The Psychology of Motivation and Performance

Private Consultation and Coaching – New Offerings at Breakforth Counseling

In 2015 I was fortunate to be able to offer consulting services to nursing and rehab facilities. I was also honored to be asked to speak to runners at Fleet Feet Sports Roanoke on the psychology of motivation and performance. In preparing my talk for the runners, I noticed that those preparing to run anything from a marathon to a 5K had something in common with the clients I serve in nursing and rehab facilities – they want to perform their best and they struggle at times to stay motivated.

It’s generally not hard to get motivated, at least initially, for something that is important to us. We all have some basic level of motivation to leads us to pursue a goal, satisfy a need, act on an urge, etc. But maintaining motivation can be more difficult. It’s the day-to-day focus on pursuing our goals that can become challenging. And while we may have high levels of performance when we first set out to pursue a goal, that high level of performance can be hard to maintain over time.

Then how do we maintain motivation and performance over time? One key is to examine your goal orientation. Do you have intrinsic motivation for working toward the goal or extrinsic motivation? Intrinsic motivation comes from within and it occurs when you pursue a goal just for the satisfaction you will derive from pursuing it. Intrinsic motivation is generally seen as more sustainable than extrinsic motivation, which is motivation that comes from outside of ourselves and usually involves tangible rewards such as bonuses, prizes, trophies, pats on the back from our bosses, etc. Of course extrinsic rewards can feel good, but they are usually not what keep us going over the long haul.

Another key is to carefully look at how you talk to yourself about pursuing goals. Are you hard on yourself? Do you beat yourself up, call yourself names, etc.? Many of us do this in the interest of trying to maintain motivation. But research has shown that this approach, while it may increase performance in the short term, drains us over the long run. The alternative is to practice self compassion. A simple form of self compassion is to ask yourself “What would you say to a friend?” and say that to yourself before using harsh self talk.

Do you need help maintaining motivation and sustaining performance? These are challenges for many people in many areas of life, and I now offer private consultation and coaching for these issues. Go to Breakforth Counseling for more information.

Here’s to achieving your goals in 2016!

Managing Holiday Stress

It’s that time of the year again (where did the time go?). The holiday season is upon us. And while this is a time many look forward to all year long, it does not come without stress. Here are a few tips to help you manage holiday stress.

1)       Know what you value most about the holiday season. When we move in the direction of our values we tend to feel better about what we do, regardless of the outcome, which is never guaranteed anyhow. It is hard to do everything that is demanded of us during the holiday season – various parties, children’s events, family gatherings, religious services, etc.  Some would never want to miss a holiday party or social event because that is what makes the holidays fun for them. This does not mean that every party will be a blast or that things will go perfectly. But if you know you value the social aspect of the season, you will feel better if you prioritize attending those events. For others, extra time with family is what they most value about the holidays. These folks will feel better about the holidays if they prioritize family time, even if that means missing some parties or special events.

2)      Have a plan. Once you have prioritized what you will do, have a plan for how you will manage each event. Plan things like gifts, meals, how much money you will spend, how long you will stay, and so on. Then communicate your plan to others. If you can only spend one night at a family gathering, let the host and other family members know so feelings aren’t hurt. If you have more than one event to go to in one night, be sure to communicate your intentions to those going with you as well as the hosts, when possible. Couples may have to negotiate their plans if one partner wants to stay longer at one event or if there are certain people with whom one just does not get along.

3)      Maintain good boundaries. Difficult family dynamics, tensions with co-workers, unresolved conflicts with spouses and children can all be exacerbated during the holidays. This is a prime time to maintain good boundaries in relationships. The first step in having good boundaries is being very clear about what you want (this is where steps 1 and 2 above come in) then you must effectively communicate your boundaries to others. Simple phrases such as I like/I don’t like and I want/I don’t want can help us clearly communicate.

Of course many people struggle with value clarity and maintaining boundaries. If you need help in these important areas of life, find a good counselor and work on developing the skills you need to be your best year round.

