Burning down the house

You’ve seen great stuff on the internet. Where else?

You heard great stories, of people who have done crazy things, been to exotic places and tried who knows what in life.

And now you’ve put together an awesome list of things you want to do, own, or visit.

Maybe you call this list millennial-like a bucket list. Maybe you’re more old-school and talk about the search for meaning according to Viktor Frankl or overarching goals according to Stephen Covey.

In any case, you are completely convinced: Before you kick the bucket, you want to tick off the items on your mighty list.

Wow! That feels sick and cool, doesn’t it? And it totally inspires you. Two days, three days, a maximum of one week.

Goal orientation, especially when it comes to large goals and visions, are the supposed miracle cure of motivational gurus

Choose your challenge. Take on something big. Interpret the tension between vision and current reality as a great thrill. Pump adrenaline, serotonin and dopamine into your organism. And then find out if you can last this mental euphoria ride for more than a week.

And of course: fun, desire and euphoria are wonderful inner phenomena. Every vision, every big goal feels like you have just fallen in love.

All the more exhausting and frustrating when two things occur similar to the initial dizziness of being in love: The effect of the self-generated intoxication diminishes and you have not come any closer to reaching your goal.

At some point, this painful issue invited me to take a closer look at the topic of goal orientation. And that’s what I would like to do with you now.

But what happens when we take a close look at goal orientation?

When it comes to motivation the dominant memes are goal orientation, meaning orientation and overarching goals. And goal orientation, properly understood, actually works, we’ll get back to that later.

Interestingly, in their 1990 book Theory of Goal Setting and Task Performance, Locke and Latham developed a theory that correlates performance with goal orientation. However, in their later book, New Developments in Goal Setting and Task Performance from 2017, that summarizes two decades of research on the subject matter, they come to a more nuanced theory.

With this more differentiated theory, they falsify the generality of their original assumptions

According to their more recent theory, the relationship between goals and performance applies in the context of simple and manageable goals. But this correlation is null when it comes to higher-level, i.e. complex and extensive requirements.

When we have to deal with more intertwined paths to our goals it becomes difficult to align our energy. And it is rather difficult to get helpful feedback that could help us with orientation towards the overall goal.

But if overarching goals have little motivating power, what are these goals useful for at all?

Overarching goals can perform two functions. And the first function is rather ironic in nature.

We can indulge in visions and dreams.

This is the first “function”. Unfortunately, we feel bad, incapable and powerless as soon as the intoxication subsides. The euphoria hangover can be accompanied by real withdrawal symptoms. But this does not have to stop us, as well as in dealing with other intoxicants. We can continue to intoxicate ourselves again and again with visions and great hopes. But not only in the case of withdrawal symptoms there is a parallel to substances that we use to influence our mood in some way. If we persistently intoxicate ourselves with pseudo-motivation, then we run the risk of destroying our lives and our motivation in the long-term.

But there is also a meaningful and helpful way to deal with the great ideas and hopes for our lives.

This works particularly well when we have successfully tapped into genuine and sustainable motivation. And that’s something we are working on with the content in this course.

We can cultivate a humming flow and smooth productivity. Based on this foundation, we can turn to our overarching goals with a more detached approach. Then we can understand our heart’s desires as invitations to shape our lives. We can get started with our existential expeditions open-heartedly.

In this way , overarching goals become exciting motifs that can guide us on existential voyages of discovery. And when it comes to choosing between options of further development, we can use these leitmotifs as a guide for our actions.

If we give up on the idea of using our overarching goals as our motivational engine, then they can unfold their meaningful and pleasure-giving qualities.

But hey, never mind if large goals and visions fail as a motivational engine. We can still rely on our willpower. And that leads us to the next myth…

Care for some willpower?

Of course! That’s where your motivation is buried. You are lazy. You have been lazy in school already, haven’t you.

  • And no, that wasn’t because of the physical and hormonal remodeling work of your body during puberty.
  • Nor was it because you were suddenly flooded with so many change request that surrender seemed to be the last option.
  • And it wasn’t because you were condemned to sit still for years, while your body wanted something else: to roam, run and dance in the wind, the rain, and sunlight. Nope! You’re lazy and undisciplined. That’s your nature. That’s your heritage. It’s in your genes.

But maybe you actually belong to the strong-willed, the ambitious, the goal- and performance-oriented.

Then we can only hope that you take care of the demanding cognitive tasks at the beginning of the day. Let’s hope you can keep overly demanding cognitive challenges at bay throughout the day. That includes dealing with complex issues, decisions in ambiguous contexts or inner struggles against diverse temptations.

Towards the end of the day, it becomes more and more difficult to get anything worthwhile done or stay true to your principles. And it becomes even more difficult when the sugar level in our brain falls into the abyss. This can put you in a very challenging situation when sweets are lying around and you actually want to stick to your weight and fitness goals.

Science speaks of ego depletion and ego depletion theory: our willpower drains throughout the day if we use it frequently.

And when it is drained, whether by adverse and demanding living conditions, high cognitive demands or a violently fluctuating sugar level, then it becomes increasingly difficult to cope with challenging requirements. It will be just as difficult to resist delicious temptations.

There are rumors that we can strengthen our willpower

But we can’t find any certainty there. Roy Baumeister, the founder of the ego depletion theory, and other scientific minds disagree on this topic.

But we can strengthen our self-discipline that’s for sure. This does not happen in a vacuum though. It does neither happen with superhuman ambition nor with heroic actions.

Fostering our self-discipline is a sweet side-effect that we kindly accept when laying the foundation of our drive with the basics of motivation There remains a last myth that keeps itself hard-nosed and can boast of an almost inflationary spread on the Internet…

Todo lists and structured time management are wonderful means of self-organization

This is especially true for those people who need them the least: people who are able to assess their performance in a relaxed way, have a good feeling for what needs to be done and when, and enjoy it when things are structured and according to plan.

The opposite is true for process-oriented people

They have a hard time with self-assessment, they like to be surprised by the course of things and they like to act spontaneously and impulsively. Those guys can rarely make use of ordinary todo lists and traditional time management approaches.

The opposite is more likely. When process-loving developers, creative makers or obsessed researchers apply the tools of traditional time and task management, they usually experience that they achieve just as little as before, if not less. Some feel confirmed, others feel helpless

Structure-savvy people feel confirmed with the application of classic time management approaches. But they benefit relatively little from those tools. They work this way anyway and have probably already developed their own style of self- and time-management.

Process-oriented people become rather more frustrated with the use of these supposedly helpful remedies. The original tasks are getting even more out of reach. And the obvious unproductivity is accompanied by feelings of powerlessness. The concerned are under the impression of being neither capable to increase their productivity, nor to escape the feeling of constant failure.

We are all too often inclined to rely on the knowledge of supposed experts and the general public

Experts lump togehter. The general public regurgitates. And we put our own experience and intuition last. But does the supposed wisdom of the general public become more true, based on the number of people that regurgitate the same stuff over and over again?

Sometimes we actually lack crucial knowledge. Some effective approaches suffer from low distribution and are difficult to access in view of the bulky common sense.

If things were different, process-oriented people would know about possible ways to change their situation. And those with an affinity for structure would find new ways to tap into their liveliness.

Time management and lists are not all bad

Lists can be useful for the less structure-savvy person, too. And time management occupies an essential spot among the three approaches of essential, lively and sustainable motivation.

However, the ways we deal with those approaches are more of the counter-intuitive kind. They run counter to the idea of total control over our productivity. In the end, this benefits both groups: the process-inclined and the structure-inclined alike.