Motivational Principle Number Three: Keep the Level of Challenge Just Right

One very common motivation-killer is trying to deal with too much at one time and feeling overwhelmed. The two solutions to that, as we’ve just covered are:

1. Prune your goals

2. Make a list, and put it in order

Those two work because they help keep your challenge level just right. If the challenge is too great, it produces stress and demoralization — in other words, it is demotivating. If the challenge is too small, however, it makes you feel bored and that is also demotivating.

To keep your motivation high, to keep your interest, to keep your concentration engaged, you’ve got to keep your level of challenge in that middle place where your skill is just about even with the skill required. That's difficult sometimes. But you’re getting the tools here to make it possible.

The first step is to understand what makes a goal challenging.

Whether or not something is a challenge is determined by how much skill it requires to do successfully. If something is very challenging, it requires a lot of skill or capability. If it is not very challenging, it requires very little skill or capability.

For example, in an experiment, every day for four days, two groups of women did as many situps as they could in 90 seconds. This was a challenge. This was a test of their physical capability. But the purpose of the experiment was to test two different ways to deal with a challenge, and it gives us an insight into how to keep the level of the challenge just right.

The first group was merely told to do their very best — to do as many situps as they could.

The researchers gave the second group specific targets, such as “do ten percent more than you did last time.”

Which group do you think did more sit ups? The first group averaged 43 sit ups, and the number didn’t change over the four days. The second group averaged 56 sit ups by the last day. They had become more capable as the experiment went on. Why? Because they managed their challenge. “Doing your best” is almost impossible. It’s too vague. If you’re doing sit ups and your muscles are hurting, can you do one more sit up? Probably, but you might hurt yourself. So where do you stop? If your life depended on it, you could probably do even one more. It’s a challenge that is too open-ended. There is really no way to succeed, and that isn’t very motivating.

On the other hand, doing “ten percent more” puts the challenge within reach. It is still challenging, but it is such a small improvement, it seems within reach, so it isn’t an overwhelming challenge. And they could succeed. They could accomplish the goal of ten percent more. A target that seems challenging but within reach is motivating. The challenge level is kept just right.

Last week I had been editing my web site all day, so I took a break. It was early evening, and I was going to sit down and edit some more, but I’d had enough. My brain felt drained. I was fairly close to finishing one page, however, so I thought, “I could just finish that page and then call it a day.”

Instantly I had plenty of motivation. Why? Because I put the challenge within reach. It wasn’t “all or nothing.” Working for some unknown length of time made me tired just to think of it, kind of like the instruction to “do your best.” But the possibility of working for a limited time to finish a specific page was motivating, and I was able to squeeze a little more from myself.

You can manage your challenge in many different ways, and it will have a good influence on your motivation level. You’ll get more done and you’ll get it done faster, and the whole thing will feel better.

You keep the challenge just right by aiming for goals that are difficult but within reach if you really try.

Difficult but attainable goals keep you at the upper edge of your skill level, and when you’re in that zone, your concentration and motivation is at its highest. You get a lot done and you feel good doing it.

Computer game programmers have mastered the technique of always keeping the player at the upper edge of his skill. The game carefully manages your challenge for you. As soon as you master one level, you get to go to a slightly more challenging level. People spend hours at a time totally focused, totally motivated, and they do it voluntarily — they do it for fun. It is so motivating, some people often feel they shouldn’t be doing it, but they do it anyway because the feeling of being in that zone of a perfect level of challenge is very pleasurable. It’s almost addicting, it feels so good.

If you manage the challenges of your goal with equal care, your goal can become very pleasurable, and even addicting. If you manage the challenge so it stays in that place between stressful and boring — if you can manage to keep yourself at the upper edge of your skill — your goal can become totally engrossing and intensely attractive. And of course, as you do that, your skill level increases, so you have to keep adjusting your challenge upward to keep you motivated.


Scientists have tried to figure out why some people who spend a lot of time doing something, like golfing for example, get very good at it, while others, who also spend a lot of time, never get much better. What they’ve discovered is that it isn’t time that counts but what they called “effortful study.”

