Understanding Your Motivation Criteria by Van K. Tharp, Ph.D.

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People usually make decisions or judgments based upon certain criteria. Whether you are deciding what to have for lunch or who to marry, you have criteria for the decision that help you determine which way to go. For example, think about becoming a Super Trader — and let’s say you could consistently make 2% (or more) in the market each month no matter what the market type was. Think about how that would feel. So see yourself doing that, feel really good, and that could motivate you to take action.

Your criteria define and shape the state you are seeking — for example, you’ve just looked at how consistently make 2% or more each month trading might make you feel. Now, however, suppose you change the criterion of success to “consistently recognizing market types so I can make good money trading in bull markets.” What would that be like? Well, you might be happy with that criterion initially but then realize that during sideways or bear markets, you might not feel so good.

Your decision criteria might be similar to your values (see Volume 3 of the Peak Performance Home Study Course) but they are not necessarily the same. Criteria and values apply to different logical levels or metastates. For example, you might have different environmental criteria, emotional criteria, behavioral criteria, etc. You and I could both have a value or criteria of transformation, but you and I would probably give a completely different meaning to the word transformation. I might say transformation leads me to a higher level of consciousness, and you might say transformation helps you change in some way. Those two criteria could result in very different decisions about transformation.

When you set some goal, such as to become a good trader, establishing useful criteria that will work for you is essential to the goal setting process. How you develop the criteria and the level at which you operate to determine if those criteria are met might be different for you than for anyone else. For example, if your criterion was success, you might define success as everyone saying “He’s successful” when they look at your trading performance. In contrast, someone else might say that success means, “Trade and watch my account grow 25% per year.” A third person might say, “Feel really good about myself.” These are totally different ways of evaluating success and they lead to totally different decisions and conclusions.

Motivation Criteria Step 1:

So let’s look at an exercise you might do to help you motivate yourself. This exercise will also help you determine your higher level criteria which tend to override lower level criteria.

Do the following:

  1. What would motivate you to try something new (such as join the Van Tharp Institute Super Trader program or anything else you might pick)?

    Someone might say, “I really want the freedom I’d have as a full-time professional trader and I really want to transform myself to do that.“ (Freedom and transformation are the criteria).

  2. Next, determine what might cause you to stop doing that new activity, even if you were getting the criteria met that you identified previously. That is, why might you stop going through the program (or activity) even if you were experiencing the freedom and the transformation you wanted?

    As an example, you might say, “I suddenly felt like I didn’t have enough money.” So in this case, money was a higher level criterion than freedom or transformation.

  3. Now, what would make you continue with the program even if the higher level criteria in step 2 stopped you?

    It might be that, “I find I keep getting happier and happier as I progress in the program.” (increasing joy) Thus, happiness or joy could override not having enough money to continue.

  4. Now ask, “Even if I’m meeting all those criteria (such as being really happy for no reason), what would make me stop doing it again?”

    In this case you might say, if someone I loved were really sick and I had to stop the new program/ activity to take care of them. (concern for loved ones)

Do this exercise for yourself and notice what criteria emerge. What you’ll see is your hierarchy of criteria. And based upon our examples above it might look something like this.

Level Criterion
1st Level Freedom, Transformation
2nd Level Lack of Money
3rd Level Increasing Happiness/Joy
4th Level Concern for Loved Ones

Motivation Criteria Step 2

Another way of looking at your hierarchy of criteria is to see what would motivate you to try something new even if prior levels of criteria are not met.

  1. What would motivate you try something new (such as join the Super Trader program)?

    You might think, “I’d do it if it were cheap, easy, and quick.”

  2. What if none of those criteria were met, however, what would still get you to try it or anything else that was new?

    Your response might be, “If I were totally convinced I’d really make a lot of money doing it.”

  3. But what if the activity/program didn’t meet those criteria either (in steps one and two above), what would make you motivated enough to want to do it still?

    You might say, “If I knew I was going to become more and more joyous until I was joyous for no reason at all, and that became my natural state.”

  4. And what if it still didn’t meet any of those criteria (in one through three), what would still motivate you enough to want to do it?

    After some thought, your response sound like, “If I were convinced that my life depended upon it.”

