• Christian Elliot

How to Overcome a Lack of Motivation: Part 5 - Feeling Out of Control


Has life felt a little (or a lot) out of control lately?


Duh...it's 2021.


Who hasn't had to wrestle with the disorientating feeling of a loss of control somewhere?


It's one thing to emotionally prepare for "two weeks to flatten the curve," but this...


This requires...


  • A whole different kind of fortitude to stay strong.

  • A deeper willingness to turn the mirror on ourselves and face our emotions.

  • A whole different set of questions about where to aim ourselves and how to stay on track.


Today, I hope to help you find some of those questions...and your resolve to overcome.


Before I get to the practical, let me first set the stage, and geek out about a couple of fascinating studies that will help you understand 1) yourself, and 2) the connection between a sense of agency and your ability to stay motivated.


WHY THE FEELING LIKE YOU'RE LOSING CONTROL IS SO DEFLATING


One of the most sinister things about this global covid experience we're all living through is how much it is robbing so many us of a sense of agency over important parts of our lives--our relationships, our vocations, our freedoms, our ability to speak freely, etc.


Feeling like we're losing control leads to apathy and floundering.


  • As our sense of control diminishes, so does our sense of purpose.

  • As our sense of purpose diminishes, so does our motivation.

  • As our motivation deteriorates, we become apathetic.

  • As we become apathetic, the worst of our behaviors show up and we gravitate to anything that offers the promise to help us "feel better" in the moment.


That downward spiral has been a major theme of the consultations I've been doing lately.


Since my last article (that went viral beyond my wildest expectations), I've had so many conversations where people have expressed a general feeling of being rudderless.


It's like they're trying to row a boat (move life forward) with oars (disciplines) that can't reach the water.



While much of that hopeless feeling inevitably comes back to grasping for a sense of purpose (as I talked about in part two of this series), control and purpose go hand in hand.


You can't feel a sense of purpose if you perceive you have no ability (no sense of agency) to affect the outcome you desire.

However, I'll submit to you if you can latch on to a sense of agency, that connection can be your waypoint to finding a purpose that keeps your motivation strong.


Before I explain, let's look at a couple case studies in autonomy.


A FASCINATING STUDY OF KIDS AND AGENCY


In Smarter, Faster, Better Charles Duhigg tells the story of two groups of elementary students who were given a set of puzzles to solve.


After reviewing the students' work, both groups received praise from their teachers for a job well done.


However, there was a subtle difference between how the students were praised.


  • In the first group: The teacher's praise came with statements that the students must have worked really hard on the puzzles.

  • In the second group: The teachers told the students they must have done well because they are so smart.


Did you catch the difference?


WHICH GROUP DO YOU THINK WENT ON TO DO BETTER?


To see how each type of praise impacted the students, the researchers gave them another round of puzzles.


The students who were told they must have worked really hard not only worked longer and harder on the second round of puzzles, they actually gravitated toward the more difficult ones.


In contrast, the students who were told they must have done well because they are so smart, repeatedly choose the easiest puzzles and spent less time trying to solve them.


Fascinating right?


The teachers praise not only impacted how hard their students tried, it impacted how they viewed themselves.

A somewhat tangential point worth mentioning here (because it is related to motivation) is the role of identity.


The kids who were simply praised for hard work took actions to embrace the identity of a hard worker.


In contrast, the students who were told they were smart, chose easier puzzles and gave less effort because they didn't want to do anything to threaten the view that they're smart.


Whoa...what a good parenting tidbit right there.


A question worth wrestling with is this: "What piece of your identity (things you believe about yourself) are your actions reinforcing about you?"


THE IMPORTANT LESSON ABOUT MOTIVATION


To help explain the phenomenon above, psychologists use the terms "internal locus of control" and "external locus of control" to describe a fundamental aspect of human motivation.


In short, an internal locus of control means there is a feeling that our actions matter, that if we exercise our will (i.e. work hard), something good will happen.


