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2.18.2013

Life Lesson 6: Choose Your Motivation Wisely

Friday: It's Ok to Have Boundaries
Today: Choose Your Motivation Wisely
If you buy a piece of clothing that doesn’t fit you and plan to use it as inspiration to lose weight, you will never end up wearing it.

I'm interested in motivation. Always. Ask me a question and the first thought I have is, "why do they want to know?" It will often influence my answer. I'm especially interested in how to help people change what motivates them because I'm discovering that skill will be the cornerstone in my career. Working with, essentially, at-risk youth (which is code for poor and minority, usually black, but increasingly Hispanic), trying to help them find intrinsic motivation is tricky. Theory says you start with extrinsic motivation, like McDonald's for every week of good behavior and then help them to see how good behavior is helpful to them in other ways. You slowly remove the extrinsic motivator as their intrinsic motivation increases and wa-la you have a student ready to tackle the world. Or so says theory.

Sometimes I think we choose motivating factors that aren't actually motivating. That too small pair of pants in the closet -- are you really going to lose weight just to wear them? When you were cleaning out your closet and set them to the side, did you really think that would work or were you hoping? I have to confess, I have several "too-small" items in my closet that when I was cleaning I set to the side telling myself that one day soon I'd fit in them, but I think I really set them aside hoping they would magically increase in size more than I thought I'd actually do the work of losing the weight.

Perhaps we do this to ourselves because it's easier. A silent pair of too-small pants in the closet is a lot easier to deal with than a personal trainer. Maybe because the silent pair of pants isn't actually supposed to be a motivator, but a reward. In working with my kids I've found that you have to reward them in short-run instances and slowly work your way up. In other words, it's not as simple as two weeks of rewarding them with McDonald's and they suddenly get intrinsic motivation. On the contrary, it could take months. And the first time, you can't ask a child who's been misbehaving badly in class to go a whole week with good behavior so they can get McDonald's. Even those addictive fries aren't reason enough. Instead, you let them earn smaller rewards faster. One day of good behavior might get them free time at the end of the day. Three days earns them some candy. And then bam -- they've made it a week and they get that McDonald's. You give them small wins so that they slowly learn they can win.

The real reason those too-small pants (or shirt, or skirt, or whatever) aren't motivating isn't really because they're silent. It's because they're a reward for the 30 lbs line -- the end of the line in fact. What's the motivation for losing pound 1? The pants are the McDonald's. What's the free time at the end of the day or the candy? Where are your small wins? You see, the small wins are what motivates you -- things that motivate you convince you to keep going, to keep trying. A reward that comes at the end is just a reward; the rewards in the middle? Those are motivators.

I keep talking about this in terms of weight loss, but you can truly apply it to anything. You have to choose your motivation wisely and you have to give yourself small wins. Many of us are adept at intrinsic motivation and we know that hard work pays off in the long run but there are sometimes those things that require a lot of run; choose your motivation in such a way that you have a reason to keep going even when you can't make out the light at the end of the tunnel. Small wins keep the spirit high.

Tomorrow: Guilt Is A Dish Best Not Served

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