The golden question. The one to which we all want the answer…
Well, have you ever seen someone you idolize — someone who is just crushing it at life, overcoming obstacles and showing immense mental strength — and thought: man, they must be wired differently?
Particularly if they’re doing their second Hell Week as a US Marine and you’re just trying to keep up with a 10-day yoga challenge you set for yourself.
Yes, it can seem like you’re worlds apart, but you aren’t. They are human, too, and although they have different neurological maps and habits, thinking they were born differently is a cop-out. Because then you can blame your lack of motivation, confidence, success, etc. on something else other than what it really is.
You should know that the question of how to turn negative thoughts into positive action is actually a trick question.
This is because a negative thought is like a freight train. It won’t magically turn into a fluffy white cloud or rainbow, but it can be redirected – this the secret: knowing that it’s actually inaction and indifference that will help you overcome negative thoughts.
Let’s dive deeper.
Table of Contents
Where Do Your Negative Thoughts Come From?
Let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room — or more appropriately, the Chimp in the room — because you probably should know that you have one living inside of you.
Yep, we all do. The sooner we all know this, the better (though some won’t, but hey, we need natural selection).
If you’re feeling overwhelmed with emotions, out of sorts, and all over the place, then it’s likely that your Chimp has been freely frolicking inside the deep recesses of your subconscious mind. Roaming like the King of the Jungle—calling all of the shots and pushing all sorts of buttons and triggers.
You’ve most certainly seen what it looks like when a Chimp goes rogue: people rampaging shopping centers for toilet paper, screaming at people who are just trying to help or, even worse, loading a gun and shooting anyone in sight.
OK, that’s the extreme end, but ultimately the people that you look up to and admire for mental strength have trained their Chimps to work with them, like an army commanding its soldiers.
It’s an important skill to learn, but they started right where you are, with the realization that they even had a Chimp. The next step is to know that your Chimp actually wants to help you, but it just sometimes gets things wrong—like, really wrong.
What Is the Chimp and Why Do We Have It?
Your Chimp is obviously not a real Chimp, but it’s a way to view the part of our subconscious mind that directs our lives, the primal and emotional part of us.
The Chimp concept was coined by Professor Steve Peters in the Chimp Paradox, a book detailing how our Chimp (being a certain part of our subconscious mind) can either be our best friend or our greatest enemy—like ruin-your-life style enemy.
It is a paradox because it is the key to happiness and contentment but also the reason why so many of us suffer from our mental strength and wellbeing.
Your Chimp has been with you since you were born. It was there before your logical mind even developed. It told you to cry when you needed milk, to throw a tantrum to get your parents’ attention, and to laugh when something was funny.
It stored your emotional memories and helped you make beliefs about life so that you could learn what you needed to do to survive.
Kind of cute, right?
Yeah, not so fast.
Your Chimp is the reason you curse at someone whilst driving when they cut you off—the one that rages when you see an injustice or hear something that offends you. It’s also the one that gets in first and reminds you of all the times you failed and how painful it was so that you steer clear of any type of pain.
This is separate from your logical, rational thinking brain – it’s operating in a completely different system, almost as if you had two brains.
One of them is virtually automatic and thinks for us without our input and is based on emotion. The other is under our control and allows us to think, as we want to. The trouble is that these two ’brains’ do not think the same way and they do not typically agree on the interpretation of what is going on. –– Prof. Steve Peter
Our Chimp Thinks 200x Faster Than Us
Crucially, the Chimp’s way of thinking is up to 200x times faster than the human, logical brain and a hell of a lot stronger (just like in real life).
When your Chimp senses something is about to happen, something it thinks will cause you pain, it’ll immediately throw out all kinds of things to remind you why you shouldn’t do it. Anxiety, stress, panic attacks, negative thoughts… this is your Chimp.
And because your Chimp was there long before your logical mind developed, it could install certain beliefs into your internal computer before your logical mind could say:
Hold on a second, I don’t think we need to assume everyone thinks you’re worthless just because you didn’t do well at school.
