Motivational speakers are good at writing papers

Increase stamina: this is how you reach your goal!

"Actually I want to, but ..." Wouldn't it be fantastic to be able to shake off the buts and follow through with a project consistently? This is exactly what "Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions", or MCII for short, promises, a technique that aims to increase motivation and stamina in the long term. Most psychological training of this kind work according to the motto: think positively and you can do what you want to do. "But that does not go far enough," says Gabriele Oettingen, who developed MCII and conducts research as a motivational psychologist at the Universities of Hamburg and New York. One of her studies with students shows that positive thinking alone is not enough. Shortly before the final exam, they should state which exam grade they would rate as a success and imagine how they would feel if they were awarded the grade. The result: the more positive the students' fantasies, the worse their exam results were. Indulging in beautiful future scenarios had evidently led the students to believe they were successful and to learn too little.

Increase stamina - it helps to be realistic

Oettingen drew an important conclusion from this. In order to achieve a desired future, it is obviously not only important to have an optimistic belief in yourself, but also something very pragmatic: the realistic assessment of the stumbling blocks that could arise on the way to success. The psychologist decided to develop a new motivational training. The two basic principles: firstly, set feasible goals and secondly, plan your own reaction to potential obstacles in advance.

Obstacle corner

Get fit for the marathon? Learn Spanish for an hour every evening? Oettingen's method first subjects all projects to an obstacle check, the technical term for it: mental contrasting. First you imagine how proud you would be to have made it, how slim you could get through the marathon training, and how impressed your friends would be. In the second step, you then imagine possible stumbling blocks: Does my time not allow you to train four times a week? Am I missing people to train with? Are there any health restrictions, such as knee problems? "It is very important to compare the positive consequences and the possible obstacles, in writing or just in thought," says the psychologist. This makes it clear that it is not feasible to go through a full marathon after just three months of training - but a half marathon would definitely be feasible.

Separate the impossible from the feasible

Another target example: I want to become tidier and better organized. The positive fantasies: no more chaos on your desk, no reminders about forgotten bills, no unfinished tax return that weighs on your conscience. The possible obstacles: I basically can't stand office work, I don't want to spend my free time sorting papers, I don't know enough about tax matters. If you compare the two, you can see that it is too noble a goal to tackle the tax return alone. It actually makes sense to give them to a tax advisor. It would be feasible, however, to sort the documents regularly and thus avoid too much paperwork. "By mentally contrasting you separate the impossible from the feasible", observes Gabriele Oettingen in her experiments. "This creates binding, everyday goals. We can achieve them more easily."

Don't let it stop!

If-then plans

The second theoretical approach that flows into Oettingen's concept was developed by the motivation researcher Peter Gollwitzer: the so-called if-then plans (English: Implementation Intentions). "They should help ensure that we don't let ourselves be stopped on the way to our goal," explains the psychologist, with whom Oettingen worked closely at New York University.

Define alternative behavior

An example: you have decided to go running twice a week. A possible obstacle would be rainy weather. So the resolution could be: "If it's raining and I can't go running outside, then I'll kick the exercise bike for half an hour." That sounds banal. But in fact, most of the good resolutions fail precisely because of such everyday ills. "If we determine an alternative behavior in advance, we no longer have to make the decision in the acute situation - and we also no longer have an excuse," explains Gollwitzer. By measuring brain activity, the scientist was able to prove that planned behaviors are quickly automated in this way. And that without having to repeat the sentences in your mind over and over again, but solely through the fact that the if-then connection has been determined in advance.

Helps with ADHD, smoking cessation, stress

His studies also show that this strategy is useful for a wide variety of goals. For example, if-then plans enabled children with ADHD to better control overactive behaviors. "Whether in smoking cessation or in stress management - the MCII method takes you from dreaming to successful action, regardless of which behavior you want to improve", find Gabriele Oettingen and Peter Gollwitzer in their studies.

