Push Motivation and Pull Motivation

It is common for us to believe we can get ourselves to do things by scaring ourselves or criticizing ourselves. We remind ourselves we will be sent to jail if we don’t send in our tax forms. We call ourselves lazy, or procrastinators, or weak-willed. No will power. Avoidant. We will be broke, alone or arrested. We try all manner of coercive force to get ourselves to get stuff done. Sometimes it “works.” We harass ourselves enough that we actually do the darned thing. The problem is, just like coercive political force, eventually the citizens rebel. We are not building trust in ourselves, good will, feelings of mastery or accomplishment. We are sacrificing the long-term building process for the short term goal. These are push motivations: we try to push ourselves to do things in order to avoid negative consequences. And, of course, punishment never works over the long term.

On the other hand, motivation is important. How do we energize ourselves to make efforts toward our desired outcomes? It turns out that pull motivation works better. Pull motivation means we are moving toward something we want rather than trying to avoid something we don’t want. Pull motivation is visions of desired outcomes, challenges toward mastery, evidence of success. Paying attention to pull motivations works better over the long run because we are making efforts toward what feels good and out of what feels good. We are simultaneously benefiting from accomplishing the goal but also from the experience of doing it in a way that improves our relationship with ourselves. We come to trust ourselves more, enjoy our efforts, and experience the pleasure of mastery. We give ourselves credit for successes and gains rather than berating ourselves for errors or losses.

So let’s go back to the problem of doing the tax return. It is time consuming. Even if you have an accountant do it for you, you have to gather all the information. How do you generate pull motivations for an unpleasant task? Well, you can imagine how you will feel when you have completed it. You can be curious about how long it will take. You can envision possible outcomes and how you will manage them. You can track progress with a log or a timer.

I was talking to someone who was describing weight loss techniques and she said, “You have to think about what you want more. Do you want the chocolate cake more or do you want the weight loss more?” In many ways this is part of the dilemma: do you want the short term gains or do you want the long term gains? The problem is the short term gains are currently visible and the long term gains are not, and may even be more uncertain. And sometimes we want the short-term pleasures because our inner balance is off and we need some relief. If we lose sight of the pulls toward what we eventually want, we can get off track in a different way.

Ultimately, it comes down to letting ourselves know what we want and choosing to go after those outcomes. Many pleasures require effort before the joy is realized: like playing a musical instrument, avoiding unhealthy foods, getting our teeth repaired, or training for a marathon. Our choices are a balance between the short term gains and the long term gains. Push motivations tend to work against building a long-term, effective motivational system because they makes us adversaries to ourselves. Make your mind an ally. It works better over the long term.


About norasblog

I am a psychotherapist with a private practice in downtown Chicago.
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2 Responses to Push Motivation and Pull Motivation

  1. tonyputman says:

    Clear and insightful, Nora.
    “Coercion elicits resistance” — even when it is self-coercion.
    Better question: “Do you want the chocolate cake more, or a light, vibrant body more?” I suspect nobody can actually envision, on a motivation-producing feeling level, a “weight-loss”, which is a comparative and an abstraction.

  2. norasblog says:

    Good point! I love the idea of a “Light, vibrant body”!

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