When your Chimp senses something is about to happen, something it thinks will cause you pain, it’ll immediately throw out all kinds of things to remind you why you shouldn’t do it.
How does it do this?
Why negative thoughts of course! It pushes the “Go” button for anxiety, and it can cue the flow of negative thoughts whenever it thinks you need them.
What to Do With Your Chimp and Negative Thoughts
Now you know where your negative thoughts come from, here are four techniques you can use to manage your Chimp and any negative thought patterns you’re stuck in:
Become Aware of the Irrational Beliefs That Your Chimp Holds.
By looking over and around your childhood to find the reason why you don’t feel like you’re enough—why you hate public speaking, why you can’t make friends, or why you just don’t feel like you deserve happiness—that’s when you’ll start to see how pointless and irrational it is.
Going into the subconscious and identifying memories is super helpful to understand where it picked up the belief and change it.
Begin to Notice Your Thoughts as They Come In.
Practice getting calm and noticing your thoughts through meditation.
Watch what happens when you throw logic at a negative thought, anxious feeling, or panic attack. The minute you question a belief or a thought you take the power out of it and into the knowledge that you don’t have to agree with it.
You can just decide and say: “You know what, today I actually do want to feel good about socializing, and what I felt like when I was 12 is not relevant to me now. Here’s what’s going to happen…”
Show it who’s boss.
Tell It How You Want to Be.
Put in the good stuff. Show it pictures and use exciting words. It will listen. Repeat it clearly and repeat it often.
Lastly, Remain Consistent.
This will take time to make changes but know that a few weeks can bring about real, neurological changes.
If you feel panic, stress, or anxiety kicking in, trigger the Vagus nerve (it’s like the handbrake for the Chimp’s accelerator) by getting into deep breathing and turning off the limbic “fight or flight” system.
Cold-water in the face, gargling water, singing and deep breathing are all ways to stop the immediate physiological effects and get into a calmer state where you can rationalize your way out.
Over time, using all of these techniques will change your brain and neuro-circuitry, and these tools will change your life.
Give yourself time, develop an understanding of the Chimp, and you’ll realize you don’t actually need to overpower it. You just need re-route the negative thoughts and let them go somewhere else if they don’t serve you.
More to Inspire Positive Actions
Motivation is one of the main reasons we do things — take an action, go to work (and sometimes overwork ourselves), create goals, exercise our willpower. There are two main, universally agreed upon types of motivation — intrinsic motivation (also known as internal motivation) and extrinsic motivation (external motivation).
The intrinsic kind is, by inference, when you do something because it’s internally fulfilling, interesting or enjoyable — without an expectation of a reward or recognition from others. Extrinsic motivation is driven by exactly the opposite — externalities, such as the promise of more money, a good grade, positive feedback, or a promotion.
And of course, we all know about the big debate about money. It’s surely an external driver, but is it possible that it can sometimes make us enjoy what we do more? A meta-analysis that reviewed 120 years of research found a weak link between job satisfaction and money.
And what’s more — there is some evidence to suggest that more money can actually have an adverse effect on your intrinsic motivation.
Regardless of its type, motivation is still important to get you moving, to improve, excel, and put that extra effort when you feel like you don’t have a single drop of energy left to keep going.
So, let’s see some of the best things you can do to keep the fire going, even when you’d rather just indulge in pleasant idleness.
Table of Contents
Why Intrinsic Motivation Tops Extrinsic Motivation
“To be motivated means to be moved to do something.”
Generally speaking, we all need motivation.
An avalanche of research, though, shows that when it comes to finding the lasting drive to “do something,” internal incentives are much more powerful than extrinsic rewards.
Why? It’s simple.
There is a great difference when you engage in something because “I want to,” as opposed to “I must.” Just think about the most obvious example there is: work.
If you go to work every day, dragging your feet and dreading the day ahead of you, how much enjoyment will you get from your job? What about productivity and results? Quality of work?
Yep, that’s right, you definitely won’t be topping the Employee of the Month list anytime soon.
