The following article was provoked by my temporary decline in motivation to write.
Since the temporariness continued, I decided that it was time to do something about it. I attempted a small experiment, which didn’t consist in letting a few hundred mice into my apartment this time. For the purpose of the experiment, I used a very popular method in the world of personal development.
The effects and conclusions were so surprising that they became the cornerstone of this article. And although the title may seem provocative, I will show later that it has much more to do with reality than you might think.
What did my motivational decline look like? In a nutshell—I didn’t feel like writing, which wouldn’t have been a problem if I hadn’t assumed earlier that I wanted to create a series of articles about—oh, the irony—motivation. As a result, I felt that I had to write, which only added to my discouragement.
Therefore, I decided to look for a solution. I wanted to return to writing or at least stop feeling this compulsion, which curbs creativity. I did find a solution, as evidenced by the article. However, to understand why it worked, we should first ask ourselves why on earth compulsion would bother anyone.
WHY DO WE HATE HAVING TO DO THINGS?
The feeling that we have to do something is sometimes annoying. Virtually no one likes being forced to do things unless they like BDSM, in which case they still derive pleasure from it only under certain conditions and with specific partners.
The feeling of compulsion is like a spoon of salt in your favorite coffee. Even extremely pleasurable activities such as going away on vacation, spending time with your loved ones, or having sex, may be disrupted by the note of duty.
One of the best examples is New Year’s Eve.
I know very few people for whom New Year’s Eve parties are the best parties of their lives. I usually have only a decent amount of fun, much less than during typical weekend get-togethers. And even though I don’t know that many people who think that New Year’s Eve is a special evening, I do know quite a lot of those who hate the pressure to have fun that is connected to this holiday. They are bothered by the fact that they have to.
The same holds for vacation. I think everyone will agree that resting in tropical countries is a pretty good way to spend free time. Now imagine that someone tells you: “You have to sunbathe and swim in the pool.”
For a few hours or days — depending on the last time you took a vacation — it could be fun. However, with time, you will start to feel bothered by this restriction resembling obligatory kindergarten naps. Why is that?
The phenomenon responsible for this feeling is reactance. I have described it in detail in my article “Why Does the Forbidden Fruit Taste So Good?”, which will be published soon.
In short, reactance means that when we feel that our freedom is limited, we tend to act against the thing that limits it. It often transforms into the well-known “I won’t wear a cap” and “I’ll have my ears frostbitten to spite my mom.” Of course, people differ regarding what they consider to be a violation of their freedom.
To some, this will be a mere suggestion that they might do something differently, to others—an authoritative order at work.
The feeling that our actions result from autonomous decisions makes us feel comfortable. We like feeling that we paddle our own canoe.
How do we deal with the fact that sometimes we really have to do things?
IT’S JUST A TRICK
One of the most popular tricks in the world of personal development is changing the words. Facebook is full of images that suggest that if you replace the word “have” with “want,” you will turn your life around. And although it’s just a trick, as Jep Gambardella would say, this trick often brings pretty good results and a lot of commotion, too.
First, a little about the commotion.
It is caused by the fact that many people simply hate lying to themselves. And how can you not feel this internal contradiction when you’re about to tell yourself: “I want to get up at six for work”? I am one of those people who simply hate intentional self-deception. However, I decided to check this trick out, as I was already in a situation where my motivation had declined. The experiment began.
I sat back in my chair and began to think: “I want to write an article.” It wasn’t easy to get used to the idea, but it did work after a few minutes. And then I thought… it was bullsh*t.
I was positive that I didn’t want to write anything. That I had other priorities at that moment. Without thinking, I focused on those, and my writing remained untouched. And this is the rather unspectacular way in which my experiment ended.
Does that mean that the trick is useless? Not really.
WHAT THE “HAVE/WANT” TRICK DOES
This experiment showed me the perverse nature of tricks. I am for real, long-term solutions to problems; hence my prejudice toward them. However, I have realized that there are actually some situations in which tricks can be successfully used.
For example, when we completely forget that we have a choice, as in the case of me and my writing. Using a simple exchange of words, I checked whether I really wanted to write. It quickly turned out I didn’t. Thanks to this check, I finally stopped thinking about it and got down to something else. Although the trick didn’t motivate me to write, it helped me get rid of the unpleasant feeling of being compelled. In this way, one of the goals that I have mentioned at the beginning was achieved.
Still, I didn’t begin writing, so I dug further. I thought about what the causes of my low motivation were.
The reason was simple—the expected reward in the form of satisfaction with the written series was insufficient. At that time, some other things were more important to me. I did not quite realize that, so I tried to force myself to deal with the writing.
In short, I understood that I had some other priorities at that moment and that I wanted to postpone writing.
However, can you use this trick to motivate yourself? I believe you can. You just need to understand what it is about.
Since we don’t like having to do things, the have-want exchange serves to free us from the feeling of being forced and shifts the focus to our natural motivation. Of course, motivation is connected with anticipated rewards.
