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Category: Motivation

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Understanding Motivation


Motivation is a huge topic and one that is common in everyday conversations. How many times have you or a friend said: "I'm just so not motivated to do this!" Or "I need some motivation." The truth is motivation doesn't necessarily work like that and it's not always what we are referring to when we use the word. Motivation is the reasoning behind our actions and comes in all different forms. The confusion or problem occurs when people think of one type as the only real type. For example, a coach who thinks that if they are not yelling at their athletes, they are not motivating them. Or a student who thinks that because they don't inherently love writing essays, they simply are not or cannot be motivated to write one.  Stick with me now cause I'm going to get into the nitty-gritty a little bit and then we'll talk about some tips (if nitty-gritty is really not your thing just go ahead and skip to the tips).

The Theory

If you've studied anything about motivation you've read something by Ryan and Deci. They are the guys when it comes to beginning to understand motivation, and, while there are many theories on motivation and many researchers studying it, I'm going to draw more from Self Determination Theory (SDT) for right now. One of the sub-theories that make up SDT talks about the spectrum of Motivation. Now, it gets a bit complicated, because there are several different ways of categorizing the various levels along the spectrum. It looks something like this:

chart of types of motivation and examples
Spectrum of Motivation

Basically, the further along (or down in this case) the spectrum you are, the better. BUT keep in mind that different types of motivation are going to work for different contexts, and often our motivations fall into more than one of these categories at the same time. External forms of motivation can be strong motivators but as soon as that external source disappears, so does the motivation. Internal motivation comes from within yourself making these types more sustainable. At the end of the spectrum, intrinsic motivation is frequently touted as the 'best'  motivation, and it is typically the most adaptive particularly if the goal is long term behaviour change. This is because intrinsic motivation is the purest form involving actions taken for the sole purpose of the joy inherent in undertaking that action. With that in mind, we will talk more about how we can work towards intrinsic motivation.

There are many behaviours that are healthy, adaptive, and desirable, but that many people do not currently find to be inherently enjoyable. The key is to identify what your motivation is (no matter where you are on the spectrum) and work to activate that motivation at critical moments. You might start by putting in place external motivators until the action becomes enough of a habit that it is incorporated into your identity and you can draw on integrated regulation.

Another important insight from SDT is that humans have three universal, innate needs that, when met, lead to optimal functioning and growth. In other words increasing your perception of these three needs can help to shift your motivation towards a more internalized and autonomous form.

Universal Needs

  • Autonomy - the perception of control over one's own life and decisions; the perception of acting in accordance with one's identity.
  • Competence - the perception that one's actions will affect outcomes; the perception of mastery experienced in a given field.
  • Relatedness - the perception of interaction with, connection to, and caring for and by others.

I realize that's a lot of theory, but I believe knowledge is power and understanding how motivation works can be a powerful tool in harnessing your own. To simplify things a bit though, here are my tips for working towards intrinsic motivation.

On your pursuit of intrinsic motivation...

1. Start where you are

person's legs walking down a path
Wherever you are - start there

As I said above, you don't need to have intrinsic motivation to get something done. Recognize what it is that does or will motivate you. Especially if it's a one-off thing, just use what works and get on with it. If it's a long term change you're looking for, still start where you are and you'll work to build up to a more sustainable and internal type of motivation.

2. Keep track of your progress

open planner with pencil and coffee
Write it down so you can look back at your progress over time

Tracking your progress, whether it's in a journal, on your phone, on a calendar or somewhere else helps to build your perception of competence and confidence and change your identity over time. Looking back and seeing the improvements you've made will help you to believe that your current actions will indeed affect change. As you are more consistent with your actions they will begin to feel more a part of your identity which in turn helps to internalize your motivation.

3. Keep the big goals visible (mountain over tree)

mountain in the distance beyond forest and stream
Your perspective changes the way you see things

One of the biggest struggles people have with motivation is keeping their big long-term goals in mind when faced with smaller but more immediate temptations. An analogy I read recently about this described walking down a path and seeing a mountain looming in the distance (your long term goal) and a tree part way along the path (short-term temptations). When both are far away the tree looks much smaller than the mountain but as you get closer and closer to the tree it becomes hard to see anything else even the much larger mountain in the distance. In order to be successful, it is important to find a way to keep the mountain in your vision even when you are standing right under the tree. In other words when you are faced with extra time in bed, procrastinating with Netflix, or ordering unhealthy fast food, you need to keep your big goal (whether it is getting fit and healthy, being accepted to university or college, or something else) in mind so that you can use it to keep doing the hard work (for example studying for an exam, working out, or making healthy home cooked meals). This might mean a picture posted where you will see it at the right time, a notification on your phone, an inspirational quote or list of your goals above your desk, a note on your grocery list…get creative!

4. Allow yourself some choice

There is not just one way to accomplish a goal, and allowing yourself some choice over how you accomplish it will increase your perception of autonomy and help move your motivation towards a more sustainable form. For example, trying to eat more vegetables? Make a point of allowing yourself to choose a new recipe or a new vegetable to try. Are you working towards being more active? You pick the time and place, the people you are active with, and the type of activity you incorporate. Let yourself personalize your soundtrack and outfit when possible. Even small things can make a big difference in helping you own your experience and, ultimately, find more intrinsic enjoyment.

5. Recruit supporters

three women leaning on each other on a bench at the end of a dock
Share goals with close friends so you can feel that you're in it together

A great way to increase your perception of relatedness is to surround yourself with people who either share your goal or are supportive of it. Helping others and having others who are helping you will help you stay motivated in the long term. Join a team or a support group; talk to friends and family members and let them know how they can best support you; pair up with someone trying to achieve the same goals as you; or reach out and ask for mentorship from someone who's already intrinsically motivated (you'd be surprised how excited most people are to share their passion).

6. Use self-talk (control your perceptions)

Self-talk is a very powerful and versatile tool. Not only can you use it to keep your goals and priorities fresh in your mind, but, with some practice, you can alter your perception just through self-talk without making any changes to your environment. You'd be surprised at what you can convince yourself of and how you can influence your own motivation and behaviour through deliberate self-talk. Our brains are very complex but, surprisingly, very easily influenced.

7. Act when it's easiest

white clouds on a blue sky
Make the best of the good times

We all have good days and bad days the trick is to take advantage of those good times to make the hard times easier. If mornings are easier for you - do your meal prep then. If you feel healthier or more focused after a workout, try doing your grocery shopping or studying right after. Feeling especially energized today? Pull out your agenda or calendar and do some planning. Mornings are tough? Pre-pack breakfast and lunch, pack your bag, and lay out your clothes the night before.

There you go. Seven tips to get you started. The more you use them (and the more of them you use) the easier and more effective each will be. How have you had success harnessing your motivation? What has been your biggest motivational challenge? What aspect of motivation still just boggles your mind? Share with us in the comments or send me an email. I'd love to hear from you.