The thing with external motivation is that it doesn’t last. It’s susceptible to something psychologists call Hedonic Adaptation. It’s a fancy way of saying that external rewards are not a sustainable source of happiness and satisfaction.
When you put in 100-hour weeks in order to get promoted, and you finally are, how long does your “high” last? The walking-on-a-cloud feelings wear off quickly, research tells us, making you want more. Therefore, you are stuck on a never-ending “hedonic treadmill,” i.e. you can progressively only become motivated by bigger and shinier things, just to find out that they don’t bring you the satisfaction you hoped for, when you finally get them.
Or, as the journalist and author Oliver Burkeman wonderfully puts it:
“Write every day” won’t work unless you want to write. And no exercise regime will last long if you don’t at least slightly enjoy what you’re doing.
If you want to find out more about the different types of motivation, take a look at this article: 9 Types of Motivation That Make It Possible to Reach Your Dreams
Benefits of Intrinsic Motivation
If you are still unconvinced that doing things solely for kudos and brownie points is not going to keep you going forever, nor make you like what you do, here is some additional proof:
Studies tell us that intrinsic motivation is a generally stronger predictor of job performance over the long run than extrinsic motivation.
One reason is that when we are internally driven to do something, we do it simply for the enjoyment of the activity. So, we keep going, day in and out, because we feel inspired, driven, happy, and satisfied with ourselves.
Another reason has to do with the fact that increasing intrinsic motivation is intertwined with things such as higher purpose, contributing to a cause, or doing things for the sake of something bigger than ourselves or our own benefit. A famous study done by the organizational psychologist Adam Grant is case in point.
By showing university fundraisers how the money donated by alumni can help financially struggling students to graduate from college, their productivity increased by 400% a week! The callers also showed an average increase of 142% in time spent on the phone and 171% increase in money raised.
Internal motivation has been found to be very helpful when it comes to academia, too. Research confirms that the use of external motivators, such as praise, undermine students’ internal motivation, and, in the long-run, it results in “slower acquisition of skills and more errors in the learning process.”
In contrast, when children are internally driven, they are more involved in the task at hand, enjoy it more, and intentionally seek out challenges.
Therefore, all the research seems to allude to one major revelation: intrinsic motivation is a must-have if you want to save yourself the drudgery we all sometimes feel when contemplating the things we should do or must do.
6 Ways to Enhance Your Intrinsic Motivation
So, how does one get more of the good stuff — that is, how do you become internally motivated?
There are many things you can do to become more driven. Here are the ones that top the list.
The theory of self-efficacy was developed by the American-Canadian psychologist Albert Bandura in 1982. Efficacy is our own belief in whether we can achieve the goals we set for ourselves. In other words, it’s whether we think we “got what it takes” to be successful at what we do.
It’s not hard to see the link of self-efficacy to higher self-esteem, better performance, and, of course, enhanced motivation. People with high self-efficacy are more likely to put extra effort in what they do, to self-set more challenging goals, and be more driven to improve their skills.
Therefore, the belief that we can accomplish something serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy — it motivates us to try harder to prove to ourselves that we can do it.
You can learn more about self-efficacy in this article: What Is Self Efficacy and How to Improve Yours
2. Link Your Actions to a Greater Purpose
Finding your “why” in life is incredibly important. This means that you need to be clear with yourself on why you do what you do and what drives you. What is intrinsically rewarding for you?
And no matter how mundane a task may be, it can always be linked to something bigger and better. Psychologists call this “reframing your narrative.”
Remember the famous story of John F. Kennedy visiting NASA in 1961? As it goes, he met a janitor there and asked him what he did at NASA. The answer was:
“I’m helping to put a man on the Moon.”
Inspirational, isn’t it?
Re-phrasing how your actions can help others and leave a mark in the universe can be a powerful driver and a meaning-creator.
Volunteering is a great way to give back to the world. It can also help boost your internal motivation by making you feel important in supporting the less fortunate, learning new skills, feeling good about yourself, or linking to some of your inner values, such as kindness and humanitarianism.
