Day 22 – Motivation


Today’s post is about motivation – where you get yours, what motivates you most, your preference for certain types of motivation, and how you can harness and sustain motivation so it helps you work towards longer term change (if that’s what you want).

What Drives You – Stick or Carrot?

Some of us are more motivated to change or take action to avoid risks or negative consequences (stick) and some of us are more motivated by the benefits (carrot) of that change or action.

At the beginning of the month, many MOBsters shared their reasons for wanting to take a booze break and quite a lot of those reasons were to do with the stick. Drink might have already been causing some physical health problems or you wanted to prevent any in future, you were experiencing difficulties at work or at home, or there were other negative consequences that you wanted to avoid by stopping for a bit, or permanently.

It wasn’t all about the stick though – some of you wanted to take a Sober Sprint / MOB because of what you saw as the possible benefits – saving money, losing weight, feeling better about yourself etc.

Even if your main reason for doing a MOB was to raise money for charity, this could be a bit carrot and a bit stick. The carrot part is helping others by raising money, and feeling good about yourself as a result. The stick part can be seen as an example of strategic pre-commitment – where signing-up to something and telling other people about it makes you keep to your Sober Sprint / MOB because you don’t want to let other people down or embarrass yourself by announcing an incomplete Sober Sprint / MOB.

For most of us I expect there was a mixture of stick and carrot in our reasons for doing a Sober Sprint / MOB, and it is likely there will be a combination of the two going forward as well.

Do your Goalposts Need Moving?

In my view, neither stick nor carrot motivation is “worse” or “better” than the other, especially when you are starting out – we all need a reason to start thinking about change, and that reason needs to be important enough to start doing something about it.

But check-in with yourself now and then to see whether that original source of motivation is still relevant – because if it isn’t you might have less reason to keep on sticking to the changes you made.

If you quit smoking just to save up for a holiday (carrot), what happens when you are on that holiday, it’s paid for and you have reached your goal? If you do a Sober Sprint / MOB because you are worried about your liver function results or are concerned you might be developing a dependency on alcohol (stick), what happens after the Sober Sprint / MOB when your blood results show a positive change and you have learnt that you are not dependent on booze?

In both cases, something motivated the initial change, and it worked well – whether stick or carrot. But in the process of making the change, those original motives go away. Health improves, money worries fade, relationships are better, you are happier at work/home, you are getting more done, you know that you ‘can’ control or avoid booze…

When our original concerns or goals become less important, feel more distant, and less related to where we are at now, the danger of a gradual slide back to our old patterns and habits is high.

Now is the time to revisit your original reasons for doing a Sober Sprint / MOB. If you want to maintain all or some of the positive change past the end of your month off booze (whether that’s staying stopped or cutting down), what will your new motivation and reasons be for doing that?

Maybe you are still worried or concerned about health risks or other negative consequences of drinking, and so there will always be a stick element to your reasons for changing your relationship with alcohol.

Some people feel that even though the negative consequences are in the past, they need to remember ‘how bad it got’ because forgetting will put them at risk of complacently sliding back into old ways.

If you think it’s necessary to remain connected in some way to the downside of alcohol, so that you can remain strongly committed to not drinking or drinking less, then it might be important to reflect upon and remind yourself about your personal story now and then. It can certainly guard against the thinking errors of euphoric recall and magical thinking (see Day 14) if you are able to remember the reality – that drinking and getting drunk wasn’t actually great fun for you, and that you won’t be able to revert to the same old drinking habits without the same old consequences too.

But who wants or deserves to always be beating themselves with a stick? Try and add some carrots too.

Although remembering the downside of drink can be an important part of preventing complacency and thinking errors, do try to build in some motivation around what is better now that you have taken a booze break – you want to protect and appreciate the positive changes too.

For instance, some of the positive changes you may have seen during the Sober Sprint / MOB might not have been the reasons why you started the Sober Sprint / MOB, but they might become some of the reasons why you want to stay stopped or cut down.

