How Common Self-Motivation Tactics Invite Self-Sabotage (& What to Do About it)


We all know that making personal changes can be tough. Even when we know that those changes will lead to greater success with our health, relationships and career, we still resist. It’s not hard to believe that the failure rate of self-improvement efforts in general is 65% to 90% (Sellman, D, 2009).

One reason for this astonishingly high failure rate may have to do with typical methods of self-motivation. Common tactics intended to get you in gear often backfire and foster self-sabotage. When you get into the minds of people with motivation issues, it all begins to make sense. Here are typical things people say to themselves with the intention of inspiring a state of inner go-get-‘em.

Come on, man! Get off your butt and get it done!

The inner drill sergeant barking orders – this often lights a fire underneath you, but also invites inner rebellion. Who likes to be ordered around? When you order yourself around, you may also rebel against those orders. Can you say “internal conflict?”

You’re such an idiot. You’ll never learn, will you?

Believe it or not, people criticize themselves for self-motivational purposes. The criticism gives them something to prove wrong – something to push against – but it is exhausting.

I’ve GOT to be the best! If I don’t keep my edge, the other guy will win.

This competitive strategy is good for a few years until the pressure burns out your adrenals or you just need a break.

If you don’t get this project done ASAP, you’ll lose your job, go broke and end up homeless.

Catastrophic thinking can motivate, yes, but it also creates severe anxiety and a desire to just run away and hide.

I’ve just got to force myself to do this.

Forcing yourself is no fun and invites resistance.

If I get this done, I’ll allow myself to eat a Twinkie. If I don’t, I’ll eat nothing but bread and water for a week.

Ah – rewards and punishments. Since you are in charge of the reward and punishment, this is too easy to break. Who are you foolin’? Don’t do it and still munch on that Twinkie, right? Yes, you are only cheating yourself, but you are willing to live with that…

If you think about it, each of the above oh-so-common tactics, alongside a thousand variations of each, invite self-sabotage. Additionally, attempts to coerce, manipulate and otherwise weasel yourself into doing things is an insult to your innate intelligence. Most of us know this, yet somehow we find ourselves still grinding away with these methods, trying to get things done. Is there an alternative?

Yes. I call it Zen Motivation.

Zen Motivation is simple. First, get into a Zen-like state (which is also very simple) then consider what needs to be done. That’s it! Try this experiment:

Get into a Zen state by tuning into some mundane sound, like the hum of your computer or refrigerator or the sound of a fan blowing. You could also choose the sound of running water or distant traffic – any white noise. Don’t choose music or people’s voices or the television, things that generate inner meaning. Choose white noise.

Now, focus on that white noise for up to a minute. Really tune in. Tuning into the mundane sounds in the environment grounds you in the present moment and sets aside your reactive mind. There is an entire body of medical research behind this related to the brain’s Default Mode Network. You know you’re there when after listening to white noise for up to a minute, you feel yourself settle. This is not a conscious choice, but an actual switching of brain networks.

After settling, consider what you need to do right now. With a settled, grounded mind, you don’t need to play tricks on yourself. You know what needs to be done. It is obvious. Doing it is just as obvious. No gimmicks necessary!

NLP students have made a new kind of meditation out of this phenomenon, making sure they are connected to the present moment before making decisions, responding to important issues or preparing for their day. It’s a wonderful practice that leaves you with that Zen-like wholeness, without sacrificing laser focus on doing your best and achieving your goals.

Photo by wEnDaLicious

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6 thoughts on “How Common Self-Motivation Tactics Invite Self-Sabotage (& What to Do About it)”

  1. Definitely. Zen is the way of simple easy life. I’ve been practicing ShivYog for some time and all I’ve understood is that almost always, success, inspiration, motivation, health, relationships and everything else are about our focus and awareness. When we are aware, we know what we need to do. Then…all you’ve to do is do it! Woohoo!

  2. Going within, stilling the chatter of the mind and the lure of keeping our focus outside of ourselves, holds the space for an individual to be present in any task. In the simplicity of it there lies the difficulty.We are so inundated with outside stimulation in today’s world that with out a stilling practice we end up with stress, high blood pressure, burn out and so much more.
    Very well put and I agree. Inner stillness to awareness to task completion.

  3. This is powerful stuff. I’ve never really looked into the art of Zen, but I am very familiar with the concept of being present and not identifying yourself with thought. In the case of motivating yourself, it is a very good use.

    It’s what separates a good artist from a great one. Good dancer from a great one.

    Very good post. One of my favorites.

  4. Hey Mike,
    Zen-like is a great alternative to the inner drill sergeant. Whenever I feel overwhelmed by a really big project I do something similar to being zen-like. I don’t know exactly where I got the idea to switch gears into zen but it works.

    It takes pressure off of me and allows me to move at a more comfortable pace while still achieving my goals.

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