Why Motivation Alone Stinks: Part I-Difference Between What and How

Stan Goldberg, PhD

Advice gurus flood Saturday morning cable shows with programs on weight loss, exercise, wealth management, and becoming more authentic. By following their instructions we will become the person we deserve to be—The god or goddess everyone envies. What’s usually missing is how  we should do it.

In the first article of this week’s three-part series, I’ll discuss why relying on what you want to do or become can set you up to feel guilty when you fail. In the second article, you’ll learn the fault isn’t yours but most likely the guru’s. In the final article, you learn how to pair “how” with “what” suggestions.

When Motivation Isn’t Enough

A number of years ago I enrolled in an expensive cycle training program guaranteeing I would become fit in sixty days, reduce weekly cycle times by minutes, and allow me to live longer. I think there was the implicit guarantee my sex life would improve, and I’d grow more hair.

We spent thirty minutes determining my exact cycle positioning. Then I was directed to the “conditioning studio” were high-tech stationary bikes in a semi-circle faced a thirty-year- old instructor who looked like an Esquire model.

I looked around and saw ten other cyclists who were less than half my age (sixty-five at that time) easily pedaling without breaking a sweat. I had visions of the instructor calling my wife with the news I died on the bike and asking if she would like to buy it as a remembrance.

After the class—one of the most painful experiences of my life—I asked the instructor if there was an alternative way of training. Something more sensible, like moving me from where I was physically to where everybody in class had been for years. Possibly he could design a routine that wouldn’t give me a heart attack. When he looked as if I didn’t understand the importance of being motivated to change, I asked for a refund.

Long on Whats and Short on Hows

The problem with most improvement gurus and self-help books is they are long on “whats” and short on “hows.” It’s easy to tell someone what they should be doing with their life. If it weren’t, there wouldn’t be 127,085 self-improvement books listed on Amazon. Yes, that’s a real number. Nor would the cable stations be flooded with “holier than though” sounding programs on the importance of eating better, loving more, saving, and a host of other self-improvement programs.

But few have useful suggestions for how one should move from A to Z; from where you are to where you would like to be. I remember one popular TV guru compassionately listening to a woman who ate junk food her entire life. With tears in her eyes, she asked how she could transition from her current foods to those he pushed. His response was, “throw away all the foods in your house and buy only the ones I recommend.”

Why “Just Do It” Doesn’t Work

His “advice” paralleled Nike’s ad campaign where the slogan was “Just Do It,” implying the only thing necessary for achieving athletic goals was the decision to accomplish them. Wouldn’t life be wonderful if the only thing we needed to succeed were motivation? In Part II I’ll discuss why motivation isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Preventing Senior Moments, by Stan Goldberg

Offers practical and achievable prevention strategies for senior moments.


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