Being motivated short-term is common.
Having woken up after a night of heavy drinking or other debauchery, more than once I have said the words, “Never again.” And while one might think my motivation to avoid a recurrence of a night of regret should be high, research on lasting motivational change proves otherwise. As it turns out, good intentions are not enough to create and sustain enduring motivational change.
It is not all about debauchery.
Whether it is a goal you have set, a resolution you want to maintain, or a habit you want to establish, Dr. Bobby Hoffman has developed an evidence based five-step method for motivational change I want to share. This method can be used to help create lasting change for yourself or others.
Step 1: Raise Self-Awareness
Before any real change can occur you first have to be self-aware. This requires deliberate effort to raise your awareness as opposed to the concept of waiting until one hits the proverbial, “rock bottom.”
Raising your self-awareness can be accomplished by creating a conflict. This means finding dissatisfaction or establishing disequilibrium with the current state. The goal is to maintain a level of cognitive dissonance that provides motivation to look for an alternative.
A tactic I use for creating conflict is a journal I keep which forces me to reflect. Cemented on digital pages, I have a way to document both my struggles and successes. Periodic review helps raise my self-awareness, challenging me to search for ways to improve.
Step 2: Present Plausible Alternatives
Once you recognize things are not working out as intended, the next step is to develop plausible alternatives. What options are available?
The best alternatives are those that can help you completely reframe the issue. The root cause of our behaviors often stems from our underlying beliefs or philosophies we hold about the world. Therefore, if you can explore a new way of looking at the issue then it is more likely you will find a plausible alternative that can have lasting results.
For example, one plausible alternative for avoiding waking up with a hangover is to resolve to never again drink alcohol. While plausible, it doesn’t challenge the underlying belief about why I would drink alcohol to excess in the first place. Not challenging that view my resolution is only avoidance of a headache, not a reframing of my philosophy that drinking is a social custom that must be observed.
While I recommend reframing, this can be difficult to accomplish without help from friends, family or a professional like Bob. In lieu of reframing, coming up with two or three good alternatives to your current behaviors is still a good approach that will get you to the next step.
Step 3: Present Evidence
Just because you have developed some plausible alternatives doesn’t mean you will instantly recognize the alternatives as being better than your current situation. At this stage you only have plausible alternatives that now you need to explore and reinforce with evidence.
There is plenty of research that demonstrates we all have cognitive bias, favoring information that helps us maintain our current way of doing things. Therefore, being able to create an actual shift takes a bit of convincing. It is hard to acknowledge that all along the world has been round, not flat. It is hard to acknowledge that a belief you hold might be wrong.
To overcome this resistance to change means you need to gather and present evidence. You need to keep in mind cognitive bias and try to find evidence that supports the alternatives. This is not to say blindly accept the evidence, rather to ask the question, “If it is true, how does it change things?”
Step 4: Create Relevance
When asking how it will change things if true, if there is little or no perceived value then you are not creating relevance. Perceived value over the status quo is important, as without it there is little motivation for enduring change.
To help create relevance you need to have a good understanding of your goals, what you are trying to accomplish. Ideally having a vision of what you want to achieve or some future state will help in determining if a particular alternative is relevant.
One way to help determine whether relevance has been created is by the degree to which the conflict created in Step 1 has been resolved. Another way is to once again seek out the support of a family member, friend or professional that can help you with discussing the alternatives, the evidence you have gathered and the new path you want to take. The goal is to reduce cognitive dissonance, putting you on track as you head into step 5.
Step 5: Provide Scaffolding
The final step is to go through the process of testing and reinforcing the relevant alternative. This requires scaffolding, using the evidence you have gathered to prove the alternative is a better or more useful approach than previously held beliefs. It is a process that takes time, learning the potential consequences and implications of a round vs. a flat world.
Like a scaffold in construction, the idea is to present lower level concepts first and as those foundations are established you can then build off this foundation, moving to more complex, higher level concepts. An example of scaffolding in education is going from addition to multiplication to calculus. When it comes to sustaining motivational change it requires a similar philosophy, building up the alternative by presenting the evidence you have found over time, not all at once.
A Final Note
From a general standpoint what is nice about the 5-step model is the ability for anyone to use the model as a stand-alone tool, yet this tool is really only the tip of the motivational iceberg. For a deeper understanding of how the model was developed and how it can be applied, Dr. Hoffman wrote a book titled, “Motivation for Learning and Performance.” In the book there are a number of great case studies along with 50 principles of motivation that can help anyone get a better understanding of what really drives our motivations.
Achieving a goal often requires you repeat certain actions, like going to the gym. A common problem is “The Planning Fallacy,” which is a psychological bias where we tend to overestimate what we can accomplish or underestimate the resources we will require for success.
The 2-4 rule is one way to deal with this bias, by establishing an artificial trigger you can use to help monitor and adjust, establishing what frequency and intensity works best for you. The key is finding a good balance.
The way the 2-4 rule works is simple. After establishing your actions, if you fail to hit any of your targets two weeks in a row then you might be over extending yourself. This should trigger a reevaluation of your targets, reducing what you believe you can accomplish in a given week.
On the other hand, if you hit all of your targets four weeks in a row you may not be challenging yourself enough. This should also trigger a reevaluation, increasing your targets.
For example, in an effort to get in better shape you may set a target of going to the gym four times a week for a 30 minute session. If after two weeks you only made it to the gym three times, instead of your targeted eight times, then using the 2-4 rule you would lower your target for the next two weeks. If you have hit all eight sessions, then you may want to consider increasing the frequency, duration, or intensity of your workouts.
While I have personally adopted the 2-4 rule as it works for me, there is nothing that stops you from adopting a 3-6 or 2-5 rule. It all depends on the nature of the goal and what works for you. I recommend trying a few different combinations. You can even try different rules for each goal, but I like simplicity so it is rare for me to deviate from using the 2-4 combination.
Using the 2-4 rule within a period of a few months you should have a good idea of what you really can accomplish in a given week. Certainly things will change slightly as you improve, the holiday season hits or a life event happens, but using the 2-4 rule gives you a concrete way to deal with our hard-wired tendency to over plan and underperform.
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Richard Feenstra is an educational psychologist, with a focus on judgment and decision making.
Bobby Hoffman is the author of "Hack Your Motivation" and a professor of educational psychology at the University of Central Florida.