Happy Holidays to You and Yours!

The Importance of Connectedness

It has been well over a decade since Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam’s book about social capital, was published in 2000. In that book, Putnam used extensive data to show how we in the United States have become less and less connected to one another. We join fewer groups, know less of our neighbors, and do not connect with our families. And this was all data collected before the advent of the smartphone and social media!

Look around in any public setting and you will see people who are not even aware of what is going on around them, as they are texting or surfing the web or talking to someone on their mobile phone. Go to a concert or sporting event and you are likely to see as many people recording the show or texting a friend about it than actually experiencing the event. Although technology has made us more connected than ever before, ultimately it can make us even more isolated, as we choose who we want to connect with and can largely ignore others in our physical environments.

Whether you call it social capital, connectedness, or social support there is ample evidence that we humans are social creatures and need connectedness to others in order to survive and thrive.   So how do we increase our connectedness in our busy worlds that run at cyber speed? Here are a few ideas:

1)      Have a family meal time. Even if you are not in a “family” you can have at-home meals with friends. My wife and her roommates used to have “family dinner”. One of my most fond memories of young adulthood is a Thanksgiving meal I shared with other friends who were far from family at that time.

2)      Join an organization that interests you and be active in it! No matter who you are there is likely an organization of people who share your interests. But don’t stop there. Be active in your organization. You will get more out of it if you do. As the old saying goes, to keep it, you have to give it away.

3)      If you have children and they play sports, consider coaching. There always seems to be a shortage of coaches in my son’s sports leagues. I have volunteered to be an assistant coach more than once. And yes, it is time consuming and yes, many times I felt I was in over my head and did not always enjoy the attitudes of some of the children or the comments of some parents. But you know what? It was worth every minute of it. Seeing a special needs child score a basket for our team, winning third place in an area-wide soccer tournament, and knowing I was a father figure to a couple of boys who did not have fathers at home did me more good than whatever work or other “important things”  I may have done with that time.

4)      Once you are connected, stay mindfully present. This means putting away the smartphone, quieting your mind, and entering into the experience. If you need help staying present, consider a regular mindfulness practice.

Connectedness was once a given. Freud’s therapy was revolutionary in part because it took people away from their usual social settings and gave them rare time alone with only their thoughts and an interested other. Connectedness and true community are no longer a given. We have to work intentionally to connect with others and find supportive communities. What can you do to increase your connectedness?

New Year’s Revolution – an update

You may have wondered what happened to the Breakforth blog and why there have not been any posts since the end of 2013. To make a very long story somewhat short, in January 2014 my wife and I received our referral to adopt two children from Bulgaria. This was the beginning of the culmination of 20 years of our desire to adopt and 3+ years of being in the process of adoption. The process from January until now involved lots of additional paperwork, a trip to Bulgaria in February to meet the kids and formally accept the referral, court approval for the adoption in Bulgaria, fundraising in the spring, and a second trip to bring the children home, which we completed on July 31st. The children have now started school and we are adjusting to being a family of 6!

My wife Lisa has done a great job documenting some of our journey on our adoption blog. If you’re interested. you can read more here.

This process has been a challenge but one that we have felt called to for a long time. It is not easy, but worthwhile things seldom are. And it feels good to do something that if we had not done, it would not have been done. As they say in the adoption community, “adopting a child won’t save the world, but for that child, the world will change.” May I add, it is also changing our lives in ways we could have never imagined.

Look for more Breakforth Counseling blog posts soon!


My wife gave me a great gift this Christmas – a book by Tim Lewis called Land of Second Chances. It’s about Team Rwanda, a cycling team that formed about a decade after the genocide in Rwanda. The book is also about those from other parts of the world who made their way to Africa to start various cycling teams at the turn of the century. One person who is mentioned is a man from Singapore named Nicholas Leong, who was a commercial photographer before coming to Kenya to help form a Kenyan cycling team. Leong did well as a photographer, but said he realized if he stuck to photography, “At the end of my life, there really would be nothing I could point to and say, ‘I did that, and if I hadn’t, it would not have been done at all.’”

