Parents want to motivate children. Companies want to motivate employees. Maybe you’ve been trying to figure out how to motivate yourself. We talk about motivation as if it’s the fix for everything. If we could just create enough of it, life would be easier, right?

Right! But also wrong. We’re right in believing that motivation is important. But we’ve been wrong in our ideas about how it works, primarily in three key ways: Seeing motivation as something we have to create, believing that all motivation is the same, and doing well-intended things that ultimately get in the way.

1. You don’t have to create motivation

What would you say if I told you you don’t have to motivate anyone? Most people are motivated in some way, almost all the time. This includes smokers. In any given year, 70 percent say they want to quit smoking, roughly half try, and about 5 percent successfully quit.

Wait a minute…If they’re motivated, why do so few quit? Part of it has to do with access to evidence-based quit programs (like Pivot, ahem). But another major reason is because, while smokers are motivated to quit, they are also motivated to smoke. Specifically, they are motivated by things that smoking gives them: relief from stress, a way to manage emotions, an excuse to grab a few minutes of downtime. Honestly, who isn’t motivated by those things?

If you want to help people to quit smoking, figure out their existing motivations and look for ways to align those with quitting. For example, a lot of people are motivated to spend time with family. Smoking can interfere with this. So help them align quitting with the quality family time they value.

2. Not all motivation is the same

As with food, it’s frustratingly easy to get derailed by “junk” motivation that ignores long-term needs in favor of unhealthy quick fixes. For example, employers use higher insurance premiums to penalize people who smoke, or offer financial incentives for completing a series of  health coaching sessions for smoking cessation.

These “nudges” can get some smokers to make different choices in the short term. But they aren’t very effective for getting people to actually quit smoking, or even to make a genuine attempt—unless the motivation fueling their efforts is built on the following essential principles of motivation:

  • Autonomy. People want to feel like they’re calling their own shots. Programs that give them opportunities to make choices and to see how positive changes connect to the things that matter most to them will help them build lasting motivation.

EXAMPLE: Two of the activities in the first phase of Pivot are specifically designed to help participants connect the dots between smoking, quitting, and the other important things in their life. These activities focus on time and money. When people see how their time and money is being spent with smoking, this creates an opportunity for them to consider how they would rather spend those resources, if they weren’t spending them on smoking. For many participants, this becomes a major turning point in starting to imagine their smoke-free life.

  • Competence. Autonomy alone isn’t enough, especially when people get overwhelmed by either the number of choices or a fear of failure. So, the next step is to create a structure in which people can choose from several different options, but with the belief that they’ll be able to handle any of them. They’ll feel not only in control but also safe and confident.

EXAMPLE In Pivot, we provide participants with Daily Challenges and opportunities for Practice Quits in the days and weeks leading up to their quit day. This gives them an opportunity to try out a part of their quit plan or test the waters with going smoke-free for a few hours. Experiencing success with part of the quitting process—one piece at a time—builds confidence.

  • Relatedness. Accept that no one who smokes is doing so because they don’t know about the health risks or because society hasn’t sufficiently shamed them. If you want to help, know this: Smokers feel like no one understands how hard it is to quit—from the incredibly strong nicotine addiction to all the ways smoking fits into their lives. They don’t need pressure; they need acceptance and support.

EXAMPLE One of our core values at Carrot is that we believe in smokers. So we’ve built Pivot to convey unconditional acceptance and understanding—and to help participants to be less harsh with themselves around smoking and quitting. Take slips and relapse, for example. We frame every quit attempt as part of the process, as one step closer to being smoke-free for life. If a participant has a slip, both the Pivot app and coaching work with participants to identify what worked, strategize around what didn’t, dust themselves off, and get back in the game.

3. Sometimes, the barrier to motivation is us

Failed quit attempts are surefire motivation killers. But there are other cases when people aren’t motivated to change, or they feel ambivalent at best about quitting smoking. Yet, every time we pressure someone to quit when they’re not ready or when they don’t have access to an effective program, we’re setting them up to fail.

Understanding why motivation deficits exist may be our greatest opportunity to shift how we think about motivation. Identifying gaps in the essentials of long-term motivation described above (autonomy, competence, and relatedness) is often a good starting point.

Likewise, lay off the guilt. It likely comes from a “good place”—your own motivations to see someone change, grow, and thrive. But, at best, guilt trips fall flat. At worst, they produce exactly the opposite effect. Smokers often feel so frustrated by judgment and guilt that they stick with smoking almost out of defiance (that “autonomy” thing). Is that self-defeating stubbornness logical? No. Does every single one of us do it? You betcha. Just like you, smokers will always find more motivation when they feel understood than when they feel shamed.

So, there you go: To support lasting behavior change, help people align their existing motivations with the desired outcome; help them feel understood, competent, and in control; and, most of all, don’t be a barrier.


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