041 – Make the most of your motivation – a conversation with BJ Fogg (part 1 of 2)


Hi English learners! Lori here, your teacher from Betteratenglish.com. You are in for a treat with this episode of Real English Conversations. It’s a really special episode, and I’m so happy to be sharing it with you.

A while back I had the huge honor of having a conversation with one of my own personal heroes, Dr. BJ Fogg. BJ is the director of the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford University. Put simply, he’s a scientist who spends a lot of time studying how to help people create desirable habits and getting those habits to stick. The concept of motivation plays an important role in BJ’s work. I think most people would agree that motivation is incredibly important for successful language learning, maybe even the most important thing. When you’re highly motivated, it’s easy. But when your motivation is low, it’s not so easy.

BJ has lots of practical advice about how you can make most of your motivation, no matter if it’s high or low. His way of thinking about motivation as a wave blew my mind when I first came across it. The motivation wave can easily be applied to language learning, so I am super excited to share it with you.

As always, you can find the full transcript of this conversation, including a bonus vocabulary lesson at betteratenglish.com/transcripts.

OK, you’re about to hear part one of the conversation. I’ll pop in again at the end to give you four things you can do to get the most benefit from this episode.

Are you ready? Let’s go!

Conversation transcript
Lori: Can– can people depend on motivation when they’re trying to learn things and do things that are difficult?

BJ: Well, in order to do anything difficult, you have to have motivation or you won’t do them. So either, if it’s…if the behavior or task is difficult, you’ve got to find some way to summon up some motivation; or if you make the task simpler, you won’t need so much motivation. So you basically have two options: boost your motivation or make the task easier to do.

Lori: Okay yeah, that– that makes a lot of sense. And I— I noticed in your video, you said that…people often, like teachers or people trying to initiate behavior change or help people change their behavior, that, you don’t like to hear them talking about, “motivating behavior change,” you prefer the term “facilitating” behavior change. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that.

BJ: Yeah. In English, there’s a common phrase that people use when they talk about behavior change, “We need to motivate behavior change.” And yes, you could motivate behavior change but there’s other ways to get behavior to happen. And if you’re looking at long-term behaviors or getting people to create habits, focusing on motivation is the wrong focus. You really need to look at, how do we make the behavior easy to do? And also, it’s related to the habits — how do we make the behavior rewarding or emotionally satisfying? And so, the thing that I’m worried about is by using that phrase, “motivate behavior change,” people are really limiting themselves in how they think about the different ways to design for behavior change.

Lori: It’s interesting to me, coming from, you know, having a background as a teacher. I can remember from my initial teacher training, we were often…it was either implied or— or sometimes even overtly stated that the idea was, “You have to motivate your students. You have to do things to keep their motivation up.” And— and of course, you know, [as a teacher] you want to be motivating and inspiring to people. But when I saw your video, your presentation about the motivation wave, it’s kind of like, a little bell went off that– you know, that it makes so much sense. Could you just explain just the basic, basic idea about the motivation wave — talking about the peaks and valleys, and difficult and hard?

Practice your listening with CC subtitles


BJ: Everyone, I think, has experienced this phenomenon in their life where they get excited about doing some behavior or some set of behaviors like, getting healthier or reducing stress. Now that excitement, as it goes up, I decided to call that, a “motivation wave” because it will go up but it will also come back down. So, it’s not a constant thing. And what the motivation wave allows you to do, when the motivation wave is high — you can do hard things, you can spend lots of time, you can put in a lot of effort, you can persist through hardship if your motivation is high. And as your motivation comes down, you can’t do the hard things anymore, you only can do simple things. And so the key to understand…there’s a few keys: Number one, that motivation won’t always be high. That goes up and down. And then two, when motivation is high, that’s the right time to get yourself or other people to do hard things. And when motivation is low, you can’t do hard things; what you can do are simple things. And so designing — if you’re trying to get yourself to study more or exercise more or what have you and your motivation’s really low, then you should take, let’s say, the study task, and break it down to just three minutes and say, “Okay, I’m only going to study for three minutes. And within three minutes, I’m done.” Instead of forcing yourself or saying, “Oh, I have to study for an hour,” and then your brain finds excuses not to do it at all. Like, zero.
Lori: Oh yeah.

motivation wave
Motivation naturally goes up and down over time, like a wave.

BJ: And so what happens in a lot of people that say “Great! I’m just going to do three minutes,” once they get started, they’re like, “Oh! I’ll do another three minutes…oh! I’ll do another three minutes.” So there’s a momentum they build up by doing the small steps. And the motivation actually goes up and they may end up studying an entire hour or longer because that’s how their motivation and their interests changed as they were doing it.

Lori: Yeah, I know. I have noticed that myself, many, many times when I have some kind of task that I’m putting off because it seems like it’s too difficult or I’m just not motivated. But if you can just force yourself to, to sit down and say, “Okay, I’m just going to at least get started; do one tiny little thing,” it’s so true, that often does happen, that once you get going, you sort of build a momentum and you end up doing a lot more than you planned in the beginning.

BJ: Yeah, so that’s what you do when motivation’s low. When motivation’s high, when you’re in high motivation, that’s the time to change your environment, get the materials you need, get the…let me give you an example.

Lori: Sure.

BJ: One of the habits I’m doing right now is, I’m practicing whiteboarding. I’m practicing with markers writing on a whiteboard. You know, like teachers do.
Lori: Right.

BJ: And I want my handwriting to get much, much better and so, I’m practicing every day. And in fact, I’m doing it right now.

Lori: Yeah?

BJ: Just— yeah, because this is how I practice. But anyway, what I did was…

This conversation continues in part 2 next week!

Final words

That’s the end of part one of this conversation with Dr. BJ Fogg. Did you notice how nervous I sounded? That’s because BJ is one of my heroes, and I kind of felt like a little fangirl talking to one of my favorite rockstars.

Until next time, here are four ideas for things you can do to get the most benefit from this conversation.

1. If listening to this episode was challenging for you, you can prepare for part two by studying the transcript and listening repeatedly to the conversation. If any words are really causing trouble for your understanding, make sure to look them up. If you do this over the next few days, the second part of the conversation should be easier because more of the language will be familiar.

2. Make a prediction! Based on what you heard in this conversation so far, what do you think BJ did to make it easier to practice his whiteboarding every day? There is a big clue toward the end of the conversation. Then next week, listen to see if you were right.

3. If you need to talk about charts and graphs to pass an exam, here’s a great chance to practice. Think about your own motivation to learn English, and how it changes over time. Is it steady, or does it fluctuate? If it fluctuates, how dramatic are the changes? How often? Draw a simple graph of your English learning motivation and practice explaining it to a friend. Or post it on my Facebook page and explain it there!

4. In the transcript and on the website I’ve put a link to a Youtube video where BJ explains the motivation wave. BJ is a great speaker, and if your listening is intermediate or above, I encourage you to watch the video so you can learn more about how to make the most of your motivation. This will also help you prepare for part two of our conversation.
That brings us to the end of this episode of Real English Conversations. Make sure to download the transcript for this episode so you can read along to check your understanding. The transcript also has notes about the language we use in the conversation, and explains a lot of the vocabulary.

You can find the transcript at betteratenglish.com/transcripts.

Until next time, have fun practicing your English! If you have questions or suggestions about what you would like to hear in these podcasts, I’d love to hear them. You can find all the ways to get in touch with me Betteratenglish.com/contact. Bye for now!

Download the transcript for access to the bonus vocabulary lesson.