5 Motivational Mistakes That Sound Like Good Ideas

Note: This is a guest post from Mike Reeves-McMillan of How to Be Amazing

To achieve great things – to achieve anything – you need to understand how motivation works.

The thing is, our minds don’t work the way we often think they do. (It’s the Inigo Montoya effect: “You keep using that mind. I don’t think it works like you think it works.”)

Therefore, there are some very popular motivational techniques that sound plausible, but are actually counterproductive if you don’t know exactly how to use them. Here are five of these techniques. For each of them, I’ve given an alternative that does work to produce more motivation and more goal achievement.

1. Affirmations

Affirmations do work – but only if you’re affirming something you actually believe to be true.

If you keep telling yourself what you know to be lies about yourself, all it does is create dissonance and disillusionment. If you don’t believe you’re beautiful, standing in front of the mirror saying “I am beautiful” is an exercise in futility. Rather than improving your self-image, it will make it worse.

Your alternative: Find phrasings that reflect reality, that talk about progression rather than achievement, until you have achievements to point to. “I am taking steps towards my goal of…” is a better phrasing than “I am achieving my goal” if you actually aren’t achieving it yet.

2. Visualisation

According to a very popular teaching which rhymes with “Flaw of Distraction”, visualising your end goal is pretty much all you need to do in order to achieve it.

In fact, this is an excellent way to ensure that you never achieve your goal, no matter how many seminars you attend or products you buy in an attempt to find out why you haven’t “made it” yet.

Why you haven’t “made it” is that you’re not taking action. And one of the reasons you’re not taking action is that you’re spending your action-taking time convincing your mind that you already have what you want.

Your alternative: Visualising the process of reaching your goal, rather than the outcome, increases the likelihood that you’ll achieve it. This is because you’re practicing the steps that you will have to take in order to reach the goal. It lowers the barrier to taking those steps in reality, because they already feel familiar and achievable. What’s more, you’ll perform them with more skill, just from having mentally rehearsed.

3. Willpower

Willpower works to motivate you – up to a point. That’s the point at which you run out of willpower, because like energy or strength, it’s a finite resource.

Whenever you motivate yourself to do something that you don’t, emotionally, want to do, there are measurable changes in your body and brain. You use up blood sugar, for example. It’s an effort, just the same as running round the block is an effort. And just as you can’t run round the block forever, so you can’t keep making yourself do things that you feel negative about doing forever, however important they are to your long-term happiness.

Your alternative: You actually have several alternatives to willpower. One, of course, is finding ways to achieve your goals that you actually enjoy. Another is finding new goals. Yet a third is reducing other drains on your willpower so that you will have more to devote to your most important goal.

But if none of those are options, work on finding the enjoyment and worth in the process of working towards your goal – so that you don’t have to exert willpower all the time in order to keep doing the essential steps. At the very least, find ways to reduce your resistance.

4. Rewards

Rewards can be motivational – but only if they relate to what you’re actually doing.

Whether it’s bribing children with candy to get them to draw pictures or offering workers more money instead of more fulfilling work and more autonomy, “extrinsic” motivators tend to backfire and produce less motivation, not more.

Your alternative: “Intrinsic” motivation – rewards directly connected to doing the activity you are trying to motivate – is the way to go here. Again, it’s about making the process itself worthwhile, rewarding and enjoyable, and about celebrating milestones towards your goal, not putting off all the happiness for when you eventually achieve it.

5. Punishment

Punishing or scolding yourself (or someone else) may be one of the most commonly practiced forms of motivation. It’s true that negative consequences are motivational, but only if you use them in a particular way. Otherwise, they just produce resentment and backfire – not only because the emotional associations with the goal become negative, but also because the punishments, like the rewards, that are offered are often extrinsic to the goal itself.

Your alternative: First review the positive consequences of the behaviour you want to motivate. Then review the negative consequences of the behaviour you have at the moment. It’s very important to look at them in that order. For some reason, the mind is more compelled by a negative consequence preceded by a positive than the other way around, or by either consequence alone.

