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The Keys to Motivation

How to Increase, Maintain, and Recover Motivation

Motivation is the starting point, the catalyst, the reason for behavior. Excellence is the consistency of motivation—the steady, habitual discipline to improve. From time to time, we all experience bursts of inspiration and force ourselves to stay disciplined. However, very few of us can remain committed day in and day out, unless an external variable—school, work, parents, obligations, expectations—demands us to stay on course. Without challenge or motivation, we feel trapped and go through the motions. Motivation can be increased, maintained, and even recovered. The key is to develop an understanding and awareness of your motivation style. 

The daily grind isn’t represented by high peaks or low valleys but by an unassuming number of small wins and small setbacks.


 

 

There are three types of motion: forward, backward, and stop. Forward motion equals progress and growth. Naturally, over time, forward momentum slows down, and motivation decreases. Just think of how quickly our initial feverish zest for an activity wears off: taking art classes, dieting, exercising, or learning a new language. Motivation is a hungry beast that needs to be constantly fed with small wins and occasional milestones. Individuals who are able to turn motivation into a system of habits no longer depend on bursts of inspiration. They transform from amateurs to professionals and let routine and process drive them forward. On the other hand, backward motion or demotivation is characterized by resistance, causing regression and inhibiting forward movement. Resistance is a natural part of the learning process. Individuals have to overcome this counteraction or else it grows stronger with time. When you automate your life—run on habits—it becomes easier to gain momentum and push through the resistance. If you fall off the wagon, you must remain stoic—unattached to negative emotions such as shame, guilt, disappointment, frustration, or anxiety. Like the warriors from yesteryear, you must equip your armor again and head back into the battlefield. Lastly, a lack of motivation results in idleness and apathy. Even worse, standing still in the modern world is equal to moving backward. Motivation is paramount to any worthwhile endeavor. 

The daily grind isn’t represented by high peaks or low valleys but by an unassuming number of small wins and small setbacks. On any given day, motivation ebbs and flows, either pushing us forward or pulling us backward. As long as the total motivation is positive, meaning that the number of wins outnumbers the number of setbacks, the activity is sustainable. When overall motivation is negative– when we have repeated periods of defeat, difficulty, disengagement, misfortune, doubt, and resistance–we will abandon the activity. We’re in a perpetual game of tug-and-war, but as long as we take a step forward each day, however small, we will move forward. It’s better to focus on incremental progress because peak experiences only offer temporary highs without affecting our baseline motivation. Within a few days of a big achievement, the ecstatic, inflated feelings quickly dissipate, and we have to confront reality once more. We falsely believe that arriving at a destination or getting a big break leads to fulfillment. A common narrative is, “if we earn A, we will be finally happy” or “if we get B, our lives will finally have meaning.” But when we arrive at that point, we feel a deep existential void. “Is this it?” we wonder. Having a purpose without enjoying the process is a soul-crushing rat race. Enjoying the process without purpose is temporary hedonism. Life satisfaction requires both a present benefit and a future benefit. Whether or not we arrive at the destination is less important than the journey we take to get there. Learn to love the journey, appreciate the destination when you get there, and set sail once again. In the Progress Principle, author Teras Amabile and Steven Kramer advise using a daily progress checklist to monitor progress-enhancing behaviors. Combine this with positive emotion and purpose results in a deadly “3P” formula for motivation:

Motivation = Purpose + Positivity + Progress

Motivation styles make up a matrix with four quadrants: internal-positive, internal-negative, external-positive, external-negative. 

  Internal External
Positive Autonomy/Choice, Belonging, Curiosity, Challenge, Collaboration, Contribution, Competence, Fun, Growth, Progress, Purpose/Meaning, Pleasure, Passion, Mastery, Self-knowledge, Self-validation, Values Achievement, Appreciation, Competition, Fame, Financial Reward, Incentives, Praise, Power, Recognition, Security, Vacation
Negative Alienation, Fear of Failure, Inadequacy, Insecurity, Internal Stress, Impostor’s Syndrome, Self-doubt, Shame, Status Anxiety Family Pressure, External Stress, Financial Pressure, Firing, Peer Pressure, Punishment, Social Acceptance, Social Expectations, Threats, Unstable life, Unmet basic needs

Motivation is highly contextual and multifaceted, but people do have a dominant style. For example, my motivation is predominantly internal-positive, meaning my primary drivers of behavior are interest, fun, passion, purpose, values, challenge, progress, and mastery. But if one of my role models sprinkled a little recognition and praise, which are external-positive motivators, I would still be motivated to do my best. Collaboration, inadequacy, shame, competition, financial incentives, financial pressure, or family pressure are not my primary power sources, but given the right person-situation, they could still be powerful reasons for action. In general, internal-positive motivation is preferred assuming that a person’s basic needs—survival and safety—are met. How can anyone think about passion or purpose when their basic physiological needs are not covered? People driven by internal forces are more likely to persevere in the face of obstacles or inhibitors. They choose to do an activity and often do so for more extended periods. In contrast, extrinsically motivated people abandon a task when external rewards are removed. 

Motivation also has a social construct. Human beings are social animals designed to belong to a community and form long-lasting relationships. Our default state is not analytical thinking but social cognition. We think about our relationship with other people; we feel compassion and empathy. Communities create multiplier effects with social reinforcers such as competition, collaboration, acceptance, recognition, social expectations, and shared values. In essence, other people motivate us. 

In summary, the keys to motivation:

      • Understand that you can control motivation
      • Figure out your personal motivation matrix
      • Design your life with systems, goals, and routine
      • Combine process with purpose and positivity
      • Ensure that total motivation remains positive over the long-run
      • Enjoy the journey as much as the destination (present-future benefit)
      • Use a daily checklist to ensure progress-enhancing behavior
      • Use the power of community to boost motivation

Further Reading

  • You Accomplished Something Great. So Now What?, A.C. Shilton, New York Times (2019)
  • Turning Pro, Steven Pressfield (2012)
  • Drive, Daniel Pink (2009)
  • Atomic Habits, James Clear (2018)
  • The Progress Principle, Teras Amabile and Steven Kramer (2014)