It’s 6:00am, winter. You are warm and comfortable in bed. The air is cold and the floor, icy. The alarm goes off. Time to get up…
How to you make yourself do things that you don’t feel like doing? When it’s a cold winter morning and you have to get up in the dark to go to work, how do you make yourself leave the warm bed? If you’ve just started a diet, how do you resist the doughnuts your work colleague decided to share? How do you make yourself strap on the running shoes and go jogging? Doing things you don’t feel like doing is hard work—it takes willpower. But where do you get the motivation?
Focus on the negative
One way to make yourself do things is to imagine all the horrible consequences of failure. If I’m trying to get out of bed in the morning, I can remind myself that if I don’t show up, I’ll get fired. I don’t want to get fired, so I get out of bed. The more unpleasant the consequences, then the more motivation I get. And the more vivid my mental picture of the consequences, the stronger the motivation. As I’m imagining, I can feel the shame and despair that would come upon me. And it drives me to action. Contemplating failure, shame, and embarrassment is a powerful motivator to get something done.
As a short-term strategy this works well. For small things, it can be just enough push to get going. If I happen to care a lot about the negative consequences, then parts of the brain called the amygdalae start firing. This kicks off the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response—releasing adrenaline into the blood stream. This in turn raises blood sugar levels and gives a burst of energy (of sorts).1 Some people deliberately put themselves in situations like this. Situations where bad things will happen if they don’t work hard. The do it because this stress effect motivates them to get things done. Our physical wiring makes fear of failure (or embarrassment, or guilt, or shame, or poverty) a powerful motivator.
As a long term strategy though, focussing on negative consequences is not the best. Kicking off the body’s fight or flight response is the definition of stress. Our bodies don’t do well when we’re in a constant state of fight-or-flight. The adrenal glands secrete a hormone called cortisol that supresses our immune system.2 It makes us more prone to gain weight, and just generally doesn’t feel good. We’re not built to be in a constant state of stress.
Focusing on negatives also means that we’re continuously feeling those negative emotions. If I do that often enough, I’m feeling embarrassed, guilty, shamed, poor, etc. for no good reason. I haven’t failed yet—but it feels like it. This pattern can also becomes a habit. My brain gets used to focussing on negative outcomes all the time, whether I need the motivation or not. Experiencing negative emotions all the time, about things that may never happen, is not a good way to live. So perhaps focussing on the negatives isn’t the best way for me to get self control.
Focus on the positive
So what do I do then? Perhaps focusing on positive outcomes will be a better approach? If I can make myself anticipate a reward, then that should motivate me to do the good things I don’t feel like doing. If I want to make myself go jogging, then I can focus on how much I want to feel fit or lose weight. I can imagine how good that will feel, and that will motivate me to get my shoes on.
Professional athletes use techniques like this to keep pushing through ‘The Grind.’ Jim Taylor puts it this way:
In training and competitions, you arrive at a point at which it is no longer fun. I call this the Grind, which starts when it gets tiring, painful, and tedious. The Grind is also the point at which it really counts. The Grind is what separates successful athletes from those who don’t achieve their goals. Many athletes when they reach this point either ease up or give up because it’s just too darned hard. But truly motivated athletes reach the Grind and keep on going. […]
To be your best, you have to put a lot of time and effort into your sport. But, as I noted above, there are going to be times—the Grind—when you don’t feel that motivated.
When you feel this way, focus on your long-term goals. Remind yourself why you’re working so hard. Imagine exactly what you want to accomplish and tell yourself that the only way you’ll be able to reach your goals is to continue to work hard.
Try to generate the feelings of inspiration and pride that you will experience when you reach your goals. This technique will distract you from the discomfort of the Grind, focus you on what you want to achieve, and generate positive thoughts and emotions that will get you through the Grind.3
While I’m not an elite athlete, the idea is still the same. Focus on the positive outcome and use that to propel you through the difficulty. Visualise the reward and stay focussed on the goal.
