Do you know where the motivation to improve your life comes from? Are you aware of what encourages you to push yourself, do your best and change things?
Although we all want to grow as people, hone our skills and build a better world, the truth is that we do not always do so. We do not always choose the best option, do what is best for us, or take the best path, even if we know what it is.
Sometimes we simply let that part of our brain that wants to save cognitive resources to overcome. That part of us that feels safe in the comfort zone. We let laziness win the game. We settle into inertia and make room for procrastination.
Overcoming that daily apathy is not easy. We all know that it is much easier to throw ourselves on the sofa after a workday than to go to the gym or for a run, as much as we know that physical exercise is good for us.
However, there are times when a life event precipitates everything, shakes us off laziness, and gives us the strength we need to make other changes in our lives. The paradox is that, although many times these vital events demand a dose of effort and considerable dedication, instead of sucking the energy out of us they give us an additional push.
That is the reason why many people can get the best of themselves when they become parents, are given an important career project, or break up a long relationship. The explanation for what is known as the “effort paradox” lies in the cost of activation, as Scott H. Young explains.
Do you know your activation cost?
In our day to day life, it is easier to live on automatic pilot. We allow ourselves to be carried away by inertia, allowing contrasted habits to determine the flow of our life. This way we avoid making decisions continuously and save physical and cognitive resources.
However, once we get into that automatic flow, it is very difficult to get out.
That is the reason why many people, even though they are obese, continue to eat caloric foods and continually postpone their diet. That is also the reason why many people are in toxic relationships that, in a way, subsist in a precarious balance. And that is the reason why we stay in a job that does not satisfy us, but gives us security.
Changing the flow of events and breaking that routine has what we might call an activation cost. Every path of personal growth must pay that toll. The activation cost is the amount of energy that we must deploy to change certain habits and introduce transformations in our environment.
The interesting thing is that, once we assume that activation cost, it is as if we have free rein to continue with changes that previously seemed too difficult or expensive. A new challenge in our life 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, that enthusiasm usually spreads to other areas of life and, in a way, lowers activation costs. So it is not unusual for a great change to be followed by other transformations in different areas of our lives.
In practice, once we get going and have exceeded a certain threshold of effort, everything else becomes easier and even natural. That is why a person who decides to start running often also begins to eat healthier and cares more about his psychological well-being. One change leads to the other.
Effort as a motivator in itself
“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well,” wrote Theodore Roosevelt in 1910.
Roosevelt was not a masochist, he knew that effort is a powerful motivator in itself, probably the most powerful of all the motives that guide our behavior. In fact, psychologists from the University of Toronto explain that, although we usually associate effort with reward and often seek rewards to reward us for the effort made, in reality the effort itself is also a value and a reward.
Effort adds value to what we obtain or achieve, but it also has a value in itself that we should not discard 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 has been achieved as with the effort invested. We understand that what really counts is not reaching the goal but growing along the way.
That means that when we want to make big changes in life, but we feel trapped in routine and laziness, we need to find that reason that is worth the effort and will allow us to overcome the cost of activation. That reason is obviously personal. The good news is that once we are up and running, it will be easier to keep changing.
However, there is a “trap” that we must be aware of. Many of the things that we must do to grow, improve our interpersonal relationships or achieve a meaningful life are simply not motivating enough in themselves and the cost of activation is too high.
To get around that trap, we must find that one reason to do everything else, a reason that forces us to take things seriously and that is meaningful enough to give us the energy we need. There are no shortcuts, each person must find the reason for it because what motivates one may be inconsequential for another.
Inzlicht, M. et. Al. (2018) The Effort Paradox: Effort Is Both Costly and Valued. Trends Cogn Sci; 22(4): 337-349.