Tip: The Second Stage of Motivation

There are two stages to staying motivated enough to reach your goal. Most people get stuck in the first stage... and don't even know about the second.

Your Dream Board is Lame

Have you heard people talking like this here lately?

"You have to send positivity out to the universe and it will come back to you. You can get anything you want this way. Just send out positive energy and thoughts!"

If you need a moment to rinse the vomit taste out of your mouth with Listerine, please take one now. All good? Okay, let's continue.

This stuff first appeared in a book called Creative Visualization, but it really hit the mainstream when Oprah pushed a book called The Secret. Part of being rewarded by "the universe" involved creating a vision or dream board where you'd post positive affirmations and photos of your dream life. This was all part of the Law of Attraction.


If this sounds a little crunchy-granola, well, it mostly is. First, because "the universe" doesn't give a shit about you. It's mostly empty space and poisonous gas anyway. Probably doesn't even revolve around you or even care about your feelings, that mean ol' universe!

Second, the whole philosophy basically boils down to thinking nice thoughts – fantasizing. There's no action, no doing, just thinking and pretending to be really positive.

Science Steps on Your Fantasies

Multiple psychological and behavioral studies have now been conducted on this whole idea. Not only does it not work, it's detrimental. Those who create dream/vision boards are actually LESS likely to achieve their goals than those who don't.

Dr. Neil Farber summed it up nicely: "Positive mental attitudes, dreaming, wishing, and fantasizing may, in fact, be harmful. Ideas, thoughts, and dreams are great, but they are forms of energy which do not necessarily lead to action.

It's easier to think, wish, and dream than to do."

Visualization can help, but rather than visualize the outcomes (the end goal and reward), it's better to visualize the work. In our world, we can visualize big biceps, but we're better off spending our mental energy visualizing the tenth set of chin-ups or curls. Then, of course, we have to actually go DO those chins and curls.

As Dr. Farber has written, studies have shown that athletes are "...more successful if they imagine themselves training rather than winning."

The Lost Stage of Motivation

Further research backs up this idea and has shed some light on why it's so easy to become motivated to start, yet so damn hard to actually finish. As it turns out, there are two stages to motivation, but most people never make it to the second stage... or even know about it.

Researchers took a look at promotional and preventional motivation:

Stage 1: Promotional Motivation

This is what most people think about when they think "motivation." In this stage, the focus is on hopes and aspirations. It's the stage where you're fired up and excited about that new workout, diet plan, or job opportunity. You're thinking of what to do and how those actions will lead to your goal. Basically, this is the fun part.

Stage 2: Preventional Motivation

As you can probably guess, that first stage of motivation fizzles out. This is where preventional motivation should kick it. Instead of focusing on achieving a positive outcome, you should now be motivated by avoiding a negative outcome: remaining scrawny, staying fat, getting fired. In short, you don't want to fail or lose. Fear of failing takes over where the happy thoughts left off. And that fear is essential.

Example: Your goal is to finally see your abs. You begin by thinking about that six-pack and how confident you'll feel at the beach. Your plan is to choose better foods and add in some cardio. Seeing photos of people with abs is motivating too. This is promotional motivation.

When you're halfway to your goal, that initial excitement dwindles and the real work begins. Your thinking shifts, or at least it should. Now you're motivated by thoughts of taking off your shirt at the beach and seeing your love handles flop over the sides of your shorts. You don't want to fail and feel embarrassed. Cardio and diet aren't "fun" anymore, and now you see them as your responsibility or even duty. That's preventional motivation.

It takes both of these stages to actually reach your goal.

Female Gym

How to Use This Info

For some reason, people today are afraid of negative or even remotely unpleasant thoughts. Goofy, New Age strategies teach that you should only think positive thoughts, but actual science tells us that there's great power in negative thinking.

Too much positive thinking, or never shifting those positive thoughts into unpleasant actions (work), makes you get stuck in the fantasy part of the aspiration – never taking action and never reaching the end goal.

Sure, think about the nice outcomes and the rewards. That'll help you take the first step. But understand that the second step requires a shift: thinking about the bad feelings or the bad stuff that will happen if you slack off. In short, be afraid of failing, and that'll take you across the finish line.

It'll be okay. The universe will forgive you and reward you for not being a pantywaist with a dream board.


  1. Journal of Consumer Psychology, "How Goal Progress Influences Regulatory Focus in Goal Pursuit."
  2. Study Find, "Drive To Thrive: Study Examines Secret Behind Motivation" by Craig T. Lee.
  3. Psychology Today, Throw Away Your Vision Board, Neil Farber M.D, Ph.D., CLC, CPT.
Chris Shugart is T Nation's Chief Content Officer and the creator of the Velocity Diet. As part of his investigative journalism for T Nation, Chris was featured on HBO’s "Real Sports with Bryant Gumble." Follow on Instagram