For instance, if I go to sleep on a Sunday night and think that I have to go to work, then the reward for going to work is money (as well as career development, contact with colleagues, fulfilling one’s ambitions, etc.), and, consequently, food, the standard of living, entertainment, and much more. The punishment for not going to work will be unpleasantness, overtime, no bonus, etc.
Therefore, we face a choice:
- “Not to go to work” and risk being told off/getting fired/using your leave at request,
- “To be late for work” and be told off by your boss,
- “To go to work” and have peace of mind.
In the face of this choice, we most likely decide to “go to work.” In other words, of all the options that I have at the moment, I actually do want to go to work! No self-deception.
To use this trick successfully, you just need to understand that you always have a choice. To additionally increase your motivation, you should think about the reward (or a possible punishment). In this case, about the money that you will get for going to work. Or, even better—about something that you will buy for it.
Of course, such decisions are not taken rationally, step by step. They work automatically. However, when the machine stops, you should go back and take a look at it.
What’s the conclusion then?
REMEMBER ABOUT THE REWARDS
Surrounded by routine, we often forget about the reward that we should reap at the end of the road: we can only see more and more tasks to perform ahead of us, and we don’t try to see what is waiting behind them. In such moments, some begin to think: “I don’t even know why I’m doing this…”, “Feels like it makes no sense…”, or “I’ve lost all enthusiasm…” It is accompanied by the feeling of senseless obligation.
Sometimes it arises from a real change of priorities or in your system of values. I once had a client who for years had felt the compulsion to achieve one goal. Upon closer inspection, it turned out that he wasn’t interested in the goal at all, yet he kept wasting his time and energy by constantly thinking about it. That was the moment to reflect and choose new goals.
At the same time, you have to remember that a permanent change of priorities does not occur frequently unless you are a teenager undergoing puberty. In many situations, the reason for a decline in motivation will be a temporary change of your priorities (as it was in my case) or simply forgetting about your goal and reward.
Okay, but is it so easy to forget about the goal?
I believe that you did once enter a room, thinking to yourself: “What did I want?” Wondering “Why the hell am I in here?” is a sample of what we feel when we forget about our goal. It doesn’t have to mean that we don’t care about it. We just went off course for a moment. Long-term goals, due to the distance of the reward, are all the more exposed to our temporary amnesia.
This is why it is so important to know what our goal is and to remember about it. There is a reason for which the last element of setting a goal in the SMARTER model is writing it down and preferably hanging it in a visible place. Some people even prepare pictures symbolizing their goals.
Let’s take a simple example.
If I’m very hungry, I think about food. The collage of my favorite dishes appearing in my imagination motivates me to eat something as soon as I can. This is also true of the need to use the bathroom. Since those are biological mechanisms, their priority is high. And the method itself is very effective—we don’t tend to forget to use the bathroom or eat when we’re hungry. You can approach your goals in a similar way.
Most readers of this blog know that I have regularly meditated for the past year. I have also experienced motivation swings. What helped me was thinking about the goal toward which meditation was to lead me. It was usually enough because I saw meditation as one of the logical steps toward the thing I wanted to achieve.*
*Some people, when they hear “Remember about the reward,” will immediately slobber over the vision of the attained goal. This is why I wrote “remember” instead of “keep on thinking.” It is important to see certain logical steps leading toward our goals and take them, remembering about the reward. Simply lying in your bed and imagining all the glory won’t get you far.
WHAT’S THE GOAL?
We might not even forget what our goal is. We may just have no idea why we have to do something.
If your parents told you to study, they usually didn’t add “… to have a good job, be happy, and prosper.”
If you’ve ever heard from your partner that you should take care of your appearance, she probably didn’t add “… to be an attractive man for me.”
If your boss has told you to prepare something for tomorrow, he or she probably didn’t have to explain “… so that the project doesn’t fail.”
The cause-and-effect relationship ended with “have to.” The reason behind it is purely practical—we don’t always have the time to add information and explain everything. Besides, we think that others will know what we mean. This is why it’s good to ask about this goal or think by yourself about what the goal is.
When you already know the final goal, e.g., “a good job,” you get at least two benefits: the first one being the reward that you can see, and that drives you to action, and the second being the ability to choose. If the goal is a “good job,” then are there any other ways to achieve it? Maybe instead of learning biology, you could start tinkering, selling lemonade, or developing your passions? Answers will vary. You can demarcate a few alternative paths and walk the one that suits you best.
People oriented toward rigid procedures will often say: “I have to, I must, I should.” Learning what the goals standing behind the facade of obligation are allows you to adopt a creative approach in finding solutions. As a result, it allows you to make some—at times really shocking—discoveries, such as: “How could I spend so many years doing it this way if there’s a much easier and more pleasant way of doing it?”
Okay, so what about the title? Don’t you have to do things?
YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO ANYTHING
Let’s think about the words “have to.”
At first, they may seem to be simple academic verbal juggling. However, it’s not about philosophical dwellings on the nature of modal verbs but practice. The fact is that there are certain things that have to happen: after a night, a day has to come*, when I drop a ball, it has to fall, I have to eat to survive, etc.
