of the people that experienced a life-changing epiphany weren’t trying to have one, you greatly improve your chances if you try to have one. Then James refers to a concept from Gabriele Oettingen, a psychology professor, called ‘mental contrasting’.
“That is where not just your focus, but your fantasies should lie, which is you imagine breaking through those roadblocks – either going around them or through them.” – James Fell
Mental contrasting involves fantasizing about your dream goal, then deeply analyzing why it is that you haven’t attained that goal yet. But don’t focus on attaining the goal; this virtual reality experience can demotivate you to pursue the goal. Instead, focus on the roadblocks keeping you from your goal so you can discover how to overcome them.
Self-Analysis and Distraction
“We do not know what it is we've been sitting on until the shell cracks.” – T. S. Eliot
For people who are struggling to discover something new in life (such as shifting your mindset), James recommends a process of generating insights descried in a book called ‘The Eureka Factor’. This involves a two-stage process: Analysis and distraction.
Self-analysis, the first stage of the process, involves gathering as much information as you can and asking yourself questions regarding what you would want to do in your life and what’s holding you back. You do this until you get stuck, because the epiphany doesn’t strike in this stage – it strikes in the next stage.
Distraction (or free-association) is the stage where you go for a walk, meditate, pray, or do whatever allows you to get inside your head and free-associate. However, this type of distraction isn’t the kind where you’re listening to a podcast, reading a book, or checking your phone. You must allow your thoughts to meander and collide.
This process is one of creativity, which is a useful skill in every domain of life. James then brings up an issue that often stifles creativity and that’s the desire to be like everyone else and not be viewed as ‘weird’. But you must be prepared to accept a crazy idea if it’s the one that calls out to you and feels overwhelmingly right.
The Mountain of Motivation
Lastly, he compares the motivation of goal attainment to a mountain. If you have zero motivation, then you’re at the base of the mountain, while the peak of the mountain is the ultimate motivation to do all the work with inspired vigor. But if you’re at the base, you don’t just sit there and wait for something to take you to the top – you must start hiking.
Sometimes you have to do uninspired work before you realize the process has meaning to you. Then suddenly, something happens which takes you further up the mountain – this is called a ‘sudden gain in motivation’. These sudden gains in motivation only occur to those who are already engaged in the process.
Small Steps Towards Inner Change
“We talked about the analytical phase – the inspiration favoring the prepared mind. It's possible your mind is already prepared.” – James Fell
James ends our conversation by suggesting laying down to free-associate for five or 10 minutes after you wake up in the morning without looking at your phone. You can go for a walk outside, just leave your phone at home and let your mind wander with itself. You can also meditate or pray – whatever allows you to sit alone with your thoughts in a relaxed state.