Doubt and Motivation

If I offered you $100 or $200 which would you take?

$200 of course.  But studies indicate that some people actually prefer the $100.  A friend of mine does research in behavioral marketing.  One of her recent studies explored the interaction between size of reward and time from reward and how that influenced people’s choices.

Yes, people will take the $200 if it is a simple choice between $200 and $100, but if they are offered a choice between $100 now or $200 at a later date, their decision is influenced by how long they have to wait to receive the $200.  They might go for the $200 if it is next week, but if it is next year they most often opt for the $100 now.

This phenomena also explains why people engage in addictive behaviors and do not eat or exercise in ways that support their long term health.  I’ve discussed this before in an earlier post:  How drug addiction is like heart disease.  We tend to value short term rewards over larger and more valuable long term rewards.  This is seen on all levels of human activity from environmental policy where short term profits are valued over the long term cost of pollution to healthy activities where the comfort of an alternative activity (e.g. watching TV, sleeping in) is valued over the beneficial activity (going for a walk, meditating).

This willingness to sell ourselves short is really due to two things:  1) doubt that the distant reward will manifest as planned and 2) lack of motivation.  These are two of the classic obstacles to spiritual development or adopting and maintaining any healthy behavior.  Doubt is the one to tackle first, since lack of motivation can actually be a manifestation of doubt.

If we doubt that an activity will benefit us, we will naturally have low motivation to engage in that activity.  If part of us knows that the activity is our best choice, but other parts are lagging behind, then our first goal will be to dispel any last vestiges of doubt.  The best way to do so is to thoroughly investigate the activity.  We can do this investigation by using the internet, talking with authorities, or by finding out from others if the activity has benefited them.

If we cannot decide if the new activity will really give us the results we want, sometimes it is helpful to compare and contrast our current activities to the proposed one.  Then the question is which one would benefit us the most.  Once all doubt is gone, motivation may naturally arise.  Certainly this type of investigation activates motivation.

If motivation is still lagging, then the key is to put oneself in a environment where the activity is the norm.  If you want to give up TV and start walking more, then hanging out with TV watchers will naturally demotivate you, while having friends that walk a lot will inspire you.

Reviewing your reasons for undertaking the change is also a good way to stay motivated.  In addition, it is useful to spend time affirming your goals and staying cognizant of what behavior contributes to positive growth and what behavior doesn’t.  The time to do this is well before you start struggling with motivation.  Prevention is the best way to stay motivated.


There are five obstacles to spiritual progress.  These obstacle were originally taught to me as the obstacles to meditation, but they can equally apply to anything we want to achieve in our lives.

  1. Doubt
  2. Not wanting to do it (aka laziness)
  3. Attraction to other things like drug of choice or worldly things
  4. Resentments, ill will, aversions
  5. Worry, restlessness, distractions


Doubt can take two forms.  First, it can be doubt as to whether what you are going to do is possible.  For instance, is enlightenment really possible? Does this method really work?  Or on a more mundane level – is it really possible for someone to start their own business and succeed?

Second, one can have doubt regarding their personal capabilities.  For instance, will it work for me?  Others have gotten enlightened, but I am capable of doing it too?  Or, others are successful at business, but maybe I do not have what it takes.

The remedy for doubt is to get more information.  Read about what you are going to do.  Talk to people that are doing it and/or have done it.  Try it as an experiment to see if it might work.  Also consider other options.  If you don’t do it, how will your life be?

Considering your other options is also a good antidote for not wanting to do what would ultimately be for your highest good.  If you want to be healthy, but keep eating food that makes you fat or sick then you encountering the obstacle of “laziness”.  The antidote is to contemplate what you really want in your life.  Think about what will happen if you get what you want as compared to the result if you don’t make the change.  When it comes to healthy eating think about being vibrant in your later years as opposed to having a stroke, heart attack and lying in bed recuperating.  (Post on death meditation may be helpful.)

The remedies for the other obstacles are similar.  Focus on what you want and what will bring you what you want.  Turn your back on the activities and things that will not bring you what you want.  Keep your resolve strengthened by contact with people with similar goals and by reading about what you want.

Finally, be gentle with yourself.  Sometimes knowing is not the same as doing.  We are not our subconscious mind, but the habits and beliefs that reside in our subconscious are influencing everything we do.  Part of the path is loving ourselves without judgment.  We move to take right action without making anyone or anything wrong – including ourselves.