Perhaps the most common goal that people fail to achieve is losing weight. Every tenth German citizen is now considered very overweight, diet-related diseases such as type II diabetes or cardiovascular diseases are on the rise. The numerous prevention programs in the health care system can do little to counter this, because they have a decisive system flaw. As soon as the course or cure is over, the participants fall back into their old lifestyle. The MCII method could help to permanently integrate a new health behavior into everyday life. The advantage: The training does not convey any generally applicable rules, but shows how you can identify and then master your own personal hurdles.

You still have to want to

We often only recognize what is really in our way at second glance. The participant in a health course did not manage to go to the gym on a regular basis. At first she thought she was just too tired in the evening. "In order to recognize the real hurdles, you have to listen to yourself very carefully," says Gabriele Oettingen. The real stumbling block actually turned out to be something completely different: the woman's irregular eating behavior. During the day she skipped lunch and only ate light snacks. At home she felt cravings and afterwards she felt too full to exercise. Your if-then plan: If I want to go to sport in the evening, I have something warm in the canteen for lunch. Once you have internalized the principle, you can independently transfer what you have learned to any request. The only requirement is that you really want to change something. Otherwise it won't work with MCII either.

Practical test in three stages

Stage 1: the desire

Scuffed carpeting, bare walls, stuffy air. The room is not exactly motivating. But this is exactly where it should arise, the "I'll pull this through" feeling. Six women, one man. Everyone has one goal: to lose weight. "Fitness studio, nutritional advice, Weight Watchers - I've already tried everything," says Charlotte Huber * in the most beautiful Upper Bavarian language. "At the beginning, I'm always euphoric, but I never manage to hold out for long." Luise Gärtner feels the same way: "In my life I have already lost 100 kilograms and gained 110 again. I am living proof of the yo-yo effect!", She laughs. However, the seminar participants are not here to discuss past failures; rather, they want the motivational speaker Agnes Streber to explain the basics of the MCII method. The Munich resident is one of 20 trainers nationwide who work with this approach. The first topic: movement. Almost everyone in the group would like to do more sport, but fail to put this resolution into practice in everyday life. Luise Gärtner sums it up: "Either I'm too tired in the evening or I just don't feel like doing sports." In a manual everyone should write down what their most important concern is when it comes to exercise. "Remember," stresses Agnes Streber, "that you are setting this goal very small. Then you can easily manage it!"

Stage 2: the goal

"I could try to ride my spinning bike for half an hour every other day," says Luise Gärtner, describing her most important exercise goal. "Do you see the problem with this sentence?" Asks motivational speaker Agnes Streber and looks around. "There's an obstacle in there! You don't really believe that your project is feasible. What could be stopping you?" - "I know myself, then I'll just end up on the couch in the evening", Luise Gärtner admits. Trainer Streber is now bursting with energy and shouts: "The crux of the matter is: Your goal is too big! There are too many stumbling blocks on the way there." To illustrate, she throws two pillows on the floor. "The yellow pillow symbolizes the goal, the red the hurdle - we get stuck on it!" The participants look a little perplexed. Agnes Streber takes a big step around the red pillow. "It sounds banal, but we really just have to manage to get around the obstacles. And 'if-then plans' help us with that.

Stage 3: the way

Luise Gärtner has been working on her minimum goal for two weeks now, which she reformulated in the motivation course: pedal for 15 minutes on the exercise bike twice a week and not eat anything after 7 p.m. one evening. "The sport works great," she says. "I used to train according to the principle of 'all or nothing': 50 minutes, after that everything hurt and I was fed up with sport. But it is not difficult for me to get up and cycle for 15 minutes." She recently spoke to motivational speaker Agnes Streber on the phone. Telephone coaching is part of the course. Together they developed a solution for the following obstacle situation: "Whenever I sit in front of the television, I have an appetite for sweets." Together they formulated a preventive if-then sentence: If I have dinner with my husband, I tell him that I won't snack on television later on. "He thinks it's a bit silly," says Luise Gärtner with a laugh. "But it helps!"

* Names of the course participants changed by the editorial team