Magical Thinking and Motivation

By: Jamie Klemashevich

“I just can’t get motivated.”  Most people have bemoaned their lack of motivation at some point in life.  Whether motivation to exercise, motivation to do work, or motivation to build relationships, motivation seems to be in short supply.  The term motivation indicates willingness to pursue goals.  However, I hear people use the term motivation as a synonym for desire.  When someone says “I don’t feel motivated to work out,” they are saying that they don’t feel the desire to pursue that activity.  The difference between willingness and desire is paramount.  The idea of desire imbues the term motivation with a mythical, magical quality.  Until the magical motivated feeling hits, I don’t pursue my goals.  The unfortunate problem, much to the dismay of Harry Potter fans everywhere (myself included), is that magic doesn’t exist.

Magical thinking is actually one of the recognized thought distortions addressed in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.  The idea is that something will magically happen in the external world if I just think about it or wish for it.  I don’t have to work to make it happen.  Everyone, at least sometimes, doesn’t want to work.  Work is hard, it can be painful, and it is certainly tiring.  When we don’t want to work, we are tempted to engage in magical thinking.  Occasionally, miracles do happen.  An event goes off without a hitch when I didn’t put in the necessary preparation.  My husband really does say the perfect thing without me having to communicate what I need.  These things do happen…but they’re rare.  Magical thinking happens when we start to expect miracles to be the norm.  It is a kind of entitled thinking that says, “I can get these benefits without having to put in the work.”  God does work miraculously sometimes, but the general principle is to reap what you sow.  Actions have consequences that match.  But what does this have to do with motivation?

What many people in previous generations seemed to understand is this truth: feeling FOLLOWS action.  Waiting on a magical feeling that will make work less difficult or tiring will leave you waiting forever.  Desiring to reach a goal is not enough to actually reach that goal.  You must be willing to put in the work.  There is a cost.  Jesus did not shy away from the idea of cost.  When James and John came to him (or their mother came to him depending on which gospel you read) asking to sit at his right and left hand, he doesn’t chastise their ambition.  Rather, he acknowledges that they want to be great and tells them the cost of greatness: “…whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave…” (Mark 10:35-45; Matt. 20:20-28).*  Similarly, Jesus urges people to count the cost before following him (Luke 14:25-33).  Salvation is most certainly a free gift.  However, the choice to follow Jesus comes with certain costs.  No one desires to incur costs, and Jesus doesn’t give much attention to desire.  Rather, he focuses on willingness.  Are you willing to face the costs of your choices?

This lesson applies to mental health as well.  If you want mental health, there is a cost.  If you neglect sleep, eat poorly, and refuse to exercise, then you will not be mentally (or physically) healthy.  Mental health requires you to alter habits, pay attention to emotions, and nurture a thought life full of true and life-giving thoughts.  It may require you to practice new skills like mindfulness.  It may require you to build new relationships that require work and risk and sacrifice and forgiveness.  Change is certainly possible!  But change is costly.

If you wait for a feeling of motivation, then you may never change.  In fact, change often happens when we feel completely unmotivated, but we are willing to put in the work anyway.  The key to change is not a magical feeling of motivation.  The key is to embrace willingness to pursue change even when change is difficult or uncomfortable or costly, because we believe that the end goal is worth the cost.  Some people aren’t changing because deep down they don’t really want what they say that they want.  Sometimes part of me wants something, and another part of me doesn’t want that thing.  Part of me wants to be healthy, but part of me wants to eat a doughnut.  I have to acknowledge those competing desires and decide if the goal is worth the cost to me.  I have to look at those competing desires with compassion, then make my decision based on my values and goals.  Don’t wait for a magical feeling to hit before you pursue change.  Look at your hesitance with understanding and compassion.  Count the cost.  Decide if the change is worth it for you.  If it is, then take action based on willingness.  There’s nothing magical about it.

If you are struggling with motivation and don’t quite understand what is getting in the way, counseling can help!  Our counselors would love to help you work through that struggle with motivation so that you can pursue your goals and run the race that God has for you.

*I drew this section directly from the teaching of Dr. Jeff Nave, who regularly references the connection of this scripture passage with the idea of cost and the necessity of putting in the work to get desired outcomes.

Jamie is a PLPC and PLMFT who has
been counseling at
Restoration since
Jan. 2018. 
When she isn’t counseling,
Jamie can be found studying for her PhD,
working out, and listening to audiobooks

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