Brett van Zuiden

Motivation as Persuasive Memory

From New Year’s resolutions to diet or exercise routines, there are behaviors I know I want to do, and yet when given an option I don’t always choose what I know I want. This is surprising! To resolve this contradiction and convince myself to act in my own best interest, I use a notion of “persuasive memory”

I really like running before work - it makes me feel calm and centered for the whole day, I enjoy feeling physically fit, and I’m often treated to beautiful views of Lake Merritt at sunrise. Many days, literally the moment I step outside I get a big smile and feel great. On days where I opt to sleep in for an extra 30 minutes, I’m usually more irritable and unproductive at work, I’m peeved at myself that I was lazy and slept in, and I almost never feel that the extra 30 minutes made me feel any more rested. I am intimately aware of all of this, and yet, when my alarm goes off at 6:30am and it’s dark and cold out and I’m sleepy, I find it really hard to get out of bed.

This contradiction bothered me for a long time. During 99.9% of my waking hours I know I want to go running in the mornings - it’s why I set my alarm at 6:30am the night before - and yet during the moment where I’m faced with the decision, I find it hard to choose the behavior I know I want. The same discrepancy shows up in trying to keep New Year’s resolutions and other goals: I spend time carefully considering what I want, and then promptly choose to not do those things. The need for “motivation” is strange; there are countless tips online and in self-help books on how to follow through on resolutions, but I wondered why these “hacks” are even necessary. After all, I’m not trying to do something I hate, I’m trying to get myself to do the things I want to do!

After some reflection, I consider the root of the issue to be a difference in context: the information that is top of mind when I write down my resolutions or set my alarm is often quite different than the information that is top of mind when I’m warm and cozy and deciding whether to get out of bed. Accordingly, the way to “motivate” myself to a course of action is to bring to mind as much of the original context as possible that led me to want that action in the first place. And not only should I make that context top of mind, I should do so in a way that “wins out” over whatever is currently swimming in my head and ensure that the prior context around what I want compels me to act accordingly. I call this “persuasive memory.”

In practice, this looks like when my alarm goes off, I try to bring to mind as many compelling reasons as possible to get out of bed. I resurface memories of how good I’ve felt after I run in the morning, really trying to live in those memories and re-experience the feelings. I remember all those times when I didn’t run and I felt off-kilter all day. And I try to remember that in each of the many times I’ve run through this same argument in my head, getting out of bed always felt like the right choice. I do the same thing when trying to follow through on my resolutions: I dip into the past to remember all the reasons why I want what I want and how great it feels to do those things, and try to persuade myself accordingly.

“Persuasive memory” is how I resolve this seeming contradiction between how I act and how I want to act. My memory is not always persuasive enough to get me to do the things I know I want, but it wins most of the time!