The motivation fairy? From the Open Clip Art Library; accessed through Wikimedia Commons.

They are the five words that I hear the most in my job as a health psychologist at a medical center:  “I want to stop smoking/ lose weight/ eat better/ exercise more/ take my medications consistently/ do what my doctor asked me to do, but I just can’t get motivated!”

We use the same five-word excuse in our financial lives, as well.  “I want to save more/ spend less/ invest more/ follow a budget/ learn more about personal finance/ follow my financial advisor’s advice, but I just can’t get motivated.”

Dr. Russ Harris, in his 2011 book The confidence gap: A guide to overcoming fear and self-doubt, tackles the motivation issue head on.  First, he reminds us that it is simply not possible to have “no motivation” for a pursuit.  It is more accurate to say that we have motivation for several different behaviors, and they all compete—so sometimes the behavior we should pursue does not win out, because we desire something else more.

In his words: “…in my experience, when someone says, ‘I don’t have the motivation,’ what they really mean is, ‘ I have a desire to do it, and it is important to me—but I’m not willing to take action unless I feel good, happy, positive, inspired, energized, confident, or in the mood.’”

He goes on to make an important distinction between motivation and commitment.  If we equate motivation with a feeling, and we wait for that feeling of being “fired up” to come along, we might be waiting a long time.  However, if we shift our focus from motivation to commitment, there is always some kind of values-driven action we can take to change our behavior in a positive direction.  We don’t have to wait for inspiration or a magical feeling to arrive.

Dr. Harris sums it up with an important rule: “Committed action comes first; feeling motivated comes later.”  I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Do you ever find yourself waiting for some elusive feeling called “motivation” to descend upon you and make you act upon your financial goals?  How well does that work?  Is there a better way?

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