The Goldilocks Rule: How to Overcome Obstacles in Your Way

Why is it that we sometimes feel stuck and lack motivation to overcome obstacles?

Remember the famous line in Goldilocks and the Three Bears?

“Ahhh, this porridge is just right!”

“Ahhh, this chair is just right!”

“Then she lay down in the third bed and it was just right.”

How could these memorable lines in a children’s story help you overcome an obstacle in your life?  It has to do with the science behind human motivation.

The Motivation Myth

The dictionary definition of the word motivation is: the force or influence that causes someone to do something.

Jeff Haden, in his book, The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win, explains that motivation doesn’t work that way.  Haden suggests that real motivation occurs after you start, not before you start.

The difficulty is not only starting but also maintaining.  You lose momentum for two main reasons: either you offer yourself no resistance or you create too much resistance.

The Goldilocks Rule

The Goldilocks Rule can be summarized as follows:

The Goldilocks principle states that something must fall within certain margins, as opposed to reaching extremes. The Goldilocks principle is derived from a children’s story “The Three Bears” in which a little girl named Goldilocks finds a house owned by three bears. Each bear has their own preference of food, beds, etc. After testing each of the three items, Goldilocks determines that one of them is always too much in one extreme (too hot, too large, etc.), one is too much in the opposite extreme (too cold, too small, etc.), and one is “just right”. (Wikipedia)

Now let’s apply this rule to human motivation.

Challenges that are significantly below your current abilities are boring. Challenges that are significantly beyond your current abilities are deflating. But challenges that are right on the border of success and failure are incredibly motivating to our brains. We want nothing more than to master a skill just beyond our current level of competence.

The Goldilocks Rule – A Very Personal Example

In 2014, I was seriously ill.  I lost a lot of weight and wasn’t able to exercise for six months.  I didn’t realize what a toll this had on my stamina.

Oddly enough, I developed a mysterious pain in my side, just above my left hip.  It would ache badly anytime I  stood for more than 10-15 minutes.  The same thing happened when I walked.

I went to the doctor and then to a specialist.  I received a cortisone shot which didn’t help.

Physical therapy helped but after 90 days I was dismissed and whatever gains I made dissipated.  That was in December 2015.

I did nothing about it for an entire year or more!  Have you ever been mentally paralyzed for a year or more?

It started to become a limitation.  Have you ever seen a keynote speaker that can’t stand for more than 10-15 minutes?  I couldn’t walk long distances.  I couldn’t stand at networking events.  I couldn’t snow blow the driveway.

I’m ashamed to admit that I resigned myself to the fact that this might just have to be the way it is.  What a limiting belief!  All the more damning because I coach others to overcome adversity, self-doubt and limiting beliefs.  I guess this is why we have the saying “a plumber with leaky faucets.”

I tried to build up strength by walking.  It didn’t offer enough resistance.  Besides, walking is boring (for me).  As per the Goldilocks principle, the key is to stay away from the margins.

I couldn’t get up the motivation to go to the gym.  I couldn’t figure out why.  It turns out that this approach was too difficult for me.  I was feeling discouraged.  It was like staring at Mount Everest and then turning away due to overwhelm.  Again, if you want to create motivation, stay away from the margins.

A Happy Ending

The story has a happy ending.  After failing at the margins, I turned to a phenomenal therapeutic massage therapist who suggested I get specialized one on one personal training help.  The personal trainer evaluated my weaknesses and constructed a training plan which always landed me just outside of my comfort zone.

For example, after I mastered the specific technique for a squat, the trainer would change my hand position.  The next time it was one-legged squats; the time after that it was holding a 20 lb. kettle bell.

It was very motivating to perform well and then being challenged just a little bit more.  Success released dopamine.  (Everything related to human potential ties back to the Happiness Trifecta at some point!)

Recently, I was able to walk for 40 minutes straight – at least 100% greater distance than before.  I’m still working at it – motivated to do more!

To think I had considered giving up and living with this problem for the rest of my life!

The Bottom Line

I’m glad I learned about the Goldilocks Rule.  I’ve started to apply the concept in my coaching practice.  The results have been terrific.  Clients are learning how to motivate themselves by staying away from the margins and creating challenges for themselves that are not boring,  not overwhelming, but just right!

Now it is your turn.  How can you apply the Goldilocks Rule to an obstacle with which you are struggling?


Did you enjoy this article? If so, are several more things you might like:

  • Interesting articles: Read my best articles on topics like habits, goal setting, motivation, and productivity.
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  • Keynote speaking: Hire me to speak to your organization or team about procrastination, career development, leadership and charisma.
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