Motivation is a hugely important part of the human experience. Without motivation, achieving your goals becomes impossible, and finding new experiences can be very difficult. But motivation can be hard to find. What exactly is that fire inside of you that pushes you to do things you want to do? If you feel unmotivated, is there anything you can do to change it? How do you keep your motivation going once you start on the path to achieving a goal?
- What is motivation?
- Marlow’s hierarchy of needs
- Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation
- Stages of motivation
- How to get motivated
- What to do if you lose your motivation
- Final thoughts
What is motivation?
Motivation can be quite difficult to define. We all know what motivation feels like in the moment but it can be hard to find the words to describe it. In its most basic sense, motivation is a process that can start and maintain behavior that is directed towards achieving a goal. But in reality, it isn’t quite as simple as that. There are a whole host of psychological, emotional, social, and even biological forces at play that can influence motivation.
In everyday speech, we talk about motivation in terms of why a person made an action. And motivation in the sense of finding the drive to do something that you want to do is also about the reasons why. The motivation behind starting to act rather than not acting becomes the reason why you act.
Marlow’s hierarchy of needs
Marlow was a psychologist who proposed that human beings are motivated by unmet needs. This tension is what drives a person to act so that they can meet that need. Not all needs are equal, however. Before higher-level complex needs are met, basic needs must first be fulfilled. These needs can be grouped into categories that form a hierarchy.
1) Physiological (hunger/thirst/tiredness)
2) Safety (security/shelter/health)
3) Social (romantic and platonic relationships)
4) Self-esteem (recognition/achievement)
5) Self-actualization (the achievement of a person’s full potential)
Not everyone is able to reach level 5 and complete the needs that will bring them to self-actualization. It is easy to imagine a wide range of life circumstances that would mean that there is always an unmet need at one of the other levels that must be dealt with first.
Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation
Beyond Marlow’s hierarchy of needs, motivation can be grouped into two broad categories: extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. The hierarchy of needs explains why someone might want to pursue a particular goal but what it doesn’t tell you is what the motivations are that drive someone to start working on that goal or to continue working on that goal.
These are external factors that motivate behavior, such as rewards or pressure from another person. For example, an athlete training for a competition might be motivated by winning a medal.
These are internal factors that motivate behavior, such as anticipating feeling good about yourself or being excited about doing something. For example, an athlete training for a competition might be motivated by beating their personal best and feeling a sense of achievement.
Both of these forces of motivation are powerful when it comes to initiating a behavior but the motivation to continue it usually comes from intrinsic factors. There isn’t usually a constant external motivator that will continue long-term. Often, extrinsic motivation can be what drives a person to start a behavior, and afterward, intrinsic motivations are discovered along the way.
Some people suggest that intrinsic motivations are more valuable than extrinsic motivations. They are often related to a sense of autonomy and self-efficacy and pursuing goals because of intrinsic motivations could make you more likely to achieve them than pursuing goals for an external reward.
Motivation can be further split again into several different smaller types.
- Gain (e.g. financial gain)
- Threat of punishment
- Goal achievement
- Gttaching a high value to the goal
- Visualizing your possible self if you achieved the goal
- A feeling of competence
- Getting into a flow
- Feelings of happiness and enjoyment
- A desire for feeling in control
- Wanting to feel closer to other people
In almost all cases, there won’t be one single motivation driving behavior. It will be a mix of different motivations and these motivations can change over time. What motivated someone to start something may be very different from the motivation for them to continue with it.
Stages of motivation
There is a common misconception that motivation only means finding the will to begin a task. That is one part of the process, of course. And can often be the most difficult to achieve. But once that first step is taken, motivation is still required to maintain progress towards the goal.
This is the element of motivation that most people think of when they see the word. It is the moment when it suddenly becomes easier to make a change than stay the same and is when the first step to achieving the goal begins.
Once the behavior has been activated, then to achieve the goal you have to keep working towards it. This is the persistence stage. Often, activation triggers a momentum effect that makes continuing the behavior easier. But persistence is still an important part of the process because it helps to make sure that you continue even when there are circumstances that could make it more difficult.
Any step towards a goal is a positive thing, but a higher level of intensity in pursuit of a goal can make a big difference to how easily and quickly it is achieved, and it can also help to get better results. The intensity level is how much effort, concentration, and time is put into achieving the goal.
How to get motivated
So now we know what motivation is, we can think about how to find it when we need it. Whether you’re starting a new fitness regime, wanting to learn a new skill, or want to progress in your career, you will need to have motivation. Thinking about what motivation actually is can help us to find ways to get started and to keep going.
1) Make it as easy to start as possible
We know that activation can often be much more difficult than persistence. Doing the things that are needed to start a new habit, behavior, or project can seem insurmountable and this can make it less likely that we will get going. By making it as easy as possible to start, you can catch the momentum and keep going.
Automate the early stages
Very often we are paralyzed by choice. When should I start? What should I do first? When am I going to be in the mood? Getting caught up in making these decisions can actually mean that we never start at all. So taking away that decision-making process means that you are much more likely to get started. That first step should really be as mindless as possible and making some preparations beforehand can be really useful:
- Set a date and time
- Decide on the location
- Use technology to help you (set reminders, put your phone on “do not disturb”)
2) Set a schedule
Quite possibly the most important part of creating a new habit is setting a schedule. It takes on average 3 months to create a new habit and, again, you will want to make it as easy as possible to perform the behavior while it is becoming a habit. By having a set time of the day when you perform a certain task, you are again taking away the decision-making process of working out when to fit it in (which is often never!). It doesn’t necessarily have to be a set time on a clock but it should always come at the same point of your daily routine. So, for example, you could make sure that you exercise after your morning cup of coffee but before you go upstairs to get ready for the day.
