Run to Play: Motivation is a Finite Resource

Being the over-analyzer I am, it’s no surprise I gravitated toward psychology in college. Not to sound like a total nerd, but I really really loved my psych classes (well.. the learning parts, not the essay, test, and presentation parts). My favorite (yup, favorite) branch of psychology is cognitive, which focuses on mental processes, including how we think, perceive, remember, and learn. One subject that I’ve been thinking about a lot during my marathon training is motivation. A lot of cognitive research done in this arena supports the idea that motivation is a finite resource. Thus, motivation can be used up, depleted, exhausted. This is the reason diets and New Year’s resolutions fail, why making decisions after an 8+ hour work day of making decisions feels like the worst, and so on. As a college student I used this information as a way to justify putting down the books to pick up a beer. We humans have a way of twisting information to fit our needs. But now, as a pseudo-adult, I’ve started to wonder if my initial interpretation of motivation is still relevant, if motivation really is that limited.

One of the first things you learn in Psych 101 is that everything you “know” about psychology is never 100% for sure. The mind is too dynamic and complex to be fully understood (and yet psych is still considered the “soft” science, psh, bye haters). As research progresses, new paradigms develop, old ones change, and some stay the same. While a lot of cognitive research still supports the idea that motivation is a resource that can be used up, but also replenished, recent studies are proposing an additional component to this model of motivation. This article from effectively sums up research conducted by Michael Inzlicht (University of Toronto) and Brandon J. Schmeichel (Texas A&M University) who propose that, “[ego depletion] is not some mysterious result of lost self-control resources but rather the result of shifts in motivation, attention, and emotion.” So… wait what? Basically, motivation isn’t just about the “amount” of motivation or self-control you possess. Your level of self-control can be affected by your perception of motivation (i.e. whether you think it’s finite or not), whether you set goals, and what is “naturally” gratifying for you, or how you are rewarded for meeting goals. Finding out that motivation isn’t finite came as a blessing and a curse.

While training for the Chicago Marathon and fundraising for Urban Initiatives, I’m also studying for the GMAT, hypothetically working on B-School applications, still showing up to work, and doing my best not to neglect my friends (hey friends!). I’m not throwing a pity party here, just realizing I’ve put a lot on my plate. So when I read this research, part of me felt like Yes, I can do this! and the other part was like Crap, I actually have to do all this. So, I came up with a plan because… IF YOU FAIL TO PLAN YOU PLAN TO FAIL (Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying this corny phrase, supposed to be a pretty smart guy tho, listen to Benjamin Franklin). Check out my Motivation Mastery Plan for whatever pile of stuff you’re trying to conquer in your life.

Motivation Mastery Plan

  • Set Goals, Celebrate Small Wins: Everything I’ve ever read on organizational management, or motivation in the workplace, encourages setting goals and celebrating smalls wins, so I figured it would translate. Start by thinking what your big goal is, then set smaller or sub-goals that will help you achieve this end, and determine how you’ll celebrate meeting these smaller goals.

Fortunately, my big goals are set – raise $1250 and not die from running the Chicago Marathon. My CARA marathon training schedule automatically provides me with daily goals. I keep a copy at my desk, as well as at home, so I get to star every run I do (or stare at the runs I miss, luckily there has only been 1 or 2 in 4 weeks). Another way I celebrate small wins is by treating myself to new running gear or gadgets when I’ve consistently stuck to my schedule; not only is this gratifying, but it supports my eventual goal. Recently I subscribed to Spotify Premium because they have this sick new running function for mobile devices. The app creates a streaming playlist of music that matches your pace, so if you’re a music lover and runner check it out. While fundraising has been slow, I’ve managed to generate $260, and that’s a start (you can help out by going to my CrowdRise page below!)!

  • Change Your Environment:  What am I talking about? Essentially, making small life changes that are aligned with your goals.

One of my sub-goals is running in the morning. Since I spend my evenings decompressing or studying, it’s really a struggle for me to fit in a run after work. Time-wise it just makes sense to wake up a little earlier to run; easier said than done. On evenings before a morning run I do three things: Set two alarms (I like to change my alarm labels so they remind me why I’m waking up early i.e. ‘Run, Forrest, Run!’), lay out clothes and shoes (on rough weeks I sleep in my running clothes), and open the blinds (the sun acts as a natural alarm – this only works in the summer tho).

  • Change Your Thinking: This one is more a result of my upbringing than anything else as my parents a firm believers in the idea that your thoughts can shape your reality. They aren’t completely off base here, though, there is a lot research that supports this idea. The research mentioned above even states that your perception of motivation can actually affect your levels of self-restraint or will power. So when those negative Nancy thoughts start to creep up on you, replace them with positive affirmations (ugh, I just used the phrase “positive affirmations”).
  • Revisit Your Goals: Sometimes when you’re on the road it’s easy to lose sight of where you’re going. Simply reassessing where you’re going and where you started can put things back into perspective, and point out where you may need to make changes.

My fundraising goal (or motivation) was reinvigorated a few weeks ago when I got to volunteer at the Urban Initiative’s annual Work to Play Cup. You can read more about it here! But it reminded me how important Urban Initiatives is to so many of the kids they work with. Check out my initial Run to Play post Thoughts On Getting Involved for more background. I also just joined a social running group, which gives me external motivation to get in my weekly runs, and it’s fun! Getting involved in activities that solidify your goals can only boost your motivation.

  • Repeat


Man, I could write a self-help book. Even if you didn’t gain anything from my post you can boost your self-esteem by donating to my marathon fund. Peace ‘n’ blessings.