What makes a person motivated to do something? This, it turns out, is a very complicated question to answer. I came across a somewhat thorough article in Psychology Today outlining the basic theories of motivation that I encourage all of my readers to skim through before continuing with this article. Come back to us after you've read Susan Krauss Whitbourne's article entitled Motivation: The Why's of Behavior - From instincts to self-actualization: What motivates us?
Ok, welcome back. Did you notice anything missing from that piece? How might we apply any one of those theories to the motives of a serial killer? A radical jihadist? Dr. Whitbourne comes close to mentioning a person's beliefs in her outline of Cognitive Theory where she talks about a person's expectations. But something missing in this equation is how a brain develops and what it is subjected to. How might a traumatic brain injury (TBI), or childhood abuse, or even adult onset mental illness influence what motivates us? I ask these questions because they directly relate to how a person thinks and what a person believes in the context of their behavior. A motive, by definition, is a hidden reason for doing something, and I would argue many times these reasons are hidden from ourselves; in other words, we are not conscious of why we are engaging in many of our behaviors. Now if this troubles you as much as it does me, then I invite you to read on.
Usually articles on habit formation appear around the New Year. I figured, why wait! After all, there's no rule that says you must stop or start a habit only after the new calendar year has begun. We all have old habits that we have tried to break, or new habits that we have tried to form, but they just didn't take. In this article, I will unpack the hidden forces behind what makes habit formation (or cessation) successful, and share some ways you can start to put all of this into practice starting today - or whenever you choose to begin. After all, it ultimately comes down to (the very real power of) choice. The good news is, it is never too late to form new habits!
How Habits Are Born
As with many things learned in therapy, one of the best ways to change something in your life is to first understand it's origin and it's purpose. A habit, by definition, is a behavior that occurs routinely, and more often than not, is occurring at the subconscious level. Habit formation begins with a triggering event that jumpstarts the brain into autopilot mode; For example, walking into the kitchen and before anything else is even consciously registering, the body gravitates towards the coffee pot. Next is the actual behavior, or the actual habit - the making of coffee. Finally, there is the reward that cements the formation of the habit - "Coffee gives me energy," let's say. Now remember, a "reward" is not necessarily good or bad. After all, we are "rewarded" by our bad habits too. That's why they have stuck around with us! In this context, we refer to the outcome as a reward because it increases the likelihood that we will repeat the behavior again.
Robin S. Smith is a psychotherapist practicing in Bethesda, MD. Robin created The Couple and Family Clinic Blog to provide useful articles on issues related to mental health as well as articles on local, national, and international news stories. Learn more about Robin on the About Page.