The Difference Between ‘Towards’ and ‘Away-From’ Motivation (and Why You Need Some ‘Towards’)

Man in a vat of boiling poo, realising that 'away' is not a direction

Your values provide your motivation. That motivation can be towards what you want, away from what you don’t want, or a mixture of the two. Because ‘away-from’ motivation generally runs out well before you reach your goal, you may find that values that are mainly ‘away-from’ will not be fulfilled consistently.

How does this happen? Well, let’s say someone grows up in poverty, and they are absolutely determined to get away from that so they, or their own children, never have to face that again. So they start their own business, and they work and work and work, and with a bit of luck, a lot of determination, and some bright ideas, their business is successful and they become a millionaire.

Now if their only motivation was to get away from poverty, they’ve done it. At a certain point, maybe while they are being served champagne and caviar on their yacht in the Caribbean, they will think “OK, I’m not poor any more”. And their motivation will go, they won’t put so much effort into their business, and if the market turns against them for a while, they could find their business in trouble. Maybe they even go bankrupt. And they’re poor again – so their motivation comes back, they work like crazy, and they recover and make another fortune. This pattern, making and losing fortunes, could happen several times.

Of course this doesn’t only happen with money. If you’ve ever tried to ‘lose weight’ (and notice whether that’s a towards or away-from), many people find they just can’t lose that last half-stone. That’s because they are motivating themselves with away-froms. The bad feeling they got from looking at the overweight person in the mirror was what motivated them to diet, so the closer they get to their target weight, the less bad they feel and the less motivation they have.

In fact, it can be more complicated than that. I did some belief work with one of my friends in the course of which she discovered that unconsciously, she believed that she had to feel bad when she looked at herself in the mirror or she would have no motivation for losing weight. So her unconscious mind was actually blocking her from losing the half-stone so as to preserve her away-from motivation.

‘Away-from’ motivation is great for giving you a kick in the pants to get started, but it really doesn’t work on its own longer term. For that you need ‘towards’ motivation’, which stays the same or even gets stronger as you get closer to achieving your goal.

Another downside of away-from motivation is that it’s undirected. I’ll give you an illustration that’s easy to remember. Suppose I’m standing in a big vat of boiling… poo. It’s pretty unpleasant in there, so I’m strongly motivated to get out. So which direction am I going to jump? The answer, of course, is any direction at all. It doesn’t matter, as long as I get away – and ‘away’ is not a direction. I might end up further away from where I would ideally prefer to be, but while I’m focused on getting out of the poo, it doesn’t matter. And if that’s all my motivation was, then once I get far enough away, my motivation disappears and I won’t take any more action until the next unpleasant thing comes along that I’m motivated to avoid or escape from. Maybe you know someone with that kind of motivation pattern?

By contrast, if I’m motivated towards a specific goal, it gives me direction. I know which direction I have to go in order to get there, and if I get knocked off course by events, I can correct my course so I’m still heading in the right direction. And my motivation may even strengthen the closer I get, and as it’s almost within my grasp…

Finally, away-from motivation is stressful. If that’s all I have, then to the extent that I’m motivated at all, my internal representations are all of stuff that I dislike and want to get away from, so in order to be motivated I have to feel bad. But with towards motivation, my internal representations are of where I want to get to. I have a dream of reaching my goal – so even if my current situation is objectively pretty bad (like in the poo) I stay in a good and resourceful state because I am motivated towards the positive internal representation of my goal.

This is an extract from my book Practical NLP 8: Values, Goals, and Timelines. Check out the whole Practical NLP series, plus my other books about NLP, Appreciative Inquiry, and coaching here.

Or get a signed copy of my earlier book, Achieve Your Goals, here!

© 2024, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.

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