One of the most common mistakes we make in the decision making process is that we fail to see the connection between our goals, the big decision leading to the goal and the tiny little choices and actions it’ll take to implement the big decision and achieve the goal. One of the best ways to combat this is to identify the goal with enough clarity to think through the actions we have to take and problems we’re likely to face along the way, even if things go perfectly.
In this week’s episode, I explore the difference between being motivated towards a particular goal or away from a particular pain point and how this affects choices and actions as your options unfold. Although on the face of it, the difference between ‘towards’ and ‘away from’ motivation doesn’t look like it should matter that much, our clarity is dramatically affected depending on the motivational direction and this has an enormous impact on our decisions and subsequent actions.
Motivation away from something means you are motivated to get away from or change some negative aspect of your life. For example, you might change jobs because you don’t get along with your boss.
Motivation towards something means you have a clear goal in mind and you’re making decisions and taking actions to move you closer to that desired outcome. You might still dislike your boss but this time, you get clear about what you’re moving towards if you decide to leave. You envisage a specific future for yourself and start taking the necessary steps to help you move towards that future.
In one case, any decision that takes you away from the problem relationship is a good one. In the other case, only decisions that lead you towards the envisaged future are good ones. Clarity is greater, priorities are clearer and it’s easier to work out what to do.
When we’re motivated away from something, we don’t usually spend as much time working out what we want instead and, more importantly, why we want it. This can lead to a lack of clarity so decisions become more difficult to make because we don’t know exactly what we’re trying to achieve.
In the case of changing jobs to get away from your boss, you might end up taking a less satisfying job because your main objective was to get away from him/her. You’re so relieved to get out of that situation that you don’t think as clearly about the long term prospects of the new job and potentially end up equally dissatisfied after a few months.
When we’re motivated towards something, we’re more likely to consider exactly what we want and why we want it. This makes decisions easier to make because options can be more easily ruled out or prioritised based on how well they fit with the vision.
The direction of our motivation also plays a part in determining the emotions that drive or ‘prime’ our choices.
Priming basically determines how you perceive information, what you pay attention to and what you decide to do. In psychological experiments, the researcher often primes the participant to feel a particular emotion and then assesses how this priming changes the course of their decisions and actions.
Primed for Fear or Primed for Hope?
‘Away from’ motivation tends to prime us in different ways than ‘towards’ motivation does. Imagine a footballer having to take a penalty, thinking ‘don’t fail!’ versus thinking “score an amazing goal!” As the ‘don’t fail’ footballer steps forward, he is likely to imagine previous years’ failures, the scathing tabloid headlines if he misses and the crowd’s agonising disappointment. None of these thought processes prime his mind or body to deliver their best performance. His focus is reduced and the chances of success are also reduced.
The “score an amazing goal” footballer might envisage the post-match interviews, the cheering crowds and the glowing headlines the following day. He stands a much better chance of performing at his best and although there are other factors that contribute to his chances of success or failure, performing at his best is vital if he wishes to maximise his chances of scoring a goal.
Since ‘Away from’ motivation is almost always driven by more negative emotions such as fear or anger, taking the right actions and performing at your peak becomes much more challenging. These emotions cloud judgement and can also cause you to second-guess the original decision and avoid taking the necessary actions to implement it.
Emotions associated with ‘towards’ motivation often include, hope, pride, excitement and other emotions associated with happiness. There may still be fear involved but the clarity of goal and the presence of the other, more positive emotions means you’re often able to power through and take a leap out of your comfort zone.
When you’re taking big leaps, it’s useful to have as many things going for you as possible. Making a conscious decision to gain clarity around your goal and motivate yourself to move towards it means you options are clearer as you go along and you have a greater chance of staying focused and feeling resilient in the face of challenge.