Motivation: Why it’s not about willpower

We’re all pretty practiced at beating ourselves up when we set a goal and don’t follow through, or we do it for a little and then it falls off (ahem…my mindfulness practice).  Our mind tells us that tenacity, grit, and trying harder is the solution.  However, the data just don’t support this argument (Sansone, 2009). When it comes to motivation over the long run, as humans we’re just not built for preserving at things we don’t like. Sometimes we might try to hack the system and give ourselves a treat after a painful workout and hope that keeps us inspired. But like beating ourselves up, dangling rewards after the fact also is unlikely to build new, long-term habits. 

So where does that leave us? A more compassionate, science based, and flexible strategy is finding ways to make the new behavior or activity at least a little pleasant This might mean you are gardening instead of doing burpees, which may be less satisfying initially but also gets you off the Start new goal, fall off, and then feel like you failed cycle. There may be some important actions that you can’t make pleasant, and in that case, we can recall our values. If we can connect to a sense of meaning and purpose in the moment, that can be enough to keep up going (e.g. while eating more veggies = thinking about more healthy years chasing your little ones around). In sum, grit is a wonderful thing to access when really needed, but for the day-to-day grind, we need other types of fuel. Reach out and we can discuss how this principle can be applied to your life.


Sansone, C. (2009). What’s interest got to do with it?: Potential trade-offs in the self-regulation of motivation. Psychology of self-regulation: Cognitive, affective, and motivational processes, 35-51.

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