Even more than Jan 1st, the start of a new school year was the time of year when I’d make big plans for how I was going to change in some meaningful way.
How I was going to practice more diligently. Or take better notes in class. Or go for a walk in the park. Or eat a hearty salad once a week instead of a dozen two-for-$1 tacos on Taco Tuesday.
As you can probably guess, things usually didn’t go as planned. I’d often lose the motivation, get sidetracked with other things, or a friend would discover that mixing Sanka into the cafeteria’s vanilla soft serve was awesome, and my plans would go out the window.
And while it’s true that we don’t want to be dependent on motivation alone to achieve our goals, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if there were an easy way to boost our motivation a bit, no?
So…is there a way to amplify our motivation, and make ourselves more likely to take action and do the things that would get us closer to achieving our goals for the coming year?
Emotions vs. logic
There are a lot of approaches to tweaking motivation of course, but there’s one that caught my eye the other day, because it aims to target our emotions, rather than our logic.
Because sure, there are a ton of very logical reasons why I should not eat a dozen tacos, and very few in favor. But at the end of the day, have you noticed how it’s often emotion that wins out?
So how would you target your emotions, exactly?
Depression and imagery of future events
Well, the idea for this strategy came from the observation that people who are depressed appear to have difficulty imagining positive future events (e.g. Ji et al., 2018). Which in turn seems to coincide with a tendency to withdraw, and participate in fewer activities that might otherwise help to improve their mood.
So in a 2016 study (Renner et al.), researchers were curious to see what might happen if depressed individuals deliberately imagined positive future scenarios. Simple, everyday scenarios like “you have organised to go for a morning run with a friend, but wake up feeling sluggish and tired. You decide to go anyway and as you begin, you start to feel exhilarated and full of energy.”
Would they be more likely to do things like this in real life?
The short answer is yes. Participants who practiced imagining positive future events, did tend to engage in more activities on a day-to-day basis than those who didn’t.
So then the researchers wondered…could imagery be used as a motivation amplifier, perhaps? Not just for those with depression, but everyone?
A motivation “amplifier?”
An international team of researchers (Renner et al., 2019) recruited 72 people, and randomly assigned them to one of three groups – an imagery group, reminder group, and control group.
Identify 6 activities…
They were all asked to identify six activities they’d like to do in the coming week. Three were to be enjoyable activities – i.e. the sort of thing that they know they’d enjoy, but often don’t get around to – like doing a crossword puzzle or reading before bed. And the other three were to be more routine activities. Things that they know they’d find rewarding, but tend to put off. Like weeding the garden, giving the dog a bath, or cleaning out the closet.
Do some scheduling…
Participants then scheduled these activities, not only identifying what they would do (clean out bedroom closet), but where and when they would do it (Sunday morning after breakfast).
Then some imagery…
The reminder and control groups were free to go at this point, but the researchers ran the imagery group through some imagery exercises for each activity they scheduled. Specifically, some guided imagery of doing each activity, in the first person, where not only did the activity end positively, but they were also asked to focus on the most positive aspects of the experience when visualizing themselves doing it, as well as the most “powerful and motivating” part of the image.
During the next week, the imagery and reminder groups both received 2 text messages each day, reminding them of their planned activities.
The reminder group just got a simple reminder. But the imagery group not only got a reminder of the upcoming activity, but also a reminder to imagine the most “powerful and motivating” part of their image as vividly as possible in advance of the activity. The control group got nothing.
So…did imagery make any difference?
Well, basically, yes.
The results weren’t quite as definitive as I would have wished. And there were some important nuances and details that we won’t get into here. But at the end of the day, my main takeaway was that yes, it does seem that there could be something to this imagery-as-motivation-amplifier theory.
Because the participants who visualized themselves engaging in activities before doing them – and imagined them ending positively – did take part in more of their planned activities than the participants who were given reminders, but did no visualization in advance.
So how could one experiment with this?
Try identifying a few things you’d like to do this week, that you might enjoy, or at least find rewarding.
Like meeting up with a friend to go for a run. Or taking your dog for an awe walk in the park nearby, instead of just around the block a few times. Or doing some score study, or finally looking up the meaning of all those Italian words in the music that you’ve just been guessing at, or reading up on the composer’s life to learn more about the context in which the piece was written.
Then take a moment to visualize yourself engaging in these activities, seeing yourself getting a lot out of it, things ending well, and imagining how good you’ll feel afterwards. And take a couple seconds each day to visualize these scenarios once again. And if you’d like to check out the exact guided imagery script that the researchers used with participants, you can download the script as a Word document here: Imagery script from Renner et al., 2019
Building practice self-efficacy?
On a related note, one of the things that helped me the most with increasing my motivation to practice was developing a stronger sense of self-efficacy around practicing itself. Where instead of feeling like it was all just a matter of putting in more time and hoping that things would magically come together someday, I began to see that there were specific changes one could make to practicing that lead to tangible improvements from one moment to the next, and one day to the next. Improvements that transferred reliably to performances as well.
If you’ve always wondered why it’s so hard to play like yourself on stage, I’d love to explain why that is (and no, it’s not because you need to add an extra “practice” to “practice, practice, practice”). I’d also like to share with you a few of the most essential strategies and mental skills that I believe can make the biggest difference in narrowing the gap between practice and performance.
To that end, I’ll be teaching a live, online, 4-week class for students and life-long learners in October. Registration begins next week, and you can find out the cool things you’ll learn (and check out dates and times) right here: Performance Psychology Essentials for Learners
Ji, J. L., Holmes, E. A., MacLeod, C., & Murphy, F. C. (2018). Spontaneous cognition in dysphoria: reduced positive bias in imagining the future. Psychological Research, 83(4), 817–831. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-018-1071-y
Renner, F., Ji, J. L., Pictet, A., Holmes, E. A., & Blackwell, S. E. (2016). Effects of Engaging in Repeated Mental Imagery of Future Positive Events on Behavioural Activation in Individuals with Major Depressive Disorder. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 41(3), 369–380. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10608-016-9776-y
Renner, F., Murphy, F. C., Ji, J. L., Manly, T., & Holmes, E. A. (2019). Mental imagery as a “motivational amplifier” to promote activities. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 114, 51–59. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2019.02.002