Martha Beck Shares the Best Strategy for Self-Motivation
Martha Beck: So tell me what's been going on in your life since we talked!
Dixie Laite: Okay, I've taken some concrete steps. I got someone to help me develop a website and blog. I want to call it Dametown and write about old-fashioned dame heroes—from the movies or real life—and also my own experiences.
MB: That's huge!
DL: But here's where my discipline problem comes in. I'll say "I'm gonna learn French!" Then instead of signing up for a class, all I do is buy a bunch of T-shirts with French words on them.
Actress Claudette Colbert, a favorite "dame," sent this photo in response to fan mail from 11-year-old Dixie (a.k.a. Sarah). Photo: Philip Friedman
MB: You're stuck in a common pattern, and the cure is so hard for people to grasp. I call it "having the courage to do the small." This means taking tiny, incremental turtle steps.
DL: Let's talk about that. I already put the cover of O on my bathroom mirror to remind me to work on the blog for just, like, an hour a day.
MB: Oh, honey. An hour?
DL: That may be too long.
MB: How much have you been doing?
MB: Here's the reason: Your steps are too big. You're an animal, and your motivational system works the way an animal's system works. But you're trying to apply an analytical approach. You put out a lofty goal and think you'll just keep striving, and the only motivation you need is this vague idea that one day you'll be fantastic. But to train an animal, you give high levels of reinforcement for very small moves. To train a killer whale to jump out of the water, you start by rewarding it just for coming to the surface. If it won't come all the way to the surface, you reward it for advancing four or five feet.
DL: When I tell myself I have to write for only 20 minutes, I usually get going and find it impossible to stop. But I have this platonic ideal of what the blog should be, and now that it's time to really work on it, I worry it's just gonna be...lame.
MB: I'm speaking to you from experience: Every time you sit down and actually write a paragraph, it's a piece of crap compared to your fantasy. That's why it takes courage to do small things. Human beings would rather commit to 12 huge things and then never follow through.
DL: I always seem to pick the path of least resistance.
MB: I don't think it's about choosing the path of least resistance. What you're reacting to is not effort. It's fear. It's fear of the self-loathing you'll feel when you look at something small that you've done and tell yourself how pathetic it is.
DL: There's no real reason to assume I'll fail. I've never really failed at anything I've tried.
MB: Not in the outside world. But inside your mind, you're continuously generating stories about yourself, and these narratives are stronger than anything we might call objective reality. People look for evidence to support what they already believe, and they can construct it out of gossamer. Once, I led a seminar where people were working with horses, and I said to one woman, "Were you an athlete in college? You're so graceful." She sulked all day and finally burst out with "I was doing fine until you started screaming that I should be more athletic! I knew you would say something cruel!"
DL: I'm afraid I'm inadequate, and it's scary to put myself in a situation where I might be proved right.
MB: We create our mental afflictions by creating these narratives—comparing ourselves with others or comparing our performance with what we think it should be. The Buddhists believe a comparing mind is one of the greatest sources of suffering. An animal doesn't do this. When a beaver builds a dam, he doesn't think about whether it's as great as the other dams. He just keeps building.
DL: You must have hit a nerve because I feel like I'm about to cry.
MB: Sweetie, the essential self often weeps when it finds itself understood. I could sit here all day and tell you how amazing I think you are—and I do, by the way—but it won't defeat your own thought patterns. What will help is starting to think of yourself as part brain, but mostly animal. When you attack yourself for not being good enough, you're giving electric shocks to an animal. We've talked about showing yourself the same compassion you'd offer your pets. When you think about them suffering, what happens to your body?
DL: Well, I didn't do that part of the homework—sitting quietly and feeling my physical sensations. I'd rather do 50 push-ups.
"I think of my bookshelves as a vision board," Dixie says. "I fill them with little things that inspire me." Photo: Philip Friedman
MB: Listening to your body is still the most powerful thing you can do to change your life—but if you're not doing it, that means it's too big a step. Before our next session, I have two objectives for you. First, I want you to start noticing how you feel physically when you do something rewarding, even if it's just petting your dog. The second thing is to find a tiny turtle step that you can take every day. You said writing for 20 minutes builds your momentum. Try ten minutes. What you write can be stupid and horrible—in fact, put at the top of the page "This is stupid and horrible"—but do it. When is your energy highest?
MB: So sit down first thing in the morning. By day 4, you'll be tempted to skip it, but keep going, because in my experience, that's the point when the brain starts thinking, Oh, that's what I do at this time every day. Set a timer for ten minutes, and when it goes off, stop and give yourself a little reward. I like a cup of rooibos tea.
DL: Maybe I shouldn't have my coffee until after the ten minutes are up.
MB: Don't rob the animal of anything. We're not taking anything away. We are adding a reward. If you do this, something weird will happen. You'll find yourself whining and pleading to do more.
DL: What if I want to keep going past the ten-minute mark?
MB: Don't. You have to stop after ten minutes, because the animal won't trust you if you lie to it. If it works bravely and proudly for ten minutes, as you asked it to, and then you don't give it a rest and reward, it will feel betrayed and stop working for you. If you get excited and want to keep writing, you can come back to it later in the day. But right now, you want to motivate your animal self by routine and reward until you become enchanted by the activity.
DL: Okay, I'll try. You're very kind. If you're ever in New York, Martha, let me shower you with jewels!
MB: [Laughs] I live in the woods in my pajamas. In all seriousness, if you do the ten-minute thing, that would be the greatest reward you could offer me.
Martha Beck is the author of, most recently, Diana, Herself: An Allegory of Awakening.