Another tactic you can use is to wrap the behavior around a ritual. So if you have trouble finding the time to write, you could always make the same drink, sit at the same place, and put on the same music every time.
3) Break the task up into smaller goals
Very often the goal that we are working towards is a large one and when we think about achieving that goal it can seem overwhelming. By breaking the larger goal up into smaller, more manageable ones, you can achieve two things. First, you make it less likely that you will become so overwhelmed that you can’t face doing anything. Second, you will make sure that you get positive reinforcement from the sense of achievement you get when you complete each smaller goal. This will help keep your momentum going to achieve the larger goal.
For example, if your goal is to complete a course, it can seem overwhelming to think about everything you will need to do. But focusing on each of the individual assignments, in turn, can be much more achievable and you will benefit from the feedback you get on each one.
4) Use social support
The people around you care about you and they want you to be happy and do well. While many people find it difficult to share their goals with the people closest to them, in case they fail and let them down, sharing these goals can actually make it more likely that you will succeed. Having people to talk to if you’re struggling, people that will remind you that you need to do something, and people who will share in your successes (big and small!), can make a big difference in helping you to get the motivation that you need.
5) Attach your goal to a value
If you are able to, attaching your goal to a higher value can help to keep you focused on achieving it. It can make it more important and it can help to improve your view of who you are as a person if you achieve that goal. For example, if you want to start a vegan diet for health reasons, then attaching it to the value of reducing climate change can help to give you extra motivation to keep going.
6) Frame your goal as a gain, not a loss
Most people react better to positive reinforcement than punishment. If you frame your goal as avoiding something unpleasant, you could well get caught up in that negativity and you may also be less likely to have the drive to move forward with it. If you frame your goal as the chance to experience something positive instead, this can be something you naturally have more drive to achieve.
For example, if you want to start losing weight, it is better to frame it as wanting to get fitter and to look good rather than avoiding being overweight.
7) Think about the experience rather than the performance
As we know, external motivators aren’t as good at helping us to achieve our goals as internal motivators. So rather than focusing on the performance and outcome, it can be better to focus on the internal values and gains that you could experience. So, for example, rather than focusing on the certificate you will receive at the end of your degree, think about the critical thinking skills you will gain, the new information that you will learn, or even the social ties you will make.
8) Review your goals and progress
Once you have started on your path to achieving your goals, it can be helpful to regularly review them and the progress you have made. Often, it can be difficult to remember where we were when we first started and it can be hard to see how far we have already come. By reviewing your goals and progress, you can have a good view of everything you have already achieved and this will help to give you the motivation to keep going. For example, a lot of people find it helpful to take regular before and after pictures if they’re trying to build muscle at the gym.
It is also important to modify your goals if you feel like you are putting too much pressure on yourself. Making the tasks smaller or extending the length of time the whole thing will take can help to stop your goals from becoming too much to handle.
What to do if you lose your motivation
There will be setbacks along every journey towards a goal, and that’s ok. What’s more important is how we deal with those setbacks so that they don’t paralyze us into abandoning the goal altogether.
1) Avoid all-or-nothing thinking
It can be very, very easy to fall into the trap of all-or-nothing thinking when we have a setback but it really isn’t helpful. For example, missing one workout doesn’t mean that you have failed on your fitness journey. But for many people, missing that one workout can be enough to abandon the whole thing, at least for a while. It is important to be able to accept the setbacks as just as much a part of the journey as the achievements and then reset to start again the next day.
One motivational tool that a lot of apps use is to give you achievements for “streaks”. While these can be a great motivator when you are achieving your streaks, they can be really unhelpful when there is a setback. Losing your entire streak can seem like a much bigger loss than the reality of the situation of just missing one day and it can very easy to see it as such a big failure that you may as well give up. Try not to pay too much attention to streaks and keep breaking up your goal into smaller goals if you can.
2) Get a handle on your procrastination
Procrastination really is the killer of achievement. We all procrastinate at one time or another, but it is important to take steps to stop procrastination from interfering with your goals to too great an extent. While on the surface procrastination can often look like you’re doing something fun instead of work, in reality, it usually comes from a place of distress and anxiety.
The best way to deal with procrastination is to, again, break the bigger task up into smaller tasks that are easy to manage. This can help to lessen your anxiety and can help you to face the task at hand more easily.
3) Get rid of distractions
There are so many distractions all around us that can stop us from doing the things that we need to do. You will be setting yourself up to succeed by minimizing these distractions as much as possible.
- Set your phone to “do not disturb” to avoid getting distracting notifications
- Delete social media apps off your phone or have them set up so they’re only accessible during certain hours
- Do the nagging household tasks before you get started on your goal so they’re not at the back of your mind
- Tell the people in your household that you need to be left alone for a set time
4) Accept it when you are unmotivated
There are always going to be times when you just don’t feel like doing the tasks that you need to do, and sometimes there are valid reasons for this. Maybe you’ve had a really stressful day at work or you’re unwell. In those cases, it is important to accept that this is the case and maybe you won’t be able to complete the tasks that you were going to today. It can help to give yourself a very small task to help achieve your goal so that you can keep your momentum going.
For example, if you don’t feel well enough to finish the writing you were going to do, you could do just a little bit of research on it so that by tomorrow you have already made a start.
Motivation is key to achieving the goals that you want to but it is tied up in so many psychological and emotional processes that it can be really difficult to find it at times. Learning about what motivation actually is can be really useful to find the right tools to give you the motivation that you need, to keep your motivation going, and to know what to do if you have a setback. Anything is achievable when you understand yourself and your motivations!