The Myth of Inspiration – Why Feeling Excited Isn’t Enough
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You're excited. You feel that this time will be different.
I want it bad enough. I can do this.
You start making plans. Maybe, you take the first step.
But then its gone. After a few hours or a few days, you're back to normal. Feeling mundane, doing the mundane.
Problem 1. Inspiration escapes as quickly as it enters.
Hunger is natural. When we ignore it, it gets stronger and stronger until all we can think about is food.
Inspiration is unnatural. With the passage of time, it leaks out of our body, as if it doesn't belong.
No surprise - it doesn't.
Hunger comes, whether we want it to or not. Inspiration doesn't.
That's why we read inspirational books and videos, again and again and again and again. But watching inspirational videos and reading uplifting stories takes time and has an inconsistent effect, sometimes getting us excited, other times leaving us bored.
That's why personal coaches and motivational speakers are so fond of positive visualization. Of imagining your desires having already come true. That's inspiring.
Unfortunately, inspiration isn't enough.
Problem 2. Inspiration unconverted to motivation feels good but doesn't lead to action.
How often have you felt excited and then done nothing to show for it?
There isn't some sort of excitement threshold, past which you actually start getting your goals done. Excitement is like salt water - by itself, completely useless. It takes a purifier to change it into something useful.
Goal setting isn't primarily effective because it's inspiring, but because it converts transient desire into long-term focus and commitment. It's a purifier.
But often, it's not enough.
The Secret is wrong. The Law of Attraction isn't enough.
For those who aren't familiar, the law of attraction suggests that thinking positive thoughts can bring about positive results. On the one hand, this is partially true - positivity is correlated with performance in a variety of domains.1, 2, 3, 4, 5 Happiness is powerful.
On the other hand, Lady Gaga is right when she suggests that images of success can take the place of actual action. Instead of going out and making it happen, we visualize in our heads, feel good, and then do nothing. The fantasy replaces the reality.
We know this is true in two ways. One, many self-help programs have conquered problem 1 (inspiration escapes as quickly as it enters) yet still have abysmal success rates. Two, Gabriele Oettingen took a more critical look at the effects of visualization.
Visualization generates inspiration, not motivation.
Typical instructions for visualization suggest closing your eyes and imagining yourself having achieved your goal in as much detail as possible. Visualizing a sexy body, happy family, big house, confidence, contentment, whatever.
Visualization has the impact of focusing our attention and of making success seem more likely. Focus attention? Yes, good. Make success seem more likely? No, bad.
If you've been following along the series, in the last step, you selected a challenging but doable sub-goal. Remember, your subconscious is hyper-efficient. It allocates only as much energy as is needed to accomplish its goals – anything more would be a waste. That's why you picked something challenging but doable.
That's why visualization and similar techniques generate inspiration, but paradoxically make you less likely to take action.
In the past, there were no TVs or fantasy novels. What you could imagine was limited to reality – the brain didn't use visualization as a form of fantasy escape, but of planning and consideration. What you were able to easily visualize, your brain assumed real and easily attainable.
If I can so easily visualize it, it must not be that hard to get. In which case, I don't need much motivation. Instead, I should get excited. After all, the goal is easier to accomplish than I previously thought. Reward, come to papa!
No! We want excitement and more motivation, not excitement and less motivation!
That's what goal setting and mental contrasting are for.
Mental contrasting generates inspiration and then converts it to motivation.
Mental contrasting has been shown to:
- Improve academic performance, leading to higher quiz grades and significantly more time spent preparing for standardized tests.6, 7
- Improve health, prompting more exercise, less unhealthy snack consumption, and more fruit intake.8, 9, 10
- Increase help-seeking and help giving behavior.11
- Increase the likelihood of taking steps to reduce cigarette consumption.12
In those same studies, those in the mental contrasting group did better, on average, than those in the visualization group.
The technique has two steps: 1) get excited, and 2) get motivated.
Think about the positive reasons you're pursuing your goal. The more positive reasons you can think of, the better. Then think about two or three negative counterfactuals (e.g. "if I fail to complete this goal, I will have an unhappy marriage.")
You'll be coming back to these reasons often, so jot them down if you need to. Now, visualize in detail the most impactful reasons you thought of a moment ago.
Think about several obstacles in the way of you completing your goal. For example, if you’re trying to lose weight, those obstacles could be: being tempted by snacks, purchasing unhealthy food while shopping, eating too much at dinner, emotional binging, or lack of motivation to exercise.
You'll be coming back to these obstacles often, so jot them down if you need to. Now, visualize in detail the biggest obstacles you thought of a moment ago.
What you're doing is tying together the promise of reward in the future with obstacles which must be overcome in the present. You, the conscious, already understood (do x and receive y), but your subconscious didn't.
Your thoughts of grandeur and accomplishment? Nope. Visualization in the form of mental contrasting? That works.
Inspiration into motivation.
Do it at least once - it'll take less than 5 minutes. Most of those great results that I mentioned above occurred in studies where mental contrasting was used just once, at the same time as the goal was set.
But I've found that the more often I do it, the better.
What are the biggest benefits you expect from completing your goal?
What are the biggest obstacles in your way?
Write it down. Share by leaving a comment below!
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1. The Role of Positivity and Connectivity in the Performance of Business Teams: A Nonlinear Dynamics Model
Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing
2. Nice To Know You: Positive Emotions, Self–Other Overlap, and Complex Understanding in the Formation of a New Relationship
3. Marital Processes Predictive of Later Dissolution: Behavior, Physiology, and Health
4. Altering Positive/Negative Interaction Ratios of Mothers and Young Children.
5. Positivity and Well-being Among Community-Residing Elders and Nursing Home Residents: What Is the Optimal Affect Balance?
6. Self-regulation strategies improve self-discipline in adolescents: Benefits of mental contrasting and implementation intentions.
7. Mental contrasting facilitates academic performance in school children.
8. When planning is not enough: Fighting unhealthy snacking habits by mental contrasting with implementation intentions (MCII).
9. Mental contrasting instigates goal pursuit by linking obstacles of reality with instrumental behavior.
10. Mental contrasting of a dieting wish improves self-reported health behavior.
11. Mental contrasting and the self-regulation of helping relations.
12. Self-regulation of commitment to reduce cigarette consumption: Mental contrasting of future with reality.