That quote got me thinking about New Year’s resolutions. I tend to make them each year, but my resolutions are more like goals, things I want to professionally or personally accomplish over the coming 12 months. What if everyone resolved to live out Leong’s quote? Imagine how it would change the world if each of us resolved to do something that if we ourselves had not done it, it would not have been done at all.

Of course we don’t all need to quit our jobs and move to Kenya to have a profound impact. Imagine how you could change your future if you were the first in your family to earn a college degree. How many lives could you impact for good if you stopped drinking or using drugs? How would things be different for you every day if you gave up the safety net of your comfortable job and did something you jumped out of bed for every day because you really loved doing it?

So as you begin 2014, my challenge for you is to not make a New Year’s resolution. Instead, begin dreaming about what you can do that if you don’t do it, it will never be done. Then do that thing. If we all did, it would start a revolution of good.

The Importance of Practicing Kindness

I recently read Chronicles: Volume One, Bob Dylan’s excellent autobiography. While the stories behind Dylan’s start in the music business and his extended take on making the album Oh Mercy were fascinating, the one line that has stuck with me the most is something Dylan’s grandmother said to him. She told him to “be kind because everyone you’ll ever meet is fighting a hard battle.”

It’s true isn’t it? We’re all fighting a hard battle. Maybe not right now, but if we’re not fighting a hard battle today, it’s just a pause in the action. Those we like and tend to remember with most fondness are people who have been kind to us, those who have helped us along our way. Like the old saying goes, “It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.”

One of the interesting things about practicing kindness is that the more we do it, the more we have genuine affection for others. Being kind doesn’t just help others, it changes us and how we see others. C. S. Lewis said, “with all your innumerable choices…you are slowly turning into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself.”

If you want to experience the benefits of being kind, try an experiment. Be intentionally kind to all those you meet. After all, they are fighting a hard battle and we all need some help along our way.


The Psychology of Upper Limits

Whether we’re aware of it or not, most of us are limited by what we think is possible in our lives. The vision we have of what is possible often comes from the families we grew up in or the environments by which we’re surrounded. These unconscious upper limits can prevent us from maximizing our potential. For many of us, it’s hard to imagine a life not bound by what we think is possible (or what we think is impossible).

When I think of not being bound by upper limits, I think of my friend Joe. Joe and I attended college and graduate school together. We went to a major Southern “football school” and Joe played for the varsity team, not because he was a superstar athlete, but because no one ever told him he couldn’t play. By the time we were 30, Joe had acted in several movies and TV series (Love Potion No. 9, starring a young Sandra Bullock, In the Heat of the Night, with Carroll O’Connor); he had owned, operated and sold a restaurant and bar; and he had lived in Atlanta, L.A. and Wilmington, NC. Joe later became a high school football coach and a dad, not because that is what he settled for, but because he had tasted all that life had to offer, done the things he wanted to do, and then determined that being a teacher and coach and a dad was what meant the most to him.

What are the upper limits that hold you back and keep you from being all you can be? Are you even aware of the limitations placed on you by what you think is possible?

Here’s the good news. Your unconscious upper limits are not your destiny. Norman Vincent Peale famously used quotes from the Bible to spur others toward positive thinking. One such verse is Romans 12:2, “…be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” It is ancient wisdom and it holds true today. How we think and what we believe has a great influence on what we achieve.

If you need help identifying and overcoming your upper limits, contact Dr. Vance at BreakForth Counseling today.

Labor Day Thoughts

It’s Labor Day. We mostly think of this holiday as marking the end of summer, but it’s intent is to recognize the contributions of the American worker. Hopefully you have found work you enjoy. As the old saying goes, find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life. The Bible reminds us it is good to find enjoyment in our work (Ecc. 2:24; 3:13) and to work heartily (Col. 3:23).

