What Tim Challies Gets Wrong About Motivation
Tim Challies is a steady hand in evangelical theological blogging. But he represents an evangelical impulse to cognitivize willpower which is simply at odds with 21st century psychology research. Challies is a great guy. But he’s wrong here. And this isn’t a “Whatever works for you” issue. Challies is universally incorrect about how discipline works.
In a recent article by Challies, titled “Think of the End to Motivate the Action,” he argues that in order to motivate yourself to do something that you don’t want to do, you should think of the benefits you will receive from the action in order to perform it. Challies says:
“In so many ways, the good life, the godly life, demands thinking of the end in order to motivate the action. Too often we deny blessings to ourselves and others because we think more of the friction that precedes an action than the reward that follows it.”
This advice sounds very good. The notion that you must have a strong sense of purpose in order to consistently execute heavy-willpower tasks is most definitely true.
The Motivational Rat’s Nest of Cognitivism
Psychologists make an important distinction between cognitivism and behaviorism—cognitivism teaches that all actions are rooted in beliefs, and changing those beliefs is the most effective way to change habits; behaviorism teaches that all actions are primarily a result of conditioning, and the optimal way of changing your habits is through reconditioning yourself through action.
Most common advice for goal-achievement is cognitivist. People will tell you: “Keep your eye on the ball.” “Write down your goals.” “Make a plan.” All that stuff is true enough as far as it goes, but it’s very ineffective. If you want to have a theoretically correct philosophy of habit formation, you should listen to the cognitivists and start by focusing on your mind. If you want to actually achieve your dreams, build a superhuman willpower, and crush goals, listen to the behaviorists.
Inserting “thinking” into your protocol for executing heavy willpower tasks is a guaranteed way of keeping your goals small and keeping your habits disappointingly small. If you apply a cognitivist approach to discipline, you force yourself to make two decisions every time you have to do something hard, instead of one decision. Instead of just doing the task, you end up requiring yourself to (1) think rightly about doing the task in order to motivate yourself to do the task, and then (2) doing the task.
There was in the 1980s and 1990s a surge of cognitivism, and most practical evangelical advice about behavioral change in the 21st century seems to be rooted in this outdated psychological fad. Psychology has swung in the 21st century heavily toward behaviorism, since it is both a simpler account of psychological suffering and has produced far more effective and enduring practices for behavior change than cognitivism. That’s not to say that cognitive change plays no role in behavior change, but it is not the means of behavior change—paradoxically, the most effective and lasting method of behavior modification is behaviorist conditioning.
This is simply indicative of the typical evangelical laziness about real practicality. The evangelical conception of practicality often fails to be strategically sophisticated and usefully actionable, because it genuinely does not care about how human beings work, usually because of a smug biblicism—meaning, they insisted on sourcing their insights about human nature from the Bible alone. The consequence of this biblicism isn’t a biblical understanding of how human beings work, but a reliance by evangelical writers on outdated pop-psychology, which is all they have access to. In reality, Scripture coheres with (and often predicts) discoveries in psychology, but pastors are culturally incentivized to believe that people should be able to think their way out of a lack of discipline, when this simply isn’t true.
The Only Path Toward Lasting Discipline: Automaticity
Automaticity is the unthinking, instinctive aspect of human action. The worst part about discipline is the fact that you have to force yourself to do it. You actually have to think about it. The smaller you can make that thought, the faster the task will be completed, and the sooner your heavy willpower task will become a lighter willpower task. Automaticity is the goal of your first several weeks of discipline. Your goal in creating a new habit is to make it as easy as breathing. You don’t want to think about it. You want to make heavy willpower acts as automatic as your heartbeat. Automaticity is necessary for several reasons.
1. Automaticity drastically decreases overall high willpower cost of difficult tasks, which increases likelihood of compliance. If you can convert the decision to lift weights from maxing out your willpower capacity to barely noticing the decision because it comes so naturally to you, you are far more likely to perform the task.
2. Automaticity makes impossibly heavy willpower tasks easier, since those tasks become variations of automaticity rather than insurmountable. So, those acts which you previously thought impossible—like waking up and lifting weights every day at 3:59am—become obvious. Instead of asking, “How could I ever do that?” you think, “Obviously, I’m going to do that.” Automaticity transforms failure from an inevitability to a faint possibility. A recent study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people with established habits were more likely to double down on consistency in those habits when life got extremely stressful, as opposed to those who didn’t have behaviorally automatized habits, who were more likely to abandon goals when life became stressful.
3. Automaticity creates a willpower surplus that you can apply to eradicate other self-sabotaging habits. Once you’re no longer straining your mind and clenching your gut just to finish the task—and it will get easier after a week—then you can apply that energy to something else. You’re waking up early and working out? Good! Time to quit lashing out at your spouse. Discipline is like a line of dominoes. In fact, discipline is like cocaine. The more discipline you get, the more you want. You get hungry for it. But when you’re not disciplined, you don’t want to be disciplined.
What You Believe About Willpower Determines Your Willpower
Psychologists distinguish between two ways of viewing your own willpower—limited and non-limited. If you have a limited view of your own willpower, that means you believe your willpower is a depletable resource that you must ration throughout each day. If you have a non-limited view of willpower, you believe that the more you execute heavy willpower tasks, the stronger you become. One study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that people with a limited view of willpower were less effective in achieving their goals, had lower expectations of themselves, and ultimately found that “beliefs about willpower determine whether demands prompt people to save their energies and put their goals on hold or whether they encourage them to lean in and fully tap into their resources.”