This is a definite improvement over focussing on the negative. Instead of dwelling on bad things that might happen, I savour the good that will come from my actions. I get a good feeling from expecting something good and the experience of the real reward once I achieve it. This means less stress and helps form better mental habits. All up, a big improvement on constant stress.
Although focussing on the positive helps, there are two problems that it doesn’t solve. The issues are not so much with focussing on the positive, but with the attempt to achieve anything at all. With any of these approaches either I succeed and make myself do the thing, or I don’t. If I succeed, I risk of becoming proud. If I don’t, then there’s disillusionment and feelings of failure to deal with. Both are problematic.
The problem with success
The first problem is that if I do succeed, then I am at risk of becoming proud. This is especially true if success becomes a pattern. I may well begin to think that I am entitled; that I have earned privileges others haven’t; that my hard work has somehow made me better. A certain smugness creeps into my voice and I become a less compassionate person. I become someone I do not want to be.
That may sound somewhat dramatic. What does it matter if I’m proud of my achievements? Why not celebrate a win? Why not let success boost your confidence to go on to bigger and better things? I’m not saying that enjoying success is always bad. Those kinds of things are not the kind of pride I’m talking about. But, they might be the first steps down that path.
The kind of pride I’m talking about is where you begin to think you’re better than others because you ‘achieved’ something. And the terrible trouble with this kind of pride is that it’s subtle. It creeps in without you realising it. Every tiny little step seems so reasonable. I start to think if only people were a little bit more like me they wouldn’t be in such a mess… From there it’s such a tiny step to looking down on people who struggle with self-control. And it starts with small successes.
The problem with failure
The second problem is failure. Even though focussing on my goals and positive outcomes is a good motivator, it’s not perfect. And it can’t be perfect, because of our biology. Research has shown that people’s willpower is limited. It’s like a muscle that get’s tired from over-use. And like a muscle, our willpower is affected by how tired we are and how long it’s been since we’ve eaten. So at some point my willpower will run out, and I will succumb to temptation.
When I do succumb to temptation, I’m left with a whole bag of disappointment. If I’m not careful, then I’ll start to mentally beat myself up and lay on the guilt. Perhaps even with the intention of not repeating my mistake. And I’m right back focussing on the negative, which is counter productive. The best I can hope to do is put it behind me and move on. And to do that I need an extremely desirable goal. I need a goal so desirable that it will keep getting me back up and trying again, no matter how many times I stumble.
So we have two problems—the problem of success and the problem of failure. What may surprise you is that Christianity has had both problems nailed for 2000 years or so. It’s just that most people are mistaken about what Christians believe. What most people think Christians believe is almost the exact opposite of the truth.
Most people think that Christianity is about being good. Every day God keeps an eye on all the good things and bad things you do. In the end, God will weigh all those up, and if you were an OK person then he’ll let you into heaven. If you were a heinous evil muderer of some sort, then he will send you to hell. And most of us think we’ll probably be OK. We’re not as bad as some other people we know, and we’re sorry when we do bad things. And God’s into forgiveness, somehow. So it will be OK. … Except that it won’t. Because that’s not Christianity at all.
So what do Christians believe? You can sum up the gist of it in two simple truths.4 Together, they neatly counter the two problems.
- You have already failed;
- You have already won.
You have already failed
This truth isn’t a popular one, but unfortunately that doesn’t make it any less true. The truth is that we are all broken—every one of us—and we live in a broken world. And much of it is our own fault—both collectively and individually. We’ve all failed in one way or another. God would be justified if he decided to just wipe us all out and start over. We’ve all blown it.