In contrast, an external locus of control means that something outside our realm of control is dictating events/results to us (hello covid).


In the case of the children mentioned above, those who felt like their hard work paid off experienced an unconscious uptick in motivation, a will to try harder, and had better results to show for their effort.


The children who were told they did well because of innate intelligence, subconsciously felt like their efforts were, in a sense, irrelevant--the problems were easy or hard because of something that was "fixed" (IQ) -- i.e. something outside their locus of control.


A SIMILAR LESSON FROM THE OTHER END OF LIFE


In the same chapter as the study above, Duhigg also discusses a study of the motivation levels of nursing-home residents.


In this study, the residents were grouped into two categories based on their level of compliance with the nursing-home staff:


  • There was a group of rule followers, and...

  • A group of "rebels" who regularly caused a ruckus.


If you were to guess, which group of elderly people would you suspect thrived during their time at the nursing home, and which group declined rapidly?


The answer: The rebels both lived longer and experienced more joy.


Why?


The major difference is the "rebels" experienced an internal locus of control.


In other words, from rearranging furniture, to sitting where they darn-well pleased, to "lunchbox negotiations," they found ways to exercise a sense of agency about their lives.


Said differently, they found ways to express themselves and their preferences.


That expression of preference, and not accepting every aspect of life being dictated TO them, added a sense of meaning to their lives.


In short, they enjoyed their twilight years and stayed motivated because they didn't lose all sense of control.


COMING TO RECOGNIZE THIS THIEF OF MOTIVATION


What I found striking about the above stories was that for both the children and the elderly, the factors that influenced their motivation were (as far as I can tell) below their conscious level of awareness.


It wasn't like the kids or the adults logically ascended to the need for control and acted accordingly.


No, instead, both groups were impacted by their unconscious emotional need, a need of perceived control, and their actions reflected that deeper desire.


The point is, we humans can't help it.


To maintain a zeal for life, we need to feel like we have a say in our destiny.


Yet, herein lies a paradox:


THE PARADOX OF AUTONOMY AND HEALTHY BOUNDARIES


We like boundaries when they serve to protect us and make life predictable.


We loathe boundaries when we perceive they limit our choices and opportunity to express our wishes.


We don't need to control everything, but to stay sane and motivated, we have to feel like we have some level of control.


The challenge, as far as I can tell, is being able to 1) recognize when we have lost (or given up) that internal locus of control, and 2) to pick our battles for control wisely.


To begin getting practical, let's first focus on self awareness and recognizing what's happening to our motivation...


A THOUGHT EXPERIMENT


All around us every day are little "autonomy blockers." -- reminders that "you can go this far and no further."


Most of the time those boundaries don't bother us, but as they accumulate, they can create emotional friction.


Next time you feel yourself befuddled by a loss of motivation, get curious about how much control you feel like you have in life.


Start by wrestling with the simple question:


"Is there anywhere life is (subtly or not-so-subtly) infringing on my preferences or taking away my option to make choices?"

Then, take inventory.


Imagine a balancing scale of "control vs. no control" and start stacking appropriately-sized bricks on each side.


Ask yourself...


  1. Am I feeling a loss of control regarding something significantly important to me (job, health, family, living situation, etc.) OR...

  2. Might my motivation be low because of an overstuffed life where a disproportionate amount of my time is dictated to me, and thus it feels like I have too few options exert agency over my life.


NOTE: The latter is especially important if there is no "major" problem going on--Ever heard the saying "death by a thousand cuts?" These are the "cuts" you're looking for.


In either case, simply recognizing where you are feeling out of control can bring a level of clarity about how to begin to regain your sense of control, and thus your motivation.


  • For major areas of disappointment, it may be time to ask some hard questions about how much control you ever really had, and what's worth fighting for.

  • For day-to-day stressors...it may be time to ask some hard questions about why you're taking on so much, and where you can offload the unnecessary.


