Last week I wrote about taking the long view and focusing on Life Purpose when trying to make a change. This week I want to focus on autonomy and mastery. While my original talk on this subject was for parents, the concepts work for anyone.
People enjoy feeling like they have choices. We find meaning when we make choices – which then lead to motivation. Most people don’t like being bossed around. However, when we want to make changes in life, we have to sometimes limit our options. For example, if a parent wants to motivate a child to eat more vegetables, the parent can present a limited choice: Would you like spinach or broccoli for dinner tonight? Or if I want to be more physically active, I can sign myself up for a class – Would I like swimming lessons, to join a neighborhood basketball league, or take a cardio class at a gym? Children’s brains are still developing, and their capacity to make the best choices are still forming – it’s absolutely necessary for parents to provide these options for them and not let them come up with all the options themselves. Although as adults, we are aware that we have more autonomy, we can trick ourselves to make a choice between limited options, especially if we are following some of the motivational tips I wrote about last week.
Last week I talked about making sure goals are achievable. All of us, adults and children, need tasks that challenge us at appropriate mental and physical levels. Failure in a task can often be because the task is too easy (and thus boring), or because it is too hard (and thus makes us fail too often). You would not ask a Three-month-old to walk, nor should you expect yourself to do 50 pull-ups if you’ve never done a pull-up before. Similarly, if I am working with a person who is trying to manage depression and isn’t already a runner, I would not ask them to get up and run 10 miles every day. With depression, getting out of bed can be difficult – I might focus on making sure the person gets out of bed every morning puts on their shoes and walks around the block a few times a week, then increasingly they may move to walking longer and more frequently or begin running. The ease or difficulty of a task depends a lot on a person’s circumstances, experience, and existing skill level.
Accomplishing smaller goals – mastering each step on the way to a larger goal – is a way to stay motivated by the feeling of achievement and success. And yet failure is an important component – knowing that you had to work hard for something is an essential component of achievement. Calibrate your goals and tasks to be achievable without being easy. Developing mastery – which includes failing to achieve tasks and goals sometimes – helps us to stay motivated, and to develop an internal sense of resilience and accomplishment. Focus on what worked in helping to achieve your goals, and keep going!
I have the choice to do any physical activity I want and currently choose to run, swim and bike often. I know I have autonomy with my choices and can change my sports at any time but I also have developed more mastery in them because I do them more often and enjoy enhancing that through more training and competition. This mastery helps me continue to make the changes I need, to continue to enjoy my sports. When I do decide to begin surfing, I’ll need to have more patience and lower expectations because I will have no mastery at all.
- Dr. Nyamora
Dr. Cory Nyamora is an endurance sports coach with certifications from USAT and USATF, a licensed clinical psychologist, and the founder of Endurance – A Sports & Psychology Center, Inc. He provides endurance coaching for beginner and experienced athletes, as well as psychotherapy services to children, adults, and families.
You can purchase audio recordings of Dr. Nyamora’s talks to parents about working with their kids here: Fit Family System