When you remove any external reward expectations and do something for the pure joy and fulfilment of improving others’ lives, then you are truly intrinsically motivated.
4. Don’t Wait Until You “Feel Like It” to Do Something
A great piece in the Harvard Business Review points out that when we say things as “I can’t make myself go to the gym” or “I can’t get up early,” what we actually mean is that we don’t feel like it. There is nothing that psychically prevents us from doing those things, apart from our laziness.
But here’s the thing: You don’t have to “feel like it” in order to take action.
Sometimes, it so happens that you may not want to do something in the beginning, but once you start, you get into the flow and find your intrinsic motivation.
For instance, you don’t feel like going to the gym after a long day at work. Rather than debating in your head for hours “for and against” it, just go. Tell yourself that you will think about it later. Once in the gym, surrounded by similar souls, you suddenly won’t fee that tired or uninspired.
Another way to overcome procrastination is to create routines and follow them. Once the habit sets in, suddenly getting up at 6 am for work or writing for an hour every day won’t be so dreadful.
5. Self-Determination, or the CAR Model (As I Call It)
The Self-Determination theory was created by two professors of psychology from the University of Rochester in the mid-80s—Richard Ryan and Edward Deci. The theory is one of the most popular ones in the field of motivation. It focuses on the different drivers behind our behavior—i.e. the intrinsic and extrinsic motivators.
There are three main needs, the theory further states, that can help us meet our need for growth. These are also the things which Profs. Deci and Ryan believed to be the main ways to enhance our intrinsic motivation—Competence, Autonomy, and Relatedness (CAR).
If our jobs allow us to learn and grow, and if we have enough autonomy to do things our way and be creative, then we will be more driven to give our best, and our performance will soar. In addition, as humans are social beings, we also need to feel connected to others and respected.
All of these sources of intrinsic motivation, separately and in combination, can become powerful instigators to keep us thriving, even when we feel uninspired and unmotivated .
6. Tap Into a Deeper Reason
Some interesting research done in 2016 sought answers to how high-performing employees remain driven when their company can’t or won’t engage in ways to motivate them—intrinsically or extrinsically.
The study tracked workers in a Mexican factory, where they did exactly the same tasks every day, with virtually zero chances for learning new skills, developing professionally, or being promoted. Everyone was paid the same, regardless of performance. So there was no extrinsic motivation at all, other than keeping one’s job.
A third kind of motivation was then discovered, which scientists called “family motivation.” Workers who agreed more with statements such as “I care about supporting my family” or “It is important for me to do good for my family” were more energized and performed better, although they didn’t have any additional external or internal incentive to do so.
The great thing about this kind of driver is that it’s independent of the company one works for or the situation. It taps into something even deeper—if you don’t want to do something for your own sake, then do it for the people you care for.
And this is a powerful motive, as many can probably attest to this.
Frederick Herzberg, the American psychologist who developed what’s perhaps still today the most famous theory of motivation, in his renowned article from 1968 (which sold a modest 1.2 million reprints and it the most requested article from Harvard Business Review One More Time, How Do You Motivate Employees? wrote:
“If I kick my dog, he will move. And when I want him to move again, what must I do? I must kick him again. Similarly, I can charge a person’s battery, and then recharge it, and recharge it again. But it is only when one has a generator of one’s own that we can talk about motivation. One then needs no outside stimulation. One wants to do it.”
Herzberg further explains that the so-called “hygiene factors” (salary, job security, benefits, vacation time, work conditions) don’t lead to fulfillment, nor motivation. What does, though, are the “motivators”—challenging work, opportunities for growth, achievement, greater responsibility, recognition, the work itself.
Herzberg realized it long ago…intrinsic motivation tips the scales when it comes to finding long-term happiness and satisfaction in everything we do, and to improving our overall well-being.
In the end, the next time when you need to give yourself a bit of a kick to get something done, remember to link it to a goal bigger than yourself, and preferably one that has non-material benefit.
And no, don’t say that you tried but it’s just impossible to find internal motivation. Remember the janitor at NASA?
Because once you find your internal generator, you will be truly unstoppable.