The science of motivation: how to get and stay motivated

When your motivation vanishes, what can you do to get it back? Many of us will buy an inspirational book or watch motivational videos, thinking this will help us get our mojo back. But these tricks are unlikely to be successful.

In reality, motivation only starts to build again once we have taken the first steps and gained some momentum in our task. In the words of Lao Tzu: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Motivation is all about getting started and consistently taking action, making sure we get back on track when we fall off the bandwagon.

Why we do what we do

There are two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. When interest or enjoyment in an activity comes from within us, we experience intrinsic motivation. A violinist, for example, may desire to improve as a musician because playing brings intense joy, rather than to pursue fame or awards.

Intrinsic motivation associated with doing what you love therefore strongly correlates with sustained behavioural change and improved well-being, because the activity itself brings pleasure.

With intrinsic motivation, an activity provides its own inherent reward. Researchers in organisational psychology note that “intrinsic motivation is key for persistence at work”. If you enjoy what you do, the activity and the goal will collide so that both your interest and experience of work are enhanced.

Extrinsic motivation, conversely, is driven by influences outside of us. You may want to progress in your career to earn more money, achieve recognition within the workplace, or to avoid sanctions. With extrinsic motivation, the outcome you desire is separate to the activity you engage in to achieve it, which will make dips in motivation more likely.

But it doesn’t mean that extrinsic motivation is bad: the recipe for motivation is a bit more complex than that.

The ingredients of motivation

Motivation has been studied for many years, and one of the most popular schools of thought is Self-Determination Theory. This theory uses empirical methods to highlight the importance of self-regulation, the process of taking in social values before transforming them into our own values and self-motivations.

Writing in the American Psychologist journal, Richard Ryan and Edward Deci highlighted the three innate psychological needs which must be satisfied to enhance self-motivation and mental health: competence, autonomy and relatedness.

If we feel competent in a behaviour, either as a result of feedback, communication or rewards, our intrinsic motivation will be greater. However, this is only the case if we have a sense of autonomy over the action. 

Relatedness is often more relevant to extrinsic motivation. If a behaviour is valued by a manager, client, or friend, we will feel a sense of connectedness with them, which will lead to internalisation of an extrinsic motivation.

Self-Determination Theory therefore demonstrates that our psychological needs must be met for self-regulation to occur, so that both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation can be maintained.

Why is it so hard to stay motivated?

We like to think of ourselves as curious learners. But many of us will have experienced a sense of apathy at some point in our personal or professional lives. Whether we have stayed in a stagnant job or spent night after night mindlessly scrolling on the sofa, demotivation can affect us all.

There are many causes of demotivation. Perhaps a challenge feels too difficult. If getting out of your comfort zone causes intense fear or anxiety, you may lose any drive you once had and abandon the task.

It’s not just goals that are too hard that can cause demotivation. If a goal is too easy or will not lead to a suitable reward, you may lack the drive to pursue it despite it being achievable.

Similarly, if you set goals that do not suit you, you may be unable to self-regulate and see how they relate to you. Without self-regulation, neither intrinsic nor extrinsic motivation will be present, and you won’t manage to stay motivated.

In some cases, the absence of clarity in your aspirations may deter you from pursuing them. You might know that you’re unhappy in your current role, but feel unsure about where to begin with instigating a career change.

Whether your motivation for change is internally or externally motivated, you cannot sustain motivation without having an aim clearly in focus.

As you can see, there are many reasons why you may have slip-ups in motivation. Fortunately, there are ways to get and to maintain motivation. What matters is that when you recognise a lull in momentum, you get back on track as quickly as possible. Try to “never miss twice in a row” by acting on any demotivation and not allowing it to persist. 

Getting, and maintaining, motivation

Motivation will only come once we have started a task or behaviour, not before we get going. Rather than letting tasks accumulate until they feel insurmountable, the best strategy is to generate the momentum required to conquer a long-term goal by consistently showing up every day.

As Confucius put it: “The man who moves mountains begins by carrying away small stones”. But, of course, that’s easier said than done. When your get up and go has gone, the following five strategies will help you to rekindle your motivation.

  • Focus on the right goals. Intrinsic motivation will occur naturally if you choose a goal you care about. If you don’t feel committed or connected to the goal, you’ll need to rely mostly on willpower, which isn’t sustainable in the long-term. You can also use the Goldilocks rule to confirm that a goal is not too easy nor too hard.
  • Create a motivation routine. Block out time first thing each morning to focus on the goal that matters to you. Prioritising this time reaffirms your commitment to the task.
  • Practice self-reflection. To promote motivation, you need to take care of yourself. Allow time for self-care, such as reading and exercise, and commit to self-reflection. Using a metacognitive method such as journaling gives you space to reflect on your motivation, progress and any setbacks, so that you can continue to move forwards.
  • Use the motivation clinic. The 3C model of motivation can help you dig deeper to figure out which component of motivation exactly is the source of the problem and, crucially, which strategy you should employ to get back on track.
  • Plan to bounce back. We will all slip up, but having a safety net in place will help to prevent demotivation setting in. Finding an accountability buddy can help keep you focused and celebrate your successes.

Most importantly, remind yourself that you will never regret persevering with hard, but valuable, work once it is done. Self-regulation is an important part of motivation, and it will only occur if you feel competent, autonomous and understand how your goal relates to you.

By focusing on the right goals, using self-reflection, and implementing safety nets, you can boost your motivation and ensure a prompt comeback at times of demotivation.

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