posttitle = Mindfulness Field Training 2: Motivation titleClass =title-long len =40

Mindfulness Field Training 2: Motivation

This post is a followup to my previous one on mindfulness field training, which talked mostly about againstness and filler words. This post is also about how to intentionally shape the direction your thoughts go, but it’s more focused on the act of motivating oneself: grit, persistence, zeal, perseverance, roundtoitiveness and so on.

In mindfulness meditation, typically one does not expect to sit down for a 10 minute mindfulness practice and actually be mindful the whole time. The work is actually in (A) noticing you’re not mindful and then (B) bringing your attention back to your breath or heartbeat. Similarly, if we’re going to apply a generalized mindfulness skill to grit and perseverance, my thought is that it makes sense to model the relevant skill as (A) being able to notice when you’ve pushed away from your work and (B) being able to motivate yourself to return to it.

The fork in the motivation road

Last night I was studying and at one point I just sort of turned away from my standing desk and flopped onto my stomach on my exercise ball. I found myself thinking, “Okay, this is interesting… I definitely didn’t make a conscious decision to do this… I just found myself here.” Why, I wondered, had I spontaneously pushed away from my work? Was it unpleasant? Or just, being work, was it more challenging than felt comfortable at that moment?

At that point I had a few options of what I could do, and I thought back to an experience I had on Monday, when I was bringing back about twice as many groceries as the 15lbs I usually carry back from the grocery store. (The main reason being that I’d just learned of an interesting DIY meal-replacement shake that required me buying a ton of broccoli, frozen blueberries, and protein powder.) The grocery bags were really heavy. In the past, I had sometimes paused to rest once or twice on the way home, but this week I was pausing every hundred meters.

There was a pervading sense of “I can’t do this,” I noticed.

EDIT: I heard from a friend that this section didn’t pack enough punch. I think this is because that which seems impossible beforehand often seems trivial afterwards. There’s definitely a sense of that here. I was in physical pain after having walked for only a couple of minutes, and I was, at this point in the story, feeling quite defeated.

So, once I became fully conscious of the “I can’t do this”, I stopped in my tracks and questioned it:

“If someone was going to reward me with a million dollars if I could get home in 8 minutes with all of these groceries intact, would I be able to do it?”

I was pretty confident that the answer was yes. Then, tentatively, I posited:

“If someone was going to reward me with the abstract knowledge that I’m able to motivate myself to do really hard things using only hypothetical rewards, would I be able to do it?”

Again, I figured I probably could. So I set a timer, and picked up the bags with a renewed vigor. I made it back in 6 minutes (about as long as I would probably take if I were an unladen swallow).

(Btw, if the sentence about abstract motivation got your boat floating, then you might want to check out this post about how my friend Brienne effectively cured her social anxiety using Löb’s theorem, and the one in which my friend Sandy tries installing a mental module to enable him to believe things at will.)

Moving forward

As it happens, my elbows were actually kind of wonky for the next few days, so this might not have been a healthy thing to do. But it was an impressive proof of concept of mind over matter. My plan is to find other scenarios like this, that are progressively more daunting, and then I’ll gradually increase my ability to summon million-dollar-grade motivation. This sort of thing is often called a Success Spiral.


Hold on. That’s an interesting thought actually. If it would take a million dollars to get me to do something, why would I want to just do it anyway? So maybe that’s a bit high.

Hundred-dollar-grade motivation? For most things, that’s probably plenty. In fact, for this post, I needed a literal hundred dollars on the line—I recently made a commitment to writing a thousand words a day or forking over $100. So far it’s working! (Edit: this lasted for about a month and a half, then fell apart, for… reasons)

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Intend, a system for improvisationally & creatively staying in touch with what's most important to you, and taking action towards it.


Sandy Maguire » 18 Apr 2014 » Reply

Interested in what work you were doing before jumping onto the exercise ball, because I think it matters to your point. Whenever I’m experiencing a mental block on an intellectual problem, usually moving and new environments will shake the block loose. Your brain might be doing something similar without having realized it.

PS: I found the missing end-paren on the sentence starting with “Btw” to be distracting for the rest of the article.

    Malcolm » 18 Apr 2014 » Reply

    I totally agree, when this applies to a problem that I’ve been working at for some time and then I’m feeling stuck. I think in this particular case though, I had probably only “sat down” to work a few minutes earlier, and so my shifting away was actually a kind of resistance to engaging with the problem at all. I’m appreciating you bringing out this distinction 🙂

    (PS: fixed)

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