Approach or Avoidance

In the language of health psychology, some behaviour changes are considered to be ‘avoidance’ (stopping doing something, the absence of a behaviour – like quitting smoking). Others are considered to be ‘approach’ (doing something new – like flossing each day, or eating 5-a-day). Cutting down or taking a break from booze would be an avoidance behaviour – because you are doing less drinking.

But just seeing your Sober Sprint / MOB as an absence of booze can create a void where the only thing that’s changed is that alcohol has been taken away, whilst the rest of life remains the same. This is likely to make it more of a struggle to remain booze-free or reduce how much you drink long-term. It also relates to awfulising abstinence (see Day 14). If you don’t do anything new to replace alcohol, and disregard the benefits of being booze-free, you are more likely to think of abstinence as an unpleasant chore that must be tolerated.

Rather than seeing it as merely an absence of alcohol, try to think of stopping drinking or cutting down as a way of creating more opportunities to do different or new things – whether that is meditation, spending more quality time with your kids or partner, doing more exercise, drinking more herbal tea and water, getting earlier nights, doing different social activities, making progress on a project etc.

Intrinsic versus Extrinsic Motivation  

Sticks and carrots are great – but many of them are extrinsic sources of motivation.

It can help us stay motivated longer-term if we are able to develop intrinsic motivation too.

Extrinsic motivation is only doing something because of what we get (or avoid) by doing it. Sources of extrinsic motivation for doing a Sober Sprint / MOB could include saving money, reaching a weight-loss goal, avoiding someone’s disapproval, or gaining their approval, raising money for charity, avoiding a ‘punishment’ such as our partner leaving us if we don’t change, improving our health, preventing health risks…

I’m not knocking extrinsic motivation. Stick or carrot, these are the things that mobilise people to make changes, and in some cases keep them motivated for quite some time, especially if they keep moving their goalposts.

Intrinsic motivation is about process rather than outcome. It comes from the satisfaction of doing something for its own sake, for the enjoyment of doing, rather than what you will gain or avoid by doing it. This is one giant carrot but it is not visible to anyone else, only you know it’s there. Intrinsic motivation is better at maintaining long-term change, because the pleasure of doing something for it’s own sake keeps you going, even if the things that motivated you extrinsically become less important or irrelevant.

You can build intrinsic motivation by developing a sense of curiosity about this lifestyle change, and learning to enjoy the process and sense of inner satisfaction as you develop and use new skills, as you notice how it becomes easier to make the decision not to drink, as it feels more natural to relax in different ways, as you start getting more done, relate to people differently etc.   

Perhaps you will always need extrinsic sticks and carrots to stay stopped or reduce your drinking post-Sober Sprint / MOB. That’s OK. Do whatever works. But keep reviewing your goalposts, remind yourself not just what you want to avoid but also what you are gaining from this lifestyle change, and guard against the three thinking errors – awfulising abstinence, euphoric recall, and magical thinking.

Maintaining Your Motivation

  • What kind of reasons did you have for wanting to stop drinking for a month? Were they more about the stick or the carrot?
  • Are those reasons still sufficiently motivating to help you post-Sober Sprint / MOB – whether you want to stay stopped or cut down?
  • If not, what new reasons and goals will keep you motivated longer-term?
  • Have you noticed any surprising positive benefits of your Sober Sprint / MOB that could become new sources of motivation to keep going?
  • If part of you needs to be motivated by the stick – how are you going to remind yourself about the risks and negative things you are avoiding and of the reality of what drink was doing to you, even when the memory fades?
  • Is a Sober Sprint / MOB just about avoiding booze, or can you see that stopping or cutting down is part of a larger pattern of change – freeing up time and energy to get more done, and making other healthy or positive changes instead of drinking?
  • Will you always need sticks and carrots, or do you think you could begin to enjoy this journey for it’s own sake?

There’s more talk of motivation on this short video from our October 2015 MOB webinars.

Your actions for today

  • Think about your answers to the questions above. Move your own goalposts to motivate and sustain the relationship with alcohol you want long-term – whether that’s staying stopped or cutting down.
  • Visit the private Club Soda Facebook group and tell us about your post-Sober Sprint / MOB goals, and what kind of things are going to keep you motivated long-term.

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