Notice that these are the intrinsic consequences, the consequences that arise directly out of the behaviour itself. It’s not an external carrot and stick.


You’ll notice that there’s a common theme in what works. It’s the process – the very thing we don’t want to think about, don’t want to go through – that holds the key to success. By paying attention to your process, you give yourself a motivational advantage and you’re much more likely to achieve your goals successfully.

Mike Reeves-McMillan is an amazingness trainer who’s fascinated by motivation.

Photo by notsogoodphotography


  1. Thanks Mike Reeves-McMillan, great post!

    Those are all great examples of Motivational Mistakes, ‘I am taking Steps towards my Goal’ sounds Realistic and Attainable.
    Otherwise my Subconsioussness might scream:

    ‘Who are you Kidding…!’ 🙂

    Talking about – Subconsioussness – I do think that there is one very common Motivational Mistake not many people know about…..,

    How about telling yourself: ‘Don’t Quit’, while your Subconsioussness – not able to ‘Process’ ‘NOT’ – is only ‘Haring’ Quit..!!!!,

    All the Best,
    To your Happy –Home Business – Inspiration,

    • Thanks, HP. I’ve never been completely sure whether the effect you mention is true or a kind of urban myth, but I stick with positive self-suggestions anyway.

      It does make sense – as Maxwell Maltz said way back in the 1960s, you are giving your mind an image to head for, and if you picture “quit” that’s what it will aim towards.

      • Thanks for bringing up this Maxwell Guy, because I just discovered that several Motivational Speakers like Zig Ziglar, Brian Tracy and Tony Robbins based their techniques on Maxwell Maltz.

        To your Happy – Home Business – Inspiration,

  2. It is actually kind of inspiring how many ways humanity has tried to use to achieve more in life. Some faddish techniques have certainly led some down misguided paths and frustration, but the fact that new innovations in human capacity and success and happiness are constantly being invented only reflects our collective desire for improvement.

    Thanks for your no-nonsense, practical guide to that goal. I like your alternatives to will power. If I make one of those mistakes, it would most likely be this one.

    Thanks for yet another great post!

    • My pleasure, Ken. Yes, willpower is one of the ones I’ve overused in the past, too. My new motto is “work on the work” – in other words, if you don’t like the results you’re getting, pay attention to the process you’re using.

  3. Wow this is very insightful; I am so happy to have read this today! I feel really guilty because I have done most of them without really focusing on the process. A friend who is a psychology major clued me in on some theories of conditioning like those implemented by Pavlov. It works only for quick fixes and up to a certain extent. But I am a firm believer of intrinsic motivation.

    • Oh, conditioning works, no question. It’s the basis for anchoring, which I find very effective (imagine yourself into a particular desirable emotional state; link it to a touch or gesture or keyword; use that cue to return to the state later on).

      But the real power comes when we think about what we’re doing and pay attention to the process. If you now know how to do that, my work here is done.

  4. Going to challenge that thought on visualizing the path rather than the end goal whether for professional – educational purposes or personal ‘I want’ projects.

    On many, many goals, I simply have no idea how or where to start.

    But most every idea starts with a concept or picture of a finished ‘thing’. Then as the idea is developed, its refined many times.

    Conceive the goal, then just get out of the way.

    The mind will come up with dozens of ways to make the goal, but its still up to ‘conscious you’ to decide which path is the most likely to get you there with the least amount of bruises.

    A path just doesn’t stimulate thought and action for me, but hey . . . everyone is different.

    • Fair enough – sometimes the end goal is all we have. The point is more that if we just visualise having the goal, our performance in getting there won’t be as good (according to the research) as if we visualise the kinds of activities that get us to that kind of goal.

  5. You are right about affirmations. You need to believe in what you are repeating to yourself before the affirmation will take any effect in your life. Very common misnomer.