Effortful study means a person tries to push herself to the upper reaches of her skill (playing against people slightly better than she is, for example) and when she beats them, finding someone a little bit better than that, etc., all the while concentrating on improving; studying if necessary, watching films of her strokes, etc.

This is in sharp contrast to someone who really loves to golf and plays every weekend with a buddy who has about equal skill. Sometimes one wins, and sometimes the other wins. Neither have much motivation to get tremendously better because then they’d beat their friend all the time, and what fun would that be?

The two are motivated, but they are motivated to hang out together rather than motivated to play their way into the big leagues. They might both get slightly better over time, and they might not. But their enjoyment will come mostly from their relationship, not from the accomplishment of some goal. The challenge is fairly low because they’re not aiming at a difficult goal.

Your feeling of motivation will depend on whether you’re aiming too high or too low. For the highest motivation in the accomplishment of your goal, it has to be just right for you. Set your sights on the upper edge of what you believe is within your reach. Then the goal will feel challenging, but not impossible.

Feeling your goal is impossible, or even suspecting it might be impossible, will kill your motivation. Remember the issue of helplessness or demoralization we talked about in Antivirus For Your Mind? Here's the same issue, seen from a different angle, so to speak. You might set a goal that is actually possible for you, but if you don’t believe it is possible, you'll feel your goal is hopeless. You will feel helpless to achieve it, so your motivation will be weak. Even if you really could achieve it.


Julian Simon, the author of Good Mood, developed a model of how to manage the challenge. It’s a good way to think about what’s going on. Simon says the actual state compared with the benchmark state is what determines your happiness.

In other words, what determines whether you feel good or not is how you compare where you are with where you want to be. It's how you compare the actual state to the benchmark state. Let me explain what this means.

The actual state is your real circumstances and your feelings. The benchmark state is what you want your circumstances to be, and how you want to feel. In other words, the benchmark state is how you think you should feel, where you think you ought to be at this stage of your life, where you wanted to be by the time you were your age, etc. It’s a benchmark. It’s a goal you have decided to reach. It’s a state you want to be in.

With Julian Simon’s basic understanding, we can now look at the different aspects of the antivirus for the mind and see them more clearly. It also casts light on our project here: How to keep the level of challenge just right.

David Burns, author of Feeling Good, works on the actual state. His emphasis is on what he calls “distorted thinking,” that is, misperceiving the actual state. His method is to dig up and root out mistakes in thinking. Cognitive distortions (thought-mistakes) are a misperception of the actual state.

A pioneer in the cognitive therapy field, Albert Ellis, works on modifying your benchmark state so it's more realistic.

According to Ellis, nothing is wrong with goals and expectations. Where we go wrong is demanding that the actual state matches the benchmark by thinking in terms of should, ought, and must — commanding and demanding that the world live up to your desires and expectations.

It is unrealistic to insist that reality should and must match your ideals. For example, is it really realistic to expect all people to like you all the time? No. A benchmark like that will create unnecessary suffering. Every time it seemed someone didn't like you, you would feel bad.

As another example: Is it realistic to expect your goal will be easy to accomplish? No. A benchmark like that would make you likely to feel demoralized by even a minor setback.

Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism, deals with your sense of hopelessness or helplessness about achieving the benchmark. If you feel demoralized, you have one of three options (besides simply getting depressed):

1. Change your benchmark (lower it to something you truly believe you could achieve)

2. Correct your misperception of your ability so you recognize you are not helpless about achieving your goal

3. Correct your misperception of reality so your recognize the accomplishment of your goal isn’t hopeless

You can see that #2 and #3 are the same as David Burns’ work. Your sense of hopelessness is a subcategory of the actual state. In other words, you can correct your misperception by asking yourself, "Am I actually helpless? Is it really hopeless?" Or have you misperceived the real situation? Do you perhaps have more ability than you’ve given yourself credit for? Are the barriers really as huge and insurmountable as you believe they are?