Let me be clear here (because of the time we live in). I’m not endorsing victim shaming. Evil people do evil things to other people. That doesn’t make their victims guilty. There are no excuses. But, being a victim of one evil does not magically absolve me of guilt from any other evil I might choose to do. And though I might be a nice, respectable person (on the outside), I still hurt people I love and fail to do good things I know I should do. So I am without excuse. I have already failed.5
This truth keeps me from becoming proud. When I remember this, I understand that I don’t impress God. And if people knew the truth about my inner world, I would never impress anyone else either. I’m no better than any other person on this planet. We’re all infected with the same terminal illness. So I never have any reason to think myself better than someone else.
You have already won—the good news
The truth of having already lost is pretty depressing. It’s not something I enjoy talking about. The good news is that the story does not stop there. The second truth is that you are more loved than you can imagine. And though you have already failed, God is offering you a swap.
What Christians believe is that Jesus was God himself, become a person. Now, we’ll have to explore all the mind-boggling implications of that another time. For the moment, let’s focus on why Jesus became one of us. The reason Jesus came was to die the death you should have died and live the life you should have lived. Jesus came and lived a perfect life. Though he was poor, misunderstood, mistreated; he did everything right. But, instead of saying ‘go and do what I did,’ he offers us a swap. He takes our punishment and guilt and shame, and we take his perfect record. We get not jut a clean slate, but a slate with all the test answers already filled out 100% correct. And in neat handwriting too.6
This solves the problem of failure. I may fail to get my running shoes on some mornings. And sometimes I will eat that doughnut. But I know that it’s not all over. My exam paper has already been handed in with a 100% mark. Now, that doesn’t make it a good idea to eat the doughnut, but when I fail, my failure can no longer crush me.
Now, those two truths help with the twin problems of failure and success. But, do they help with doing good things I don’t want to do?
I said earlier that to keep going even when you fail, you need a really desirable goal. If you understand those two truths, then you find something priceless. Something that’s worth fighting through the grind for. Something more valuable than life itself. Jesus put it this way:
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure, buried in a field, that a man found and reburied. Then in his joy he goes and sells everything he has and buys that field.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. When he found one priceless pearl, he went and sold everything he had, and bought it.” 5
Now be careful, this passage is not saying that we have to work super-hard and give up everything so that God will begrudgingly hand us a gold star. God is not a stingy miser who has to be cajoled into blessing us. No, the kingdom of heaven was Jesus' way of talking about his mission. He was saying that if you understand what he’s on about, you would be willing to give up everything you have for it, and by happy about the exchange. It’s that good.
Unfortunately, what is difficult for most middle-class westerners like myself to grasp is that God is offering himself. Not some trinket. Not a magic super power. God is offering relationship; friendship; family. With him.
Think about that for a moment. Think about who it is that is making the offer. This is someone more powerful than any world leader. Someone more royal than the queen of England. Someone more wealthy than Warren Buffet, Richard Branson and Elon Musk combined. Someone smarter than Stephen Hawking or Albert Einstein. This is God himself, not some low-level angelic functionary rubber-stamping a form. This is the God who created the universe. This God wants you to be part of his team.
If you understand this, it changes everything. Because if you’re friends with God, you’re part of his team. You’re on a mission. You’re saving the world. And it gives you a reason to get out of bed in the morning that’s much better than ‘so I don’t get fired.’ It gives you a better reason to avoid the doughnut than, ‘I want to be healthier, just because.’ It gives everything we do meaning and purpose, no matter how mundane it might seem from the outside. We’re like secret agents working in plain sight. Everything we do has potential to be eternally significant. That’s what I want to be getting me out of bed in the morning.
Wikipedia Contributors (2016). ‘Stress (biology).’ Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopaedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stress_(biology)#Cortisol [Accessed 19 May 2016]. ↩︎
Taylor, J. (2009). ‘Sports: What Motivates Athletes?’ Psychology Today, 30 October 2009. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-power-prime/200910/sports-what-motivates-athletes [Accessed 21 May 2016]. ↩︎
If you want to read what the bible says about this, check out Romans 3:9–18. ↩︎
See 2 Corinthians 5:21, if you'd like to know what the bible says about it. ↩︎