  6. I reckon this as one of the most rational and logical articles on the subject I have ever read. I would like to hear more from you. You have explicated the crucial points where people stray while practicing such methods, thus it’s a wakeup-call to adopt the right techniques which sounds arguably true.

    Thanks a million !

  7. This is one of the best advice I have ever read!!! I constantly found myself relating to each mistake. And reflecting back on why I always felt they never really worked. Very knowledge based post on just the basic way the brain works. Quality Stuff!

    • Thanks, Tam. Yes, there’s research behind each one of these – I didn’t include the actual references in the end, but they are out there. PsyBlog is a good place to start if you’re interested in finding out more.

  8. Affirmation Work the BEST. Just like a philosopher said, ” Say who you want to be. Then walk in that direction.” Write down your affirmation each night before bed. Then. You’ll eventually walk in that direction each and everyday.

    • Yes, I agree with you, affirmations DO work even if you don’t believe them yet if you just repeat them enough. Like when I did the Zig Ziglar recommended affirmation (quite a long one) from his tapes for 30 days, altho I didn’t believe I had these qualities I still felt much better about myself after the 30 days.

  9. You nailed it – especially the visualization part. Many get stuck at the visualizing and never really get past to actual action.

    Visualizations must be vivid enough to elicit strong emotions. Only then will there be enough to propel us from placid contemplation to actively owning the vision, and therefore acting towards it.

    Great post – bookmarked for moments of weakness!

    • Mike Reeves-McMillan
      Mike Reeves-McMillan

      Thanks, Naima. You’re right, visualization is a tremendously powerful technique, but ONLY if it’s accompanied by action.

  10. Mike,
    That was really helpful. The second one : Visualization was my weakness. I used to end up having savoured the goal itself in my mind and this was proving to be an obstacle. Now i will modify my way of visualizing. Thanks for it buddy.

  11. Mike, I think you’re absolutely right about the process being the key to motivation and achieving any goal. We’d all like to think there’s one “tool” we could use to quickly and easily reach our goals, but in reality it’s a combination of belief that we can achieve our goal (self-efficacy), commitment to our goal, and then taking the right actions to reach our goal. Great post!

  12. That’s an excellent summary, Kara. Thanks.

  13. Really good and helpful.

  14. Motivation is a funny thing, its quite easy to get but very difficult to sustain over the long term (for me at least). I think a good positive attitude is essential as once doubt starts to creep in it can be detrimental to success.

  15. this was a great post..and very helpful..motivation is essential for achieving tough goals

  16. I think Law of Attraction does work by just visualising the end goal too. Okay, visualising the steps is a great way to do it too, a v. helpful method to add or use if LOA isn’t working for you, but the key I have found to getting LOA to work is accessing what your subconscious mind (i.e. from childhood) really thinks about yourself and whether you can or maybe even deserve the desired goal. I started doing this inner child work – just visualising and talking to my little – and whammo, all this abuse from my childhood came up! A total suprise to me but I haven’t looked back since. It’s a difficult but brilliant process. Really worth doing.

  17. REALLY fantastic post!!
    You hit on all cylinders.

    Many people (including myself) believe-believed you can find the solution in a book or seminar.

    I am great in the self punishment part. So stupid.

    It’s all about ACTION!!

    Thanks – Im gonna read this 100 times


  18. thanks for sharing a great blog,,,it really inspired me,and i am sure this post will also inspire many people,,,nice job,,keep it up!!!!

  19. Absolutely right about WILLPOWER! I have been using my willpower to push me. Eventually I broke down because it was taking too much of me. Really, tapping into our real desire is a much better driving force!

  20. Great post, one can add the visualization of “steps to take” to achieving a goal and the “goal” itself. Both visualization will go a long way to achieving what was truely desired.

  21. I am knowing of this site for the first time, and I am hooked by this wonderful expose. The last two – rewards and punishment, should be read by managers and corporate leaders. Then the first three are for all of us regardless of posts and positions.
    This makes my day.

  22. I don’t even know my mind

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