Another category of cognitive “therapy” is the whole genre of motivational seminars, success books, and motivating audio programs. Most motivational material directly addresses the way you think. Much of the motivational or “positive thinking” material aims to bring back your determination — to help you believe you aren’t helpless — that you can accomplish your goal.

One of the ways the writers of "success books" help you believe you can achieve your goal is telling true stories of people who had worse setbacks than you (sometimes much worse) and who had bigger goals than you (sometimes far bigger) but who somehow achieved them. Hearing these kinds of stories puts your own goals and setbacks into perspective enough to eliminate your feelings of helplessness. It makes you correct your opinion of your own ability. After reading these stories, you begin to think maybe you’re not incapable after all. Maybe your dream is not impossible to achieve after all. Your motivation resurges. And because you feel motivated, you get off your butt and get back to work with determination.

And what do you know? Usually the motivational writers were right — you really had misperceived the hopelessness! You weren’t helpless after all! You can if you believe you can, they say, which is really another way of saying that your belief that you can’t is mistaken. And that is almost always a true statement.

Think about the significance of this. If you actually achieve your goal, then your belief that you couldn’t was a cognitive distortion, a mistaken notion, an unreasonable and premature assumption. (See a list of the common mistakes people make in their thinking.)

Motivational material is considered by many to be “bootstrapping.” That is, the whole enterprise is fake. It is merely giving people false hopes. You can't pick yourself up by your own bootstraps. Can you? But the accusation falls on deaf ears because in fact, it works. Thousands of very successful people will acknowledge motivational material as being pivotal to their success.

Motivational stuff is a kind of bootstrapping in the sense that what allowed those people to overcome their “impossible” obstacles was nothing more than their own belief that they could. The human will is a powerful force and once someone has definitely made up their mind they can and will achieve something no matter what, they often find a way. Determination gets those creative juices flowing, and “unsolvable” problems get solved.

Another way to look at this (besides as a kind of bootstrapping) is that the original belief (that the goal was impossible) was false. The original belief was unrealistically pessimistic.

In other words, the person who had previously believed the goal was impossible had irrationally jumped to a conclusion without sufficient evidence and held the conclusion with unjustifiable certainty. He underestimated his own ability. Or he overestimated the obstacles in his way.


I think the motivational material of Brian Tracy, Napoleon Hill, Earl Nightingale, and others like them have been under-acknowledged and under-used by academics and therapists as legitimate tools for overcoming feelings of defeat.

Let’s take Napoleon Hill as an example. His work focuses on removing hopelessness and helplessness by making you realize the benchmark can become actual with sufficient determination, and that your degree of determination is within your power to change (with autosuggestion, for example). His work focuses on the most important cause of defeat: The belief that the cause of a setback is permanent.

This same factor is also an important component of Martin Seligman’s work, and one of the elements of David Burns’ work. When you decide the cause of a setback is permanent, it takes the wind out of your sails. It removes your fighting spirit. You feel defeated, depressed, or demoralized, whether your goal is getting rich or getting married or feeling happy. You feel defeated, you feel your goal is hopeless. So you give up.

And yet, if you are able to argue with your defeatist thoughts, you can often renew your willingness to persist, and that often turns the tide. You start achieving results. The results reinforce your belief that you are not helpless and your situation is not hopeless. It creates an upward spiral of accomplishment and motivation.

In other words, to put it in Julian Simon’s model, you have a benchmark state you want to achieve. But you think your actual state (several setbacks in a row, for example) makes the benchmark impossible to achieve. Both Seligman and Hill address this issue, but in different ways.

For example, say your benchmark is to have a good relationship with someone who loves you. But your actual state, as far as you’re concerned, is that you have just been divorced and your ex-spouse said really bad things about you, so you're feeling unlovable and you feel nobody will ever love you. But you want with all your heart to love and be loved. The actual state and the benchmark state are so far apart, it makes you depressed. You feel defeated. You don’t think your goal is really possible for you.