*David Hume might disagree on this one. After all, he claimed that if after tonight a morning came, it did not prove that the same would happen the next day. But, as I’ve written, this is a practical discussion, not a philosophical one. 🙂
However, actual compulsion arising from the rules governing the world around us is different from our subjective feeling of having to do something. Since the feeling of being forced to do things is connected with the implementation of some specific goal, it leads us to one conclusion: you have to do something only when you want to pursue goals or needs. If you let those go, you actually don’t have to do anything.
Of course, you do have to breathe, eat, sleep and drink. If you want to survive. However, if you wanted to go on hunger strike (non-rotational), you couldn’t follow the thought: “I have to eat.” Quite the reverse, your imperative would be: “I have to not eat.”
In the same way, no one has to take care of their family, job, friends, career or health. Unless he or she believes these things to be important aspects of his or her existence and wants to live a good life.
Behind every “have to” lurks some goal or need that we want to satisfy. In many cases, this is unconscious. And when we forget about it, the feeling of obligation becomes overwhelming.
After all, “I have to get up for work in the morning” sounds different from “I have to get up for work in the morning… because I want to earn money.”
“I have to take out the trash… to have a clean house.”
“I have to see my girlfriend… so that she’s not alone at a moment like this.”
“I have to take care of my family… to have a home I like.”
We often feel that we have to do something in case of dilemmas that we don’t really want to consider.
The problem with motivation usually means a problem choosing between something pleasant at the moment vs. something pleasant in the long run. Just as in the case of the famous marshmallow experiment, which in our day could easily take the form of a smartphone-Facebook experiment.
The other problem area is the conflict between something unpleasant at the moment vs. something unpleasant in the long run. The example could be: either you go out to have a run on a cold day, or you don’t take care of your health and have weight problems.
An average person woken up by a crying child in the middle of the night probably won’t think: “I want to check up on him or her.” The first thing that comes to mind is “I have to.” It is caused by the fact that taking care of the family, especially children, is so important to most of us that it wouldn’t ever cross our minds that we could leave them to their own devices.
Of course, in fact, the person doesn’t have to take care of the child. However, the possible consequences are dramatic, so he or she doesn’t even consider them. This is the something unpleasant at the moment (getting up at night) vs. something unpleasant in the long run (the child’s injury/illness) dilemma. Therefore, even if no one is forced to do it, he or she may feel so. The truth is that everyone makes this (usually automatic) choice by his or her values, e.g., the value of family, which he or she believes in. The person does so to cultivate this value.
What do we get in exchange? As I have written earlier, we don’t like feeling like slaves to circumstances. The realization that you don’t have to but choose to do something is at least a little better (a little less bad) and frequently becomes a revelation and liberation. The mother in the example, thinking that she has to get up again to take care of her child, may at least find solace in the fact that she does it to take care of her loved ones.
WHEN HAVING TO DO THINGS MAKES SENSE
After these several thousand characters, one might feel that having to do things is something that should be avoided at all costs. There is a certain group of linguistic purists who have this postulate, although I don’t agree with it.
The “I have to do something” finds application in all kinds of excuses. When we want to refuse to do something for someone without offending him or her, “having to do things” might become a polite pretext. A woman bored on a terrible date may say that she “left the stove on and has to go.” In this way, she avoids the need to explain which would arise if she said brutally (although truthfully) that she wanted to go home.
Besides, having to do things is relatively harmless in case of things that we don’t want to question. There’s no need to question the fact that we have to eat, sleep, or see our beloved. Unless we feel like practicing some intellectual stretching. Aside from my few really busy friends, the need to eat or sleep isn’t uncomfortable to anyone.
Sometimes having to do things is just a linguistic habit that departed from its original meaning a long time ago, the way the word “f*cking” used by some people is no longer a swear word but an all-purpose adjective. This is why I avoid linguistic purism, in which each use of this word is treated as a sin. If there are no negative feelings associated with it, I don’t think that anything should be done about it.
The words “have to” introduce a lot of confusion. Our natural tendency to fight for freedom makes us experience compulsion as unpleasant. To prevent it, various linguistic tricks are proposed. Some of them do make sense; however, you can discover their true power after you’ve understood the mechanisms behind them.
Besides, every feeling of compulsion is connected with a need or a goal that we want to pursue. Understanding them allows us to free ourselves from the only legitimate, burdened with obligation, road toward our goals. As a result, more creative and appropriate ways of achieving what we want become possible.
Our feeling of obligation is often treated as if it were actual compulsion. We instinctively put it on par with the law of gravity, which prevents us from seeing that we always have a choice. And we don’t have to do anything. We should remember this the next time we are bombarded with have-to thoughts.
Linguistic fetishists sometimes treat having to do things as pure evil. However, it has its applications that shouldn’t be abandoned. If you belong to linguistic fetishists, how should you say it to yourself?
I think that a good solution is using the word “want,” so:
For example, “I want to have money, so I’m looking for a job.”
This form is, first of all, focused on the goal, and it leaves room for other paths, without unnecessary dogmatism.
What’s the conclusion then? I believe that eulogizing the word exchange is overrated, but if you take a closer look at it, it has some practical applications. I recommend trying it for yourself and sharing your experiences. 🙂