Most of us spend our lives in avoidance of pain. It’s not surprising; researchers have shown that the drive to escape pain is greater than the drive to experience pleasure. All things being equal, if we’re not hurting bad enough, we’re not going to be very motivated to seek out change.

The good news is that we can use this human quirk to our advantage. If the good parts of achieving our goals aren’t enough to get us motivated, maybe the bad things that will come from NOT achieving our goal will get us moving. It’s the carrot-versus-the-stick debate, and let’s face it: Sometimes we need the stick.
Put bluntly, if you increase the pain associated with the status quo to a high enough level, you’ll be motivated to change. In fact, the higher the pain, the greater the motivation. For instance, think of:
  • The businessman who won’t quit working on the weekends until his wife threatens to divorce him.
  • The overweight mom who won’t lose weight until she’s diagnosed with diabetes and told that she may die and leave her small children motherless if she doesn’t lose 100 lbs.
  • The employee who can’t seem to arrive at work before 9:30 until he’s threatened with being fired.
Pain can be the ultimate motivator. But there are ways to kick it into high gear before you’re being threatened with termination or death. Here’s how to ramp up the pain quotient:
  • Focus on the negative. We’re all told to focus on the positive, but sometimes it’s the focus on the bad that will get us going. Dave Ramsey, the personal finance guru, suggests that people post a list of their debts on their refrigerator. The constant in-your-face nature keeps you motivated and moving forward.
  • Extrapolate. Again, psychologists and counselors will recommend that you don’t extrapolate your worries. Well, if you’re trying to motivate yourself, worry away! Think about yourself living as a bag lady if you don’t bring in four new clients this week. Picture your kids growing up in day care if you don’t find a new job. Paint a vivid picture of what you’re trying to avoid and remind yourself of the horrible alternative.
  • Find a negative role model. Just as you can find role models to inspire you to great things, you can find negative role models who have dropped to the depths of despair (VH1’s “Behind the Music” is especially helpful for this!). People DO die of diabetes. People DO get fired. Find a few folks who have experienced your greatest fear and remind yourself that it can happen.
Of course, it’s a lot more fun to imagine yourself in a string bikini and paste a picture of Cindy Crawford on your fridge. But if that’s not working, you might have to go to the other extreme and post your bikini “before” shot in a public spot. Do what you have to in order to reach your goal.
You know you want to declutter your house, find a new job, or lose weight. But somehow, you’re not getting around to it. The first place to start is with your goal. Sometimes procrastination occurs because your goal simply isn’t clear enough. To have an effective, motivating goal, you need to know precisely what you’re heading for.
Decluttering your house is too broad; to make it motivating, try breaking it down more specifically. Measurable is helpful, too. Getting rid of 50 books, clearing out all clothes that the kids haven’t worn in six months, reducing the number of DVDs the family has so they all fit on a single shelf… these are motivating goals! They give you something to aim for.
Another common problem with goals is not setting a deadline. Which is more likely to get your rear in gear: Losing weight in order to attend your high school reunion in three months, or losing weight… someday? Even self-imposed deadlines can be effective, so don’t set a goal without setting a deadline.
Many goal-setters set a goal that is too ambitious (“Be debt-free by next month”) or not enough of a stretch (“Ask one person about job openings at her company this month.”). The best goals lie somewhere in the middle. They’re large enough to require some serious effort, but realistic enough that you have a good chance of achieving them.
Effective goals need to be reviewed regularly, too. Just writing them down on an index card on January 1 and sticking them in the back of your Day Planner isn’t going to get you very far; some experts recommend re-reading your goals – OUT LOUD – at least once in the morning and once at night. You might also try posting them throughout your home: On the bathroom mirror, on the refrigerator, on the dashboard of your car. This leaves no doubt about what you’re aiming for, and also serves as a constant reminder. (It’s harder to reach in the freezer for the Ben & Jerry’s when there’s a picture of a bikini-clad you stuck on the door!).
Maybe the most important thing to evaluate your goal for, though, is to make sure it’s really yours, and really what you want. Sometimes we set goals because they sound good, we think we should want them, or someone else told us it was a good thing to aim for. Forget all that! If your heart isn’t in it, no wonder you’re not working towards it and are watching reruns of “Lost” instead. Find something you can truly put your efforts into – learning Japanese, drawing pictures of famous people on your Etch-A-Sketch, feeding pets that were abandoned in natural disasters – and work on that. You get one go-round in this life, so you may as well spend it where it matters to you.