Burns might say, “You are not correct about your unlovability. If you corrected your assessment, you would realize it is possible someone could love you. Then you might act differently, treat yourself and others differently, and because of that difference, you may be able to achieve the benchmark state.” Burns can go into specifics to find what mistakes you're making in your thinking, like overgeneralizing or jumping to hasty conclusions.

Seligman might say, “It is not necessarily true that you are permanently unlovable. Perhaps you could change your behavior so that you were more lovable.”

Napoleon Hill would approach this differently. He would tell you to imagine your goal clearly and tell yourself constantly that you can do it, and to take lots of action that will move you toward that goal, no matter what obstacles you run into. Overcome them and keep moving. You can do it.

These three different approaches are all trying to accomplish the same thing if you look at motivation and demoralization as two ends of a single scale. Strong motivation is on the high end and depression is on the low end. What the different approaches have in common is attempting to move you up that scale.

One of the most important ways to move up the scale is to keep the level of challenge just right. One way to do that is to correct your mistaken assumption that your goal is out of reach. Another way is to make the goal smaller so it seems more within the reach of your ability. Another way is to convince yourself you can do it even though it feels out of reach. Another way is to increase your ability so the goal feels less challenging.

One of the things all these have in common is they put the accomplishment of the goal within your own control. When you feel helpless, you don’t feel you have enough ability to control the outcome. If you feel your goal is hopeless, you have decided the goal is too big and you can’t control the outcome of it.

A feeling of control — that you have a say in how things turn out, and that you’re not counting on outside forces to make things happen — is vital to a feeling of motivation.

The life raft saga of Dougal Robertson and his family has many illustrations of this principle. For example, they had been adrift on their raft and dingy for seven days, alone in the vast Pacific ocean, hungry, thirsty, and desperate. Then they spotted a ship! It was only about three miles away. Trembling, Dougal hurriedly lit flares, one after the other, and they all yelled and screamed at the top of their lungs, and waved their arms frantically. Dougal even tried to light their little makeshift sail on fire (it only melted), but the ship kept steadily on its course and disappeared on the horizon.

Up until this point, Dougal had been counting on rescue. He felt the only chance they had of making it home alive was to be rescued. But as he sat there, exhausted and deeply disappointed, something happened to him, he says, “that changed the whole aspect of our predicament. If these poor bloody seamen couldn’t rescue us," he wrote later, "then we would have to make it on our own and to hell with them.”

Dougal’s attitude changed immediately and permanently on the spot. What had changed? He had put his goals into his own control. To accomplish his goal, he decided, he wouldn’t rely on the alertness of others or the chance of a ship. It would be in his control.

Dougal wrote, “We would survive without them, yes, and that was the word from now on, ‘survival’ not ‘rescue’ or ‘help’ or dependence of any kind, just survival.”

This change in his attitude changed his motivation immediately. “I felt the strength flooding through me,” he wrote of this event, “lifting me from the depression of disappointment to a state of almost cheerful abandon.”

His change of mind had an immediate consequence. Later that very day, a large sea turtle bumped into their raft. As Dougal says, “The day before, I would have said, ‘Leave it, we can’t manage that,’ but now things were different.” If they were to survive until landfall, they would need to eat.

They managed to catch it and haul it aboard, all eighty pounds of it. They badly needed food, and now they had it. But how to slaughter it? “Twenty-four hours previously I would not have had the stomach for such a bloody business...” But his attitude had changed. He was determined now. They would make it home alive no matter what anyone else did.

The same principle applies to you and your goals, too. Make sure your goal is within your control. Concern yourself with what you can do, not what others might do — it raises your fighting spirit and motivates you to act. It keeps the level of challenge just right. The moment you start to feel the outcome of your goal is not in your control, your motivation will begin to fade. If the achievement of your goal is out of your control it means you feel you either don’t have enough skill yet, or no amount of skill would accomplish it. Either way spells doom to your motivation.

And keep your attention on what you can do. If your thoughts stray to what can’t be done or what you feel is impossible, the level of perceived challenge will rise too high, causing you to lose your motivation.

In all these ways, cultivate your motivation by keeping the challenge level just right.

This article is excerpted from the book, Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot.

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Direct Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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