Motivation and Appetite
first published October 10th 2018
Thursday morning, last week, one of my teaching days, was spent giving a presentation to year 2 art students about fostering and sustaining motivation. It’s a topic I researched at length with my colleague, Susan Roan, several years ago, and that work subsequently inspired me to train as a creativity coach. The biggest key to motivation, we discovered through reading some of the extensive research by psychologists Ryan and Deci, is having autonomy. Being reminded of this threw light on a conversation I’d had with friends the day before. All three of us were busier than usual, but while two of us were feeling uncomfortable in the pressure, the other was thriving on it, feeling an increased sense of purpose; enjoying having her mind stretched, and feeling a growth in competence. As she was meeting her challenges and obstacles, she was surfing the ups and downs with equanimity. Meanwhile the other friend and I were fretting that yet another deadline would turn up as soon as we’d met the current ones. There were differences in the reasons for our increased busyness. For myself, and the friend who was also feeling stressed, the extra surge of work was not freely chosen, but was dictated by circumstances around the work we were doing to earn money. While others had set the increase in pace for both of us, the person who was enjoying being extra busy had chosen her new activities. She had complete autonomy in her situation. The reminder was timely for me. I reframed my thinking to better manage the feeling of pressure. I realised that I could shift my perception that I lacked autonomy, by focusing on the connections between what I ‘have to’ do, and my chosen goals. I then brought my attention to the areas in my job where I have some freedom. I was preparing a drawing workshop, where I could choose to include new exercises that I was excited about. The feelings of pressure receded and the new drawing exercise is a keeper. I want to do it too now! This feeling of ‘having to do’ something can really demotivate us. In fact, many of us inadvertently decrease our motivation by shifting from “I want to do this and it matters to me,” to “I should do this because it would be good for me.” In this kind of self-talk, we give away our sense of autonomy to a mental construct, an internalised authority. Better to feel alive in our choices. During my recent exhibition a friend commented that I must have ‘tremendous patience’ to make my paintings. It made me laugh and I replied that this was like imagining teenagers must have tremendous patience to spend so much time kissing. She laughed with me. It’s not that I’m idealising painting. After all, who amongst us didn’t experience some bad kissing in their teens? But we were oh so motivated to keep working at it. Other keys to motivation have been identified as competence and relatedness. To keep going, we need to feel we’re in some ways mastering our subject or skill, getting to grips with it, developing and moving forward, even if it’s three steps forward and two back. And to have someone who’s interested makes a huge difference, even if it’s just one other person. (This helped me with the extra teaching – I have some enthusiastic colleagues and students.) Telling ourselves we’re incompetent, or aiming too high or too low, can decrease our motivation, just as it can decrease flow. Same with not having anybody who's interested in our work, or never sharing our work with other people in the first place. When motivation has been entirely lost, we can feel aimless. At times aimlessness is wonderful – it can be a way of resting and recovering from being too busy. To consciously choose to have an aimless day, following distractions and impulses, is a treat. (I had one of those days on Saturday and it was exactly what I needed.) But for those who have fallen into amotivation and apathy long term, it can feel like Life itself has gone underground, and resistance has taken over. At those times, having too much time can even be worse than having too little. Any extra time we have can easily be wasted on procrastinating, worrying about our choices, allowing distractions to pull us away from what we wanted to do. It can be wasted by passively allowing anything and anybody to divert us from what we’d intended. Amotivation can feel like a loss of appetite for life. And just like losing our actual appetite, it helps to honestly check in with ourselves, what would I really like right now, rather than what is supposed to be good for me or what do I wish I wanted. One person I know began to reconnect with her creativity, after a long disconnect, through gardening at first, and then dancing and craft, rather than going straight back to her specialism. That’s autonomy supporting motivation. So what would whet your appetite for life and creativity?