Friday, December 18, 2009

Motivation as Skill: a Functional Definition of same

If asked, "what is motivation" what's the reply you'd give? Is it practical? Useful? Most definitions are not. They are amorphously about goals, ambition, drive. Wikipedia talks about "activation of goal oriented behaviour" but doesn't talk about what that behaviour is. Then there's "desire or aspiration, combined with effort" to achieve a goal. How far does just Will Power get one? One article refered to it as a specific "characteristic to achieve anything in life." Does that mean one might not have that gene? And to be Goal directed sounds so Big rather than immediate (more about various processes of coping with goals here). you'd swear from the way it's discussed, motivation is the key to any success. And yet how do such urfy flurfy definitions help us achieve anything?

For instance, if one looks out the window in the morning and it's snowing (as it is in southern england right now) and one is cold a 'bed, and well, as the Stanislovski inspired actor might say "What's my motivation?" to leave this happy state, what "goal" is there to which we might appeal to say "i have to go into work. blast"

Somehow going to work on a regular basis just does not seem like a goal, does it? It's rather a Maslow-ish necessity if that's how we maintain food, shelter, and not least that nice, warm bed? Let's get real - with motivation.

Getting Functional. In the i-phase z-health certification, motivation is a key component of the course as a key part of good coaching practice, and Eric Cobb, one of the most de-mystifying people i've heard present, takes what i've come to understand is a typically Cobbish/Cobbsian, view of motivation in terms of what can be turned into actual practice. That is, it's functional rather than personal. Motivation is the assessment between two consequences. That is we tend to weigh up the cost of doing the thing and not doing the thing, and go from there. So, in my mind, is the cost of not trudging through this untenable blustering british snow and going to work greater than the cost of getting up and going and out the door to work?

There's a certain appeal to this approach to motivation, not the least because, as Cobb puts it, one doesn't have to be all chipper to take the necessary action - something else that motivation seems typically to imply. One can be in a dreadful mood and still do the deed. One might even sulk a bit, and still have the Force of Negative Consequences to motivate one out the door. And if you dear reader need help with letting go of a dire mood cuz such things just suck one's energy, i have another post/idea for you here.

Death to the term "unmotivated" But then on the other side of the non-chipper doing, is the potentially happy decision to work from home rahter than work if such is an option. By putting the decision in terms of a cost/benefit analysis, removing the personal character traits, one may not be tarred with the offending brush that one is simply therefore "unmotivated." That is so disparaging. It seems to assert that there is a deep problem at the character level if one decides the costs outweigh the benefits of taking action.

The other context of course in which we see the harmful use of the term "unmotivated" is with folks who have struggled to acheive something -say a body comp goal - and repeatedly diet and miss or rebound. They are "unmotivated" or they'd succeed. Piffle. Lack of strategies for success is not the same as lack of decision to act.

Getting Practical: Skills rather than Flurfiness. But to the point, the idea of what i'm calling a functional definition of motivation is that it takes the Mystical and Emotional and Innate Characteristic out of the concept and makes it a practicable skill.

That is, rather than being about the right attitude - whatever that may be - it's about good, informed analysis. And it's way easier to chart out skills (that's the functional part) for analysis of consequences, and to define practicable skills to support any other practice one wants to perform (like getting to work or lifting a heavy object), than it is to develop something as mystical as Attitude. After all, if work required one always to be desperately in love with what one were doing to be motivated to do it, how much work would get done?

Aside - in discussing these ideas with colleagues at the dragondoor forum, someone brought up
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow. Excellent book. If you haven't read it, or heard it, by all means, recommended.

The flow state is where one is doing something such that one is taxed sufficiently that skills are being called to bear so that one is engaged enough to find an action challenging and interesting. If one is overtaxed - say by a far more skilled opponent in a match of some kind - the task is hopeless - no place for purchase. Likewise if the task is underengaging one becomes bored and can be depressed or frustrated as well though for other reasons. So the author argues for any task, it is optimal to find a way to be in flow. But to get to flow, we assume that one has decided to engage in the activity, knows what they're doing to exectute it at an appropirate level of demand.

Familiarity of Cost/Benefit Analysis. The thing about this working definition of motivation is that it's based on something we already do quite regularly: i have to go to work lest i be fired. I must teach this class else folks take their money back and i starve.

What having the definition made explicit does, it seems to me, is it takes it outside of some innate mystical quality and makes it something accessible for discussion and analysis. So we can take apart our regular practice, interrogate it, and find ways to address obstacles. For instance Cobb has a tip that if we don't want to do something, find a way to get moving with it for three minutes and after that it will get into gear. Cool.

Likewise, thinking about the Season of Regret nigh upon us with body comp oriented goals or other New Years oriented deferrals of action promised, we have a very functional way to look at, say, food: we know that eating this additional mince pie will mean 40 more minutes of HIIT that we mayn't have in our bodies to erase. But what happens if that particular negative consequence isn't enough of a cost-as-motivation (rather than benefit as motivation) for the immediate denial of the extra Mince Tart? The consequence seems too far away for immediate payment. And so we still keep chomping?

