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Action Before Motivation

A myth of behaviour change is that we must be motivated before we act. Behavioural Activation shows us how doing can lead to new thinking and better change-making.

Much of the literature on behaviour is predicated on the belief that we need to change our minds to change our behaviour. However, if you’re depressed, anxious, feeling overwhelmed, or uncertain, taking action might be more difficult to do.

Behavioural Activation (BA) arose from research from observations of people who made positive, self-directed changes despite a lack of belief. Brad Stulberg, writing in the New York Times, introduces BA as a means to aid people who feel stuck to find motivation:

“First developed in the 1970s by the clinical psychologist Peter Lewinsohn as a way to help people work through depression, apathy and negative moods, behavioural activation is based on the idea that action can create motivation, especially when you’re in a rut.”

Ruts are becoming more commonplace when we find ourselves in spaces of high complexity. Complexity reduces our ability to connect cause and effect and thus determine what actions to take to achieve particular outcomes. While this is not always a depressive experience, we can learn much from how treatment of depression can help us to act when we are uncertain.

BA can also help us to generate energy for change when we are down, depleted, or just plain tired.

Behavioural Activation and Depression

The evidence-based website Psychology Tools has a useful primer on the core methods associated with BA in therapy, describing the core tenets this way:

Behavioural activation for depression is about making your life meaningful and pleasurable again; it involves these steps:

1) Learning about the vicious cycle of inactivity > depression > inactivity and understanding that we need to activate ourselves to feel better again.
2) Monitoring our daily activities to understand the relationships between our activity and our mood.
3) Identifying our values and goals (working out what really matters to us).
4) Simple activation (scheduling and carrying out meaningful activities to boost our experiences of pleasure and mastery).
5) Problem-solving any barriers to activation.

Action taken on pleasurable activities or things that promote competence, accomplishment, or achievement of goals has the same beneficial outcomes on the brain. These positive feelings can trigger a cascade of other positive associations and elevate mood while enhancing and sustaining motivation.

Action precedes thinking just as our mindset (thought habits) can motivate us to take action.

Design Considerations

The most challenging aspect of implementing BA is energy. Specifically: amotivation is characterized by a lack of energy. It is here that much of the evidence is less solid. There is no single strategy that works for creating energy.

Brad Stulberg offers these suggestions:

If you don’t know where to begin, a good place to start is by reflecting on what matters to you most, what provides you with a sense of well-being and groundedness. Then ask yourself how to apply that activation energy strategically. What actions will give you the oomph you need? For example, if improving your fitness would make you feel better, you might start with 30 minutes of daily movement. If creativity is what you’re missing, writing for an hour three days per week could restart that engine. If you lack a loving connection, try planning an adventure (that feels safe) with your family or friends, or even schedule time for physical intimacy with a partner. You may not feel like getting started, but get started anyway, then see what happens. Your doing influences your being.

Most of these are psychosocial and thus are about framing an existing mindset differently. Our quality of sleep and diet, engaging in physical activity, and exposure to nature and supportive peers are all strategies that can help us, too.

Designing these into our days and workplaces is key. Creating beautiful spaces to work, encouraging movement (e.g., making our choices require a little work, such as putting the kitchen at the end of the hallway at the office), and avoiding back-to-back meetings are organizational strategies. Allow for space and time to learn, rather than simply keep adding to our cognitive load.

Conscious attention to designing for well-being will help lay the groundwork for us to start taking action. And when we take action, we can better motivate ourselves to take more action.

Image Credit: James Wainscoat on Unsplash

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