Do you know where the motivation to improve your life comes from? Are you aware of what encourages you to push yourself further, to do your best, and to change things?
While we all want to grow, hone our skills and build a better world, the truth is, we don't always do that. We don't always choose the best opportunity, do what's best for us or take the best path, even if we know what it is.
Sometimes we just let that part of our brain win that wants to save cognitive resources. That part of us that feels safe in the comfort zone. Let laziness win the game. We settle into inertia and make room for procrastination.
Overcoming daily apathy is not easy. We all know that it is much easier to throw yourself on the couch after a day of work than to go to the gym or run, although we also know that exercise is good for you.
However, there are times when a life event precipitates everything, shakes off our laziness and gives us the strength we need to make big changes in our life. The paradox is that, although many times these vital events require a good deal of effort and dedication, instead of taking away the energy they give us an extra boost.
This is why many people can get the best of themselves when they become parents, are entrusted with a challenging career project, or break up a relationship that has lasted for years. The explanation for what is known as the "effort paradox" lies in the activation cost, as Scott H. Young explains.
In everyday life, it is easier to live with autopilot on. We let ourselves be carried away by inertia, letting conflicting habits determine the flow of our life. In this way we avoid making decisions continuously and save physical and cognitive resources.
But once you get into that automatic flow, it's very difficult to get out of it.
This is why many people, even if obese, continue to eat calorie foods and continually postpone the diet. This is also the reason why many people maintain toxic relationships that, in a sense, exist in a precarious balance. And it is always for this reason that we remain trapped in a job that does not satisfy us, but gives us security.
Changing the flow of events and breaking the routine has what we might call an "activation cost". Any personal growth path has to pay that toll. The activation cost is the amount of energy we must use to change certain habits and introduce transformations into our environment.
The interesting thing is that, once the activation cost is assumed, it is as if we have free rein to continue with the changes that previously seemed too difficult or expensive. A new challenge that forces us to get out of the routine often becomes the trigger for other positive changes.
When we have a goal that really motivates us, the enthusiasm spreads to other areas of life and, in a way, reduces activation costs. So it is not unusual for a big change to be followed by other transformations in different areas of life.
Basically, once we get going and have passed a certain threshold of effort, everything else becomes easier and even natural. This is why a person who decides to start running often also begins to eat healthier and is more concerned about their psychological well-being. One change leads to another.
“There is nothing in the world that is worth having or doing unless it means fatigue, pain, difficulty… Never in my life have I envied a human being who had an easy life. I have envied many people who have had difficult lives and have done well, ”wrote Theodore Roosevelt in 1910.
Roosevelt was no masochist, he knew that effort itself is a powerful motivator, arguably the most powerful of all that drive our behavior. In fact, psychologists at the University of Toronto explain that although we usually associate effort with reward and seek rewards to reward ourselves for the effort made, in reality the effort itself is also a value and a reward.
Effort adds value to what we get, but it also has a value in itself that we shouldn't underestimate because it is a powerful agent that stimulates behavior. In fact, some results can be much more rewarding for the effort invested in them. In other words, we are not as satisfied with what we have achieved as with the effort made. We understand that what really matters is not reaching the goal but growing along the way.
This means that when we want to make big changes in life but feel trapped in routine and laziness, we need to find the motivation that is worth fighting for and allows us to overcome the cost of activation. This motivation is obviously personal. The good news is that once we are up and running, it will be easier to keep changing.
But there is a "trap" that we need to be aware of. Many of the things we need to do to grow, improve our interpersonal relationships, or achieve a meaningful life are simply not motivating enough in and of themselves and the cost of activation is too high.
To get around that trap we have to find the sole motivation to do everything else, a motivation that forces us to take things seriously and is significant enough to give us the energy we need. There are no shortcuts, everyone has to find their own reason because what motivates one may be irrelevant to another.