What this suggests are potential opportunities to build up a bunch of things:
interrogating the perceived cost/benefits.
are the reasons what colleagues talk about as intrinsic or extrinsic? immediate or long term? I will be fired (extrinsic) or i will gain weight (too far away to be perceived) vs i have promised to do this thing and i value my word (intrinsic & immediate). Moving towards cost benefit analysis that focuses on intrinsic & immediate costs and benefits can help sustain a practice when extrinsic motivators may weaken.

In the mince tart example, this kind of instrinsic cost/benefit analysis framing may have more immediate usefulness. For instance, i made a promise to myself that i would only have one tart at this party, and i can keep that promise to myself. It's an important principle to me to do what i say, even to myself.

Skills in Motivation Analysis: Finding out what these both more intrinsic & immediately effective motivators are SKILLS based, not innate knowledge. It's not because we're a bad person and have no Will Power that we may fail in what we are motivated to do. We may have that in spades, but without the techniques of how to develop the analysis (recognise intrinsic vs extrinsic; what will be helpful at an immediate decision point rather than some far away goal etc)

Mince Tart Eating Analysis
Motivation Cost/Benefitimmediatelonger term
intrinsicpromise to selfhealth
extrinsicmaybe not a lot- public image: fat
- lower cost & effort of calories to make up

Hence the value of seeing motivation as an assessment of consequences first (analysis not character), and then getting a set of related skills going (the right level of analysis) that will best support the desired consequence throughout practice. In other words, finding the right cost/benefit analysis that will keep mince tart munching to an acceptable level.

If we work with others, coaching, teaching, whatever, this also gives us a framework, it seems, to help them look achieving what they want: what are the extrinsic and intrinsic benefits and costs?

It's this kind of skills and functional approach around developing habits that i've been finding particularly fascinating of late because it says knowing how to make change per se isn't the main issue; knowing how to make change sustainable is, and that sustenance is NOT innate knowledge.

Sustaining Successful Change

There are a couple of books i've found that really touch on getting and the sustance-as-skills part of change. One of the, in the diet space, is Martha Beck's 4 Day Win. Not unlike Cobb's Three Minutes of Movement to Get Stuck In, Beck finds strategies that are completely and totally doable, and sets up a 4 day win strategy for each towards building better habits for change in the diet space. Her work in psychology has shown that if you can get a new practice going for 4 days, you can get some important re-wiring done.

If you're interested in this kind of plastic brain rewiring, there are other related books recommended here.

The other book i'd recommend for consideration coming into the new year is Stephen Covey and R&A Merril's First Things First. This book is focused on re-wiring habits and perspectives to help get things done.

I like it because it is NOT about how to make To Do lists; it's about figuring out one's real and foundational motivation for something - principles as Covey calls them - and having pracitces to support those principles. Very functional. He talks about how to keep the first things the first things. Or, a fave: don't prioritize your schedule; schedule your priorities. No kidding.

Habits as Skill Sets; Skill Sets as Habits: Both these books represent approaches to develop habits - or what we might call automatic or reflexive or neurologically wired, practiced responses to situations - to help us rather than achieve goals per se, live principled lives. As Covey and colleagues argue, once we know what we're saying "yes" to - what's important to us - it's easier to say "no" to what is not. The heuristics offered in the book for getting to a place in life where, for instance, most activities are Important but Not Urgent is very cool (the other parts of this quad are Not Important and Not Urgent, Urgent (for usually someone else) but not Important (for your Yes), and Urgent and Important. First things First argues that the goal is to get as much as possible happening in that quality quadrant that is non-reactive and then has room for the real and unexpected emergencies, rather than living regularly in the reactive, as many of us do. Functional.
Covey's Quadrants

Who's Involved? Covey, Merril and Merril also tend to look at those Important but Not Urgent things relative to Roles and Relationships. In which of my roles is this task assigned; what trust relationship does that engage? It seems when we situate our responsibilities or things we're motivated to do relative to relationships that we care about because they feature Real People, those actions can become more meaningful. Am i not eating this tart just for myself, or because i care about my family and a commitment i've made to them to get healthy, and this frickin' little tart is one part of that commitment? Or if not to family, i've made a promise to myself that i'll stop at one, and whether it matters or not, in terms of calories, i'm practicing doing what i say i'll do. This is one small act i will have at the end of the day to say i did what i said i would do.

Beck likewise spends time getting to grips with real inner self parts who tend to look out for opposing interests (the wild child and the judge for instance) and come to a place that by understanding these positions, and observing them, and learning some new skills for working with them, we can get our collective acts together.

Skills Aren't Innate, but they can become Wired. Where this all gets to for me, as you can probably tell, is the notion of being more gentle with ourselves because we ain't born knowing how to do stuff we ain't wired to do.

