Motivation = expectation of success compared to now, research shows

October 22, 2014 by Joshua
in Choosing/Decision-Making, Tips

It’s Friday night. You planned to meet some friends for a night out. You haven’t seen them in a long time and looked forward to it. But this week at work was exhausting. Most weeks like this you’d just want to sit on the couch, relax, and take it easy. You feel like you have no energy.

Do you go out?

Some people feel like hanging out with friends will relieve the exhaustion and improve their lives. Others feel like the work it takes to go out isn’t worth it.

The activity doesn’t have to be going out with friends. It can be going to the gym, doing your laundry, cooking dinner, doing your taxes, whatever.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to learn that we can consciously make the outcome we want more attractive?

I’ve written about how what we call having the energy to do something has nothing to do with the energy in our muscles and everything to do with how much success we expect. If you envision spending time with friends as a relief from how you feel now, you’ll feel yourself having more energy to get off the couch to do it. If you think going out will be more like the work you’re trying to escape, what with coordinating, planning, dealing with personalities, and so on, you’ll find yourself losing energy.

There’s plenty of psychology research backing up this perspective. I just read a paper about experiments implying that expectation of success helps—Oettingen, G. (2000). Expectancy effects on behavior depend on self-regulatory thought. Social Cognition, 18, 101-129—thought it also suggests you need to contrast the successful future with an unwanted present. That paper refers to a bunch of supporting literature.

If you want to go to meet your friends, focus on the fun, relaxation, or whatever part of the interaction you like and contrast that with feeling crappy if you stay home. The more you do so, the more motivation you’ll feel to go out.

The same follows with anything else you want to do—exercising, cooking, writing a paper, etc. Focus on the part that would feel successful, contrast that with what you don’t like about now and you’ll increase your motivation. You’ll find yourself doing things you didn’t want to before. You’ll feel you have more energy than you used to.

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By the way, while original research is nice, you don’t have to wait for scientists to experiment and publish to learn these things. You can observe yourself and what works for you. Double-blind controlled experiments help figure out general patterns, but to find out what works for you, you don’t need all that.

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