The American workplace has changed dramatically in recent years. One thing is certain, in today’s work environment we will all face new career choices at various times in our working lives. If you are lucky enough to be able to work, do something you truly enjoy. Here are three keys to choosing work you love:

1)  Find work that matches who you are. Square pegs don’t fit in round holes. You will have more energy and enthusiasm if you choose work that matches your unique personality and temperament.

2) Do what is possible for you. What is possible for you as a 20-something with few resources but few commitments may be very different from what is possible for you when your are middle-aged, with many commitments, but a wealth of resources to draw on.

3) Provide a product or service that meets a demand. Even when we have figured out what kind of work is possible for us at our stage of life and when we are doing work that matches how we are made, we still have to provide a product or service that others are willing to pay for. It can help to think differently in these situations, like the lawyer who makes house calls or the seamstress who begins making clothes for dolls.

Want more help finding work you love? Breakforth Counseling can help. Contact Dr. Vance to schedule a career counseling assessment or get started today with this quick guide.


How to be at Your Best While Traveling

Last week I was on business travel and stayed in a midtown hotel in a large city the entire week. Staying fit and maintaining a healthy diet is a challenge when traveling. Here are some tips to help you maintain your fitness, eat well, and enjoy your trip more when you’re away from home:

1) Improvise an exercise routine. If you are limited in what you can pack, be sure to pack comfortable walking shoes. You can wear them for exercise, for meetings, and for going out. If the place you’re staying does not have a gym or has a limited gym, you can exercise in your room using a high-intensity interval training such as the New York Times’ Scientific Seven-Minute Workout.

2) Visit a local grocery store or market. Some fruits keep well, even without refrigeration. Apples, bananas, and oranges can keep a few days without being refrigerated. Ask your concierge for directions to the nearest grocery store or even better, visit a local market, and stock up on fresh fruits, nuts, and other healthy food choices early in your trip. Visiting a local market will not only give you access to the freshest locally grown foods, you’ll also soak up some of the culture of the place you’re visiting.

3) Practice Radical Acceptance. Most importantly, it’s a good attitude that makes the biggest difference in staying at our best when we’re away from home. When traveling, the truth is you will probably eat in ways you don’t usually eat, not be able to enjoy your usual exercise routine, and maybe not sleep as well being in a different bed perhaps in a different time zone. But it is also equally true that you will quickly return to your familiar routine when you’re back home. Rather than lamenting what you’re missing from home, embracing the concept of radical acceptance would have you accept what you cannot change and enjoy the positive aspects of travel – exploring new places, meeting new people, learning new things that will make you better for the experience when you return home.IMAG0360

Sleep is Essential

We all know how we feel when we don’t get a good night’s sleep. Research has shown that getting a good night’s sleep not only makes us feel better, it can also help ward off disease, guard against obesity and diabetes, and improve learning and mental functioning.

There is some debate in the scientific community about whether the brain is pruning synaptic connections during sleep or strengthening these connections. However, there is agreement that sleep is essential.

So how can you get a better night’s sleep? Here are my top 3 tips:

1) Have a consistent wake time. Get up at the same time every day with no sleeping in on the weekends. This will help your body and mind get on a sleep schedule. And no worries – you have most likely done this before, when you had to get up at a certain time for school, for work, etc.

2) Turn off electronic media and do something relaxing before going to bed. Electronic media (TV, computers, cell phones, games) stimulate us and use light, which signals waking rather than sleeping. An hour before bed, turn off your electronics and do something soothing, quiet, and relaxing.

3) Get enough sleep. Most adults need 7-9 hours sleep per night throughout the adult lifespan. Many of us short change ourselves by skimping on sleep. Using your wake time, calculate when you need to go to bed in order to get 7-9 hours sleep per night. Don’t go to bed until you feel sleepy, even if that is after your earliest bedtime. With consistency, your body and mind will learn to become sleepy at your bedtime and to wake around your wake time.

Need more help with sleep? Contact Dr. Vance at