The Instinct Diet: Use Your Five Food Instincts to Lose Weight and Keep it OffConsider the fascinating work by Susan Roberts of Tufts around the ways we seem to be wired almost instinctively to go for just the kinds of foods that when there's an abundance of 'um, they become "bad" foods, but at just about any other time than now (now being our supra abundant food always in reach affluent culture), really survival smart: energy dense, familiar, available, satisfy hunger, and even variety rich.

In other words, we need to rewire ourselves to have new instinct-like responses to our 21st C affluent environment, where motivation is more subtle than move or die (though actually that's still the case).

It's Neurological and it's a Skill and So needs Reps. Rewiring is achieved through learning, repping in new neural pathways. And when we learn something, the best teaching is usually that which breaks a practice down into manageable, practicable, learn-able skill sets.

My suggestion is that if you're in doubt about some of those skill sets, the above framing and books may be a useful ways to begin to get to grips with practice, and tune up the motivation to something that can fire up the behaviours, once learned, we want to fire up reflexively to help keep us happy, healthy and wise into the new year.

And coaching: When we work with others - supervising, teaching, coaching - what's good for the goose is good for the coaching space too. I used to teach a lot of so called "required courses" - courses students had to take as part of their program, and so did not meet with love. One thing found out there is that often students doing a required course hit boredom pretty fast. If we have the Flow model, we can get pretty quickly that the material is either too simple to engage them or too far out of reach to find a way to get engaged. So that's one problem - how to help get to a flow place to provide a pathway.

The same can happen with movement-related goals: the person doesn't have something that allows them to hit a flow state: the prospect of sitting on a stationary bike and pedalling for 40mins is too tedious to endure. So finding flowful practice (to coin a term) is coaching job one.

But let's assume we hit that flow. How stick with it?

In the required course, helping to figure out ways to make a course relevant for a 300 students in one lecture is a bit of a challenge, but actually taking time to talk about what their reason is for being in the room via Covey-like unpacking can be useful: what principle does doing this course support? What are the uber goals to which this particular course is part of the process? How find relevance (and if we can't, well, perhaps that is a Sign Unto Us to Find Something that Is).

That's one tack. Creating a craving may be another. Finding the hook to associating the action with pleasure (reward) such that there's a gap, a loss, when it's not there, is a Good Thing, too. So we can imagine that finding flow may help find the reward/pleasure in something and doing that thing becomes one way to get that feeling back. How do we find that hook?
Motivational Interviewing, Second Edition: Preparing People for Change
Assuming someone wants to figure that out,  wants to get to that place of Doing the Thing, Motivational Interviewing is a strategy for helping folks self-talk towards supporting these behaviours they've already decided they want to undertake. Generally the strategy is about how to listen effectively and affectively. I mention this in passing right now for reference if you are working especially one on one coaching (whether athletically or otherwise) someone towards that intrinsic motivation path.

Move along little doogie, move along. A quickie path to better days seems to be movement in general. One of the best things about creating a habit of moving (and if we walk we already have some of that habit to build upon) is that we're designed to move; not moving is not as much fun as moving. We feel better when we do it.

The challenge for a coach may be making the case that there are LOADS of options that fulfil the movement criteria. Don't want to lift heavy today? Fine. Let's do something else. The movement is the habbit. That's the pleasure; not the guilt trip of not doing *exactly* what one imagined one was supposed to do. Shoot that word "should" please.

IT seems easier to stay motivated - to get the cost/benefit effect when the practice of the action becomes pleasurable, desireable rather than a chore. A good coach - of movement or any activity - will help make that happen with us.

Practice: it never frickin' stops
The intriguing thing i have found is that like any skill, to stay razor sharp, or even just half way effective, even these skills have to be practiced regularly. They need their 10thousand hours, too. And right now that's exactly what i need (am motivated) to do. Get my 3 min. dig in going. And heh, it's actually stopped snowing and there's a blue sky. In the UK. In december. Wow, makes me feel, oh i dunno, motivated? Na. The consequences haven't changed from 5 mins ago, but there's one less obstacle now to getting down to it.

All the best to you and your practice.

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Unknown said...

Very interesting post, mc. I've recently stumbled across your blog and am really amazed at all the info here and the work you have put into it. I live in San Francisco, CA., by the way.

One thing I'm interested in this post is the dichotomy between Roberts' "4 day" viewpoint and Berardi, who seems to think it takes weeks to bake in a new habit.

What's your feeling.

dr. m.c. said...

Hi Philip thanks for writing.

I'm not sure what part of Berardi's work that you're pointing to?

Also in Beck's work, it's four days to establish a practice ready for actioning; not that the action has become a "habit" - a reflexive pattern.

Habits - a behaviour that's reflexive - takes a LOT of reps to get established as such. In motor learning we're talking thousands of repetitions.

Beck's discussion on what's going on in those four days, and why four days seems to be the sweet spot for a new behaviour - giving it a chance to be successful - is interesting, and part of the rep'ing process.

here's a bit more on reps
10,000 hours and reps in motor learning

best of the new year.


Darryl Lardizabal said...

Hey mc, found something that is quite interesting, although they use the term willpower, it brings strong credence to what's been said.

How's everything been going by the way?



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