So now we have criteria that are similar to the first exercise but slightly different. For example, you found a new lower level criterion of “cheap, quick, and fast,” and a new higher level criterion of “my life depends upon it.” That illustrates the value of taking two different approaches to eliciting your criteria.

Level Criterion
1st Level Cheap, quick, and fast
2nd Level Make lots of money
3rd Level Happy for no reason
4th Level My life depends upon it

So try both forms of the exercise for yourself. While the Super Trader program would be new for you, you can use anything that you might like to try – even some extreme activity like sky-driving or climbing Mount Everest. Once you’ve done the two exercises, I’ll show you how to apply the criteria you identified to motivate yourself. You can learn to break out of your habitual ways of being and help yourself get around self-made boundaries that you might take for granted.

Using Your Criteria to Change Your Behavior, Step 3

To begin the next step, select four locations on the floor which are large enough for you to stand in, side-by-side. These will correspond to your behavior, your motivation, your limitations, and your values. Values, in this case, will be your last location to stand in.

Location 1


Location 2


Location 3


Location 4


Step into the first location on the floor and identify some activity or behavior that you’d like to pursue but somehow, you have consistently stopped yourself from doing it. Let’s say it’s something like exercising regularly or working on yourself for continuous self-improvement.

Once you’ve done that, step into the second location on the floor and then identify the criteria you have that motivate you to want to do those behaviors.

  • For exercise, your motivation criteria might be to “become healthier and look more muscular.”
  • Your motivation criteria for personal transformation might be “to have more choices in my life.”

Now, identify the details about the criteria you selected. These might include the modalities (visual, auditory, or kinesthetic) of your representation, the specific submodalities, or any metaprograms that are used to identify each criterion (if you are familiar with metaprograms).

  • For the first example, you might see a stronger more vibrant you from a few feet away. So you are dissociated seeing your new self as you might look in the future.
  • In the second example, you might feel that you always have options to resolve any problems you encounter. So you feel yourself being fully capable of moving freely in all directions in every situation.

Next, move to the third location and determine the criteria that stop you from behaving in the desired way. Since these criteria override the initial motivation, these will be higher level criteria.

  • For example, you might say: “I stop exercising because I keep injuring myself and then it’s hard to get back any momentum after I have healed.”
  • Or for self-work, you might say: “It keeps bringing up painful feelings. I just don’t want to go there.”

Now move to the fourth location and determine what criteria would cause you to continue the behavior despite all of the limiting criteria. Ask yourself, “What’s more important that would cause me to override the limiting criteria that stop me?”

  • For improving your health, maybe the criteria sound like, “I need to keep exercising because I have a responsibility to take care of my family and be there for them.”
  • Or for the self-work, “I must continue to work on myself because I want to be happier and enjoy life more.”

And when you have these criteria, notice what you did to elicit the last criteria you came up with.

  • For example: maybe the idea of being responsible for your family came from a movie you visualized of them trying to cope without you and how difficult it would be for them if you were not providing your support. Seeing that movie makes you feel terrible.
  • Being happier and enjoying life more comes from recalling past times that you’ve worked on yourself and the feeling of relief and joy you felt when you overcame a long standing belief or feeling that had been blocking you.

In the next step you will practice some leveraging. Go to location 1 and anchor the behavior you want. To anchor the behavior, say some word and squeeze your hand as you imagine yourself behaving in the new way. Once you have done that, bypass locations 2 and 3 and go right to location 4. Here apply your highest criteria to the behavior to override the limitations.

  • For example, for exercising consistently you might say, “By exercising I’m providing a good example for my family and making sure that I will be at my best physically for them.”
  • And for continual self-improvement, you might say, “Each painful encounter that I come across will help me achieve a greater level of awareness and increased happiness.”

Now step into location 3. From that location, find a way to achieve the desired behavior that will match the criteria on all three levels. In terms of exercising, could you find a new routine that would be less physically stressful and also make you healthier and stronger so you could provide for your family? In terms of working on yourself, could you see yourself addressing painful issues and then becoming more joyful as a result of going through them? Make sure that you create the new vision in a way that matches your elicitation of your highest level criterion in location four.

I don’t usually include exercises like this in my articles but this process could help a lot of people do some things they have been avoiding or putting off.

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