Strategically picking your battles for where to exert your sense of agency can help you 1) regain a healthy sense of control, and 2) come to peace with what you can't (or don't need to) control.

In fact, one simple trick to fanning the flames of motivation is to look for something where you can create (i.e. exert control and establish) a series of small, easy wins.


Nothing pours gas on the fire of motivation like a series of wins.


String a few together and you'll feel your motivation return.


String enough together and you'll start to feel unstoppable.


GET STRATEGIC


As you look for an area to create wins, ask yourself if what you're considering is truly worth the fight (vocation, health, family, etc), or if you're majoring in minors--i.e. you're finding small distractions so you can avoid the deeper work of self-reflection.


Those distinctions matter.


Not every day is the day to lean into uncomfortable introspection, but never doing so is the path to a life of regrets.


Here's an important reality: Life is going to hit all of us hard at times...


But, life does not have to rob you of the precious feeling of autonomy if you have the courage to look for healthy outlets for your genuine need to feel in control.

In fact, that simple, introspective skill might be one of the biggest differentiators between those who seem to maintain their motivation through the ups and downs of life, and those who let the "downs" keep them down.

RECALIBRATING YOUR EXPECTATIONS


Sometimes the place to start is by moving the levers of your expectations.


Remember the movie Groundhog Day?


The protagonist could not move his life forward (i.e. break the curse of living the same day over and over), until he became a better person.


First he was in denial about his lack of control.


Then, he tried every carnal pleasure, went through a depressed funk of realizing how unfulfilling those carnal pleasure by themselves really are, and even tried to kill himself--repeatedly.


BUT, what pulled him out of the spiral was when he realized there were so many sweet experiences he could have, so many skills he could cultivate, so many people whose lives he could positively impact...in the one day he had.


He recalibrated his expectations.


He stopped being self-focused and became others-focused.


He stopped the woe-is-me, and the self-absorption, and then felt the exhilaration of looking for ways he could serve.


He went to work on getting a little better every (Groundhog) day.


He only had one day, but he learned to make the most of it.


Maybe your days, and world events, feel a bit like Groundhog Day.


Maybe there's a new way to frame your Groundhog Day?


Maybe, this weird time can be:


  • An incubator for the skills you've always said you wanted to cultivate?

  • A chance to study something you've always wanted to study?

  • A chance to come out stronger and bring something of value to a hurting world that will need your gifts to help others overcome.


Part of what covid has handed us (besides obvious global challenges) is:


  • A chance to ask higher-level questions about our lives.

  • A wake up call to make health a higher priority.

  • A spotlight to illuminate areas in need of personal growth.

  • An invitation to cultivate an unshakable character, and to develop skills that will make life after covid sweeter.


As long as you don't neglect questions about what fuels you with a sense of contribution, you're bound to find answers to what will be a great life worth living.


Covid will end eventually.


In the meantime, find and fight the battles you must fight.


Do that...and your motivation will return.


I promise.


IN SUMMARY


We humans have a very delicate relationship between feeling in control and staying motivated.


Having a sense of agency over our lives gives us the motivation to attempt difficult goals.


Lose the feeling of agency (aka autonomy) and you'll lose the source of motivation.


So, dear reader,


  1. What can you do (control), right now, that will move you closer to your goals?

  2. What good habit can you practice, that is undoubtedly part of moving life forward?


You can't steer a car that's not moving.


But when you start taking action you'll feel motivated because you realize you have a chance to affect the outcome.


So...go get moving and experience the motivational uptick that comes from exercising your choice to do something positive, even if it's small.


Do that, and I'd bet you'll even feel a little sense of pride show up.


String some small wins together and you've learned one more secret to reclaiming and galvanizing your sense of control and motivation.


Hope you found this helpful.


Until next time,


Christian


PS. If finding a sense of control related to your life and health goals is something important to you, we should talk. Helping people find their mojo and get healthy is what I do all day every day. If you're curious how we help you put all the pieces together, check this out.



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