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How do we stay motivated no matter what?

Updated: Jun 24, 2023


When we think of someone who is really ‘motivated’, we think of that person who doesn’t stop working, manages to get to the gym despite having one million other things to do, or seems to never break their impeccable diet.


There are even people who have put in hours and hours of practice to be able to complete a Rubik’s Cube in 11 seconds, blindfolded, and having only looked at the cube for a fraction of that time. In contrast, the rest of us find it difficult to maintain an exercise regime for longer than three months. So how is it that some seem to have endless reserves of self-management fuel, and others burn out after only a short time?


We might intuitively think that it’s about the quantity of motivation someone possesses. For example, when we are motivated to do something, we do it, and if we have enough motivation, we will keep doing it. And so, if we are struggling to complete an important task, we might try to increase our motivation. However, research has demonstrated that the quality, not quantity, of motivation is the key ingredient in consistent and persistent behaviour.


What do we mean by the quality of motivation? Well, two people can be motivated to do the same task for very different reasons, and some may be more facilitative of long-term effort than others. For example, one individual may be working hard in the office because they want to impress their manager. Another may be working hard because they really believe in the positive impact their work has on the world.


Whilst the former might have more motivation to act, their motivation is susceptible to external factors, and is therefore much more unstable over the long term – for instance, whether their manager is in the office or not is going to dictate how hard they are working. In contrast, in the latter case, it doesn’t matter if the office is full or empty, the work is still fulfilling.


What’s more, as their effort is not contingent on the outcome of their behaviour (e.g. impressing someone, earning a prize), they will see challenging pieces of work as opportunities to learn, regardless of the outcome, rather than risks to be avoided. In this way, their motivation is far more resilient.


 

So, we know that high-quality motivation is sustainable and resilient to challenges over long periods. And research over the last 20 years has shown that motivation is just that when we are fuelled by the intrinsic reward of an activity – pure enjoyment, fulfilment, or skill mastery. In contrast, we now know that when we are motivated by extrinsic reward – money, social recognition, fame, or a trophy – or punishment, motivation actually diminishes over time, making it low quality.


Whilst applicable across all domains, we can clearly see these principles in action when we look to the world of sport. For example, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is one example of many football players who have experienced what has been coined ‘big contract syndrome’. This talented footballer was in red hot form for Arsenal Football Club, and as soon as his performances were rewarded with a monstrously lucrative new contract, his form drastically dropped off and he never found his best performance again before being exiled from the club a year later.

Whereas we can take lessons in intrinsic motivation from free climber Alex Honnold. There is no trophy or lucrative contract waiting for Alex at the top of the sheer rock face he has just climbed for hours without any rope, just the intense satisfaction of having completed the climb and not falling to his death. For Alex, the process is the reward.



So, if desirable rewards actually harm our motivation, how do we cultivate the more sustainable intrinsic motivation? Phil Jackson, the now hall-of-fame coach of the Chicago Bulls NBA team and NBA legend, Michael Jordan, exemplifies this.


His holistic approach to coaching fostered the fulfilment of three basic psychological needs for competency (I am capable), autonomy (things happen in my life because of me and nothing/no-one else), and relatedness / connectedness to others (I am not alone).

Although pure intrinsic motivation is rare (in reality, a mixture of intrinsic and extrinsic motives are driving behaviour in most cases), we can cultivate forms of motivation that are more intrinsic in nature through these three key ingredients.

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