A meta-analysis published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association, found that those who believed they needed to rest more often in order to accomplish their goals ended up achieving their goals less and effortfully pursuing their goals less. Subjects who believed their self-control was a limited resource, rather than a self-perpetuating resource, ended up sitting down more often and demonstrated worse self-control than those who believed that willpower utilization strengthened willpower more.
Your Motivation Is Only as Strong As Your Self-Control, Not Vice Versa
Most people fail to utilize motivation properly because they fail to distinguish between motivation and inspiration. Motivation is an emotional upswell that accompanies an automated habit that you’ve already cultivated. Inspiration is what prompts you to build the habit in the first place. People often call inspiration “motivation,” and then fail to cultivate the necessary strength of will to execute the habit, because they never had the habit behaviorally fortified in which motivation can properly operate. Motivation is like what your car does on cruise control—it keeps you at pace. Inspiration is like what you do when you pull onto a high-speed highway—a one-time, high-cost period of acceleration that gets you to speed.
We can make two applications based on this distinction. First, inspiration should be utilized in order to jolt you out of a bad habit. When you’re inspired, use that energy to commit to building discipline. Let yourself dream. Pick a performance that realizes that dream. Sign up for that performance. Pay the entrance fee. Then pick a program that facilitates your winning in that performance. Use inspiration as a way to knock down the first domino. But don’t confuse it with motivation, which is a way to maintain your current goals. The only way to make yourself disciplined is to show up to the program to which you’ve committed and to crush it. That’s the only way. If you rely on inspiration or motivation to get you there, you will fail. That is a time-tested failing strategy. Use inspiration to wake yourself up from a stupor of self-sabotage, but don’t use it for anything else.
Second, discipline must be built without discipline. The day you begin to build discipline, you have no credibility with yourself, and have no evidence to classify yourself as a “disciplined” person. A disciplined identity becomes true of you as you execute your tasks with daily consistency. People think that the high willpower cost of acceleration will continue for the duration of the habit. This isn’t true. The willpower cost of maintaining a behaviorally fortified, automatized habit is very low. Once you’ve built a habit, you have automated your instincts and built yourself a sense of confidence by proving to yourself that you have willpower. Willpower is a Catch 22, because the more you use it, the more of it you have—but building it is the hardest part, and you must do perform this most difficult part while you lack all automation, lack all confidence, and see none of the desired results.
Have you ever heard an undisciplined person talk about indulging in things that kill them? It’s so tragic. You’ll hear an obese person talk about food, or an angry husband complain about his wife, or hear a lazy college student complain about breaking the school rules or procrastinating—it’s really pathetic. They should want to change those things. But they boast about it. They brag about how undisciplined they are. That has become a very “white chick” thing to do—“I could live on $1 mac and cheese OMG I love it.” No, you couldn’t. You’d be very unhealthy. You should live like an adult—you would feel better. Your body would feel better. You would have better sleep and focus in your life. #Adulting wouldn’t be so hard.
The more discipline you have, the more discipline you want. The less discipline you have, the less discipline you want. Every person who “feels stuck” knows this. It’s the Catch 22 of discipline. If you wait for motivation to be disciplined, you will be waiting forever. If you wait for motivation to be disciplined, you will be a child forever. You will turn 40, or 50, or 60, and look back at your life and wonder how you never grew up. It’s because you never took the chance to step on the gas and get on the highway. The emotional excruciation of being disciplined when you’re not disciplined—which is the cost of becoming disciplined—you have accepted this as too high a cost. And so, you have accepted from yourself a standard which will cripple you well into your middle age, until you wake up one day and begin sobbing uncontrollably because you know that you can’t reverse the last 20 years. Don’t put yourself in that position. Build discipline today. Get your life together today. Get your health in order today. Be kind to your spouse and your kids today. It’s the path of life. If you don’t care enough to do it, that’s one step closer to a wasted, regretful life.
There is happiness on the other side of discipline. There is confidence on the other side of discipline. There is virility and life and motivation on the other side of discipline. But you have to push through the thorns of the on-ramp to get there. A recent article in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science found that self-control out-predicts talent in determining who will be successful. Self-control is, without qualification, more important than talent. Don’t flush your life down the toilet by waiting one more day to build discipline.
 Martin S. Hagger, “The Multiple Pathways by Which Self-Control Predicts Behavior,” Frontiers in Psychology 4 (2013).
 See Robert S. Wyer, Jr. (ed.), The Automaticity of Everyday Life, Advances in Social Cognition, Volume X (New York: Psychology Press, 1997).
 D. T. Neal, W. Wood, and A. Drolet, “How Do People Adhere to Goals When Willpower is Low?: The Profits (And Pitfalls) of Strong Habits,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 104, no. 6 (2013): 959-975.
 Katharina Bernecher and Veronika Job, “Beliefs About Willpower Moderate the Effect of Previous Day Demands on Next Day’s Expectations and Effective Goal Striving,” Frontiers in Psychology 6 (2015).
 V. Job, K. Bernecker, S. Miketta, M. Friese, “Implicit Theoriest About Willpower Predict the Activation of a Rest Goal Following Self-Control Exertion,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 109, no. 4 (2015): 694-706.
 Angela L. Duckworth and Martin E. P. Seligman, “The Science and Practice of Self-Control,” Perspectives on Psychological Science (2014).