More Than Motivation: There’s more to making progress than just motivation

You can have all the motivation in the world, but if you have too many things in your life holding you back, you are not going to make progress toward your goals.

Hi, I’m Kristin Menson. I use she/her/hers pronouns. I am invested in helping female athletes thrive as they pursue their goals. I am currently finishing up my doctoral work on pathways to thriving for female, undergraduate student-athletes. I've met some of you as I have been working as the Front Desk Coordinator over the past several months.

One of my favorite ways to think about making progress towards our goals uses the same properties that explain making a ball move. According to Newton’s first law of motion, in order to move something in one direction, we need to apply a force on the object that is more than the forces that are keeping it still. If all forces are equal, the object will not move. Given the picture above, when the soccer player’s foot hits the ball, it will be propelled along the field. But if there were a player from the opposing team kicking the ball at the same time in the opposite direction with the same force, the ball would not move.

Kurt Lewin used this science to explain his theory of change. He called the forces moving us toward change, or our goals, the driving forces, and the forces holding us back from change, or our goals, the restraining forces. Both types of forces exist within us and outside of us. I love using this framework to think about movement towards our goals as it’s based on the physics of motion which speaks to me as an athlete. Using an analysis Lewin named the “force field analysis,” we can evaluate our own situation and what’s moving us towards and holding us back from our goals.

When I first heard the words force field analysis, I imagined a scene from a science fiction movie where a space craft might turn on the forcefield to protect themselves from an enemy attack, essentially blocking them from reaching the ship. But we know that despite how hard we try, there is no way to block out all of the external forces. In thinking about it a little more, a different scene from a movie came to mind that is much more accurate–a battle between Harry Potter and Voldemort where their weapons are their wands and the power that comes from the wand. In some instances there is very little movement in either direction as all the forces are equal, but the one who wins the battle is the one who has more power from which to draw.

Back to our motivation…

  • Our motivation is an internal driving force, but just one of potentially many. Other internal driving forces can also include your strengths. We are wired in certain ways that cause certain things to become second nature. Some folks have the strength of achiever or competitiveness and that pushes them forwards. If you are interested in learning more about strengths you can check out the Clifton Strengths assessment or the VIA Character Strengths survey. Willpower, values, and identity can also be on your list of internal forces driving you forward.

  • We also have internal restraining forces that are holding us back from our goals. An example is our inner critic, some call it our inner meanie–it can play like a tape recorder in our head telling us that we’re not good enough or something in particular is wrong with us. Other internal restraining forces could include our health, pain, and our limiting beliefs.

  • Then we have the external driving forces. This includes who is in your corner to cheer you on. It could include an incentive that you have promised yourself when you achieve your goal, like a vacation or a new purchase. It could include social comradery in your training partners.

  • Lastly, we have external restraining forces. They could include your family, time restraints from other commitments, or the demands of your job.

The important thing in this equation is that the driving forces must be more powerful than the restraining forces in order to make progress towards our goals. It is also important to know that what for some could be a driving force, for others, it may be a restraining force.

Let me share what my force field analysis looks like for an Ironman journey I undertook a few years ago. To give a bit of background, I had been doing sprint, olympic, and half ironman triathlons for a few years. I had signed up for the Ironman race 12 months ahead of time and a couple of weeks later had reconstructive surgery on my femur/thigh bone as a result of a rare disease. Essentially, I was starting back from the beginning on this journey towards the finish line.

My external driving forces included:

  • Goal race: I had been dreaming of being an Ironman for a few years. I knew in my head and my heart this was the race that was going to get me there.

  • Team of health professionals: I had amassed a team of people who were helping me heal and get stronger in a smart and measured way.

  • Fundraiser for research: I turned my race into a fundraiser for research on the disease that caused the need for surgery.

  • Coach/team: I had a great coach who was also coaching several other athletes doing this race and we would do a lot of coordinated workouts.

  • Friends: My friends near and far were so supportive in this endeavor and always had words of encouragement when I was in need.

My internal driving forces included:

  • Dream deferred: I had to cancel my first attempt at doing an Ironman race because of my surgery the year before. Having to wait an extra year fueled the fire to complete it.

  • Fun: I had a lot of fun training.

  • Belonging: My triathlon team was my social group. I felt a sense of belonging with these folks. We saw each other out training, at races, and afterwards.

My internal restraining forces included:

  • Pain: I was in a good bit of constant pain following the surgery and every time we progressed in both recovery and training. Because pain was how I found out about my condition, the pain caused me to be very quite reactive and sent me to the doctor quite often.

  • My inner voice was constantly questioning whether it was a good idea to push myself so soon after surgery.

  • Pain: Yes, more pain, the physical pain caused emotional pain as well as I navigated trying to maintain a positive outlook while feeling like I had lost something.

  • Doubts about ability: I had not done a race this long even before my surgery and had many doubts about whether I could finish even without the additional hurdle of recovery.

  • Doubts about readiness: I had a limited timeframe with which to train given my recovery and never felt ready to tackle the entire challenge.

External restraining forces:

  • Longer bike: The bike course was 4 miles longer than a typical Ironman race.

  • Shorter race time: The time to cross the finish line was shorter than a typical Ironman race.

  • Doubts from others: There were folks constantly asking me if it was a good idea to be getting back to training so fast.

  • Time constraints: In addition to training, I had PT three times a week. I was on crutches for three months and did not get the all clear to run again until 6 months before the race.

  • Job transition: I had been looking for the next steps in my career and had a few job transitions which impacted my availability and made things complicated with my insurance.

Some people might look at this and think there are a lot of restraining forces in this equation, and they are correct. For some folks, this equation might not have tipped in favor of progress towards the goal. But for me, it did. Your equation that equals movement towards your goals is unique to you.

Creating your own force field analysis can be helpful when you get to a point where you are not making the progress you desire towards your goals. It can also be something helpful to do when you undertake a new endeavor to make sure you have the things in place that will propel you towards success.

Thanks for reading! If you have any questions or are interested in walking through your force field analysis together, I would love to support you further. You can find me on Instagram at @kristinmphd.


Kristin Menson, M.Ed, Ph.D ‘23

Born into the post-Title IX United States, Kristin played numerous sports growing up including soccer, volleyball, softball, golf, and track and field. She rediscovered her athletic self long after college when she began running and fell into the sport of triathlon. She has competed in every distance triathlon from sprint to the Ironman.

Kristin has been working in higher education and with college students for over twenty years. She has expertise in the thriving of undergraduate students with a particular interest in female student-athletes. Her dissertation research explores pathways to thriving for undergraduate female student-athletes in the United States. In addition, Kristin has a decade of experience in race production and sports team management.

Kristin is in the final stages of her doctoral journey and will be graduating with her Ph.D. in early 2023. When not in the office or behind her laptop working on her research, she can be found outside biking or hiking.



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