A lot of the time, motivation doesn’t come naturally.

A lot of the time, what does come naturally is the impulse to quit.

Many of us have a lot of experience with having to grind on, day after day, with little or no reinforcement.

Our projects are long-term projects, which involve a lot of hurry up and wait.

Our long-term projects involve a lot of having to stay consistent, day after day after day, despite not seeing many visible, tangible results for awhile.

Our long-term projects involve a lot of mental and emotional backflips in order to stay focused and motivated— because that focus and motivation isn’t coming from the outside world while we patiently wait for our work to come to fruition.

It’s easy to quit— not because we lack character, passion, or intelligence.

No, the reason why it’s so easy to quit is because of good old behavioral psychology: we’re wired to persist in or repeat behaviors when they’re reinforced.

And sadly, the incremental goals and efforts that lead to success in the long term frequently go a long time without being externally reinforced.

It’s enormously discouraging when we go long periods without being reinforced for staying consistent and focused in our goals.

When we’re losing weight, it’s day after day after day of carefully monitoring calories or carbohydrates or macronutrients, often to just see incremental differences on the scale— that is, if we see any differences on the scale at all for awhile.

When we’re building muscle, it’s day after day after day of lifting incrementally larger amounts of weight, an exercise which is painful and boring in the moment, often to not see any discernible benefits at all in the short term.

When we’re making our way through a challenging book, it’s day after day after day of forcing ourselves through dense paragraphs that we may not find entertaining or edifying— all to make what appears to be minuscule progress, one page at a time.

When we’re in recovery, it’s day after day after day of not doing the one thing we actually want to do— just to add one more day onto our “days clean” total after another excruciating twenty four hours. It often begs the very legitimate question of why we gave up our substance of choice in the first place, if feeling like THIS is our reward.

The examples from everyday life are abundant and illustrative: persisting in long-term projects, pursuing long-term goals, day after day, with little to no outside reinforcement can be a serious drag.

Is it any wonder so many people give up on their long-term goals in favor of more immediate gratification or reinforcement?

Contrary to what many people believe, it’s not a crazy or unintelligent decision when one casts aside one’s frustrating long-term goals in favor of short-term gratification. In fact, most people have done this a lot in their lives. It’s not because those people are bad or weak people— it’s because sticking with a long-term goal sucks, when there’s no immediate, visceral reward to keep you plugging away.

That’s why how we manage our own minds is so important.

When reinforcement and encouragement is lacking from the outside, we need to take control of the situation internally.

We need to CREATE motivation from inside— and the only way we can do that is to use the magnificent mind we’re all equipped with in ways that are creative, and which serve our long-term goals.

We need to remember that playing make-believe isn’t just for children. Using our imaginations and our capacity to visualize is vital to our ability to stay focused and motivated when reinforcement isn’t plentiful in the environment around us…and, as it turns out, our magnificent minds are extremely potent tools when it comes to manufacturing motivation from within.

In our minds, we can fast-forward and experience the benefit from a long-term goal right now.

In our minds, we can experience what it’s like to be free of a habit we’re struggling every day to kick.

In our minds, we can enjoy the feeling of being one year sober, five years sober, twenty years sober— even if we’re struggling to achieve our first twenty-four hours substance free.

In our minds, we can imagine the look on the faces of our biggest critics when we actually achieve what we set out to achieve.

I’ll let you in on a little secret we psychologists know: MOST of the motivation we’ll ever experience is created as pictures and sounds and stories in our heads. It may sound silly when I tell you to “play make believe,” but the fact is, we’re already playing make believe ALL THE TIME.

Your ability to imagine and visualize is your secret weapon in a world where reinforcement for our long-term projects is often hard to come by.

Use your secret weapon.

Use it creatively.

Use it on purpose.

And most importantly: use it OFTEN.


Subscribe to the Doc’s weekly email newsletter  and never miss a blog entry or social media post. 

2 thoughts on “The zen of the grind.

  1. Can you talk a little bit about how this intersects with this?

    It’s basically outcome visualization vs. process visualization. I feel like I run into the issue with outcome visualization all the time…which actually holds me back from getting started doing anything, or following through with it. I am also a person who is very externally motivated though…so how do I get around that?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s