How to Generate Momentum
When motivation alone doesn't bring desired change.
Posted Oct 20, 2019
Momentum is the impetus gained by a moving object. It is not only an aspect of physics, it is also a feature of human experience that is often overlooked, underrecognized, and as a result, underutilized.
Many of us strive for change that heightens our happiness and sense of fulfillment. Making change, however, is not easy. Once patterns are set, they resist being altered; we develop habits of living that do not allow for change without considerable effort and discipline. Often, we look to motivation as the exclusive means to change.
Motivation is the why of change. Momentum is the how.
I hike to maintain and improve my health. Hiking provides me with essential exercise, stretching endurance and strengthening confidence in my own physical capacities. Immersing myself in nature feeds my soul, and spending the time with a friend, sharing both powerful experiences and long, profound conversations sates my thirst for companionship and connection. These are my motivations.
But hiking is difficult, exhausting, time consuming, and can be profoundly unnerving. On a bad day – with body aches, harsh weather conditions, or an unexplained feeling of dread — my motivations alone do not get me onto the trail. It is momentum that fuels my will to push on. It begins with planning the hike, buying supplies, requesting time off from work, driving to the starting point, and all of the discussions with my hiking partner, family, and acquaintances. Momentum also carries over from the prior hike and grows exponentially. I have, by virtue of these behaviors, increasingly identified as a hiker.
Behavioral Momentum Theory (BMT) is a strategy that encourages compliance in children who, for a variety of reasons (i.e. ADHD, autism, oppositional defiance) may be particularly inclined not to follow directions or to cooperate with attempts to shift their behavior. The technique consists of asking the child to perform a series of tasks prior to the desired behavior that is particularly challenging for the child. These preliminary requests may be fairly neutral (“Please sit up and put your feet on the floor”) or more pleasurable (“Please get yourself a snack from the kitchen.”).
In any case, there should be approximately three simple, undemanding requests, made one after the other without a significant passage of time. After the three requests have been made and complied with, the child is more likely to comply with the more difficult task that follows (“Please start your homework now.”).
This strategy addresses resistance to positive change by creating a momentum of cooperation between the child and the adult. Cooperative, collaborative momentum is easier to continue than it is to stop. The child has a positive experience obeying parental directives and witnesses him or herself as someone who is happily obedient. When an authority figure consistently provides an experience of momentum linked to a more difficult directive, momentum is more likely to increase completion of difficult tasks.
As a therapist, I often utilize the principles of BMT with adult clients. A depressed client may be stuck in a pattern of avoidance. Depression may encourage us to steer clear of conflict or avoid facing difficult issues by telling us that we “can’t handle” the negative emotions we experience when we think, speak, or act on our own behalf. In therapy I work to identify the ways in which a client is already directly approaching getting their needs met. For instance, I emphasize the courage evident in choosing to enter therapy. Some clients initially argue that they had “no choice” and I always let them know that, while I appreciate that they feel compelled into treatment, I also know that they walk in the door each week on their own volition. Other examples of directly addressing needs might include feeding themselves, going to work, resting when they need to rest, and buying themselves something they need.
Stories of directly addressing issues and conflicts in our lives, when woven together, begin to reveal unidentified patterns within ourselves. Consciousness of these patterns amplifies their power. We begin to see ourselves as capable of responding to our own needs. We recognize how invested we are in the change we are striving toward and that there are ways in which we have already realized parts of our goal. While I may not have hiked the particular trail I am currently tackling, I have been on trails like this one before and they have developed capacities in me that I will utilize to conquer this new challenge.
Important Note: In BMT an adult/parent applies a strategy to address the behaviors of a child and to increase their compliance. As a psychotherapist working with adult clients, I take care when utilizing these principles not to play the role of the adult or parent. Rather, I am working to help the client to parent themselves towards change. Therefore, in the above example, I would help raise the client’s awareness of their momentum so that they can use it in their own efforts to directly address their depression. I work to raise their awareness of the momentum that already exists in their lives toward their desired goal, thereby, decreasing resistance to their own positive judgement and healthy authority.
Human beings are in constant flux. Who we are and what we do will always be dependent on our moment-to-moment choices. In other words: we are free.
The next time you are feeling stuck remember that your desire to get unstuck is part of a momentum already present in your life. That momentum, if harnessed, can fuel powerful change. The following are some ways to harness that power:
Generating momentum toward desired change:
- Recognize and amplify your motivations for change. Know why you want to develop this new habit or to curb an old habit. Remain open to the growth or transformation of your motivation over time.
- Identify the dynamics in your life that support the problem and then identify the dynamics that support the change you prefer.
- Focus on growing those dynamics that undermine the problem even if they seem unrelated (Example: I might focus on preparing healthier meals for myself in my effort to reduce my tendency to avoid having difficult conversations at work).
- Tell the story of your adventure as it unfolds. Make this effort significant by accentuating it in your inner monologues and in social interactions where appropriate.