Motivation is Learned

The science behind getting motivated and staying motivated

I should be in the gym. Yet, I was laying on my bed in a small rented room, watching YouTube video by Steve Cook from I told myself I'm going to get pumped up to hit the gym after this 14 minutes video about how to build a bigger chest. However, that didn't happen, the next thing I did is checking out how many grams of protein is in a serving of the Optimum Nutrition whey protein.

Sounds familiar? That was me 4 years ago. I was close to overweight and desperately wanting to lose fat but I never took action. Every time I wanted to hit the gym, there was a hidden force of resistance within me, fighting against what I wanted to do.

My solution? Get some motivation from YouTube videos.In fact, this dependency of motivation to kick me up into motion doesn't only occur when I wanted to workout. It happened when I wanted to do my study, it happened when I wanted to wake up earlier, and it happened, even now, when I wanted to write my next article.

The truth is, this pattern is not strange for many people. The dependency of motivation spikes plus the urge to gain instant gratification plus the abundance access of information caused this “motivation addiction” to become extremely common. We all need motivation to get started regardless of whether we're someone who wants to achieve something great by changing the world with solar energy to someone who wants or gain extra wisdom by reading 10 pages of non-fiction books.

Does motivation work?

Yes. Spikes of motivation did push me to the gym, wake me up earlier, and help me publish multiple articles. However, from my personal experiences, they only work occasionally. In fact, I believe most of us have the experience that motivation usually works better during the beginning stage when we start something new, but its effectiveness starts to fall off the cliff after a while.

Why? Let me explain it with a few pieces of research done by many scientists to discover the hidden forces behind motivation.

1. Rewards cancel out our ability of self-motivation

When we look inside the brain of individuals, fMRI scans reveal that people who complete a challenge for fun and people who complete a challenge for reward show very similar activities throughout the brain with very little differences. This concludes that motivation doesn't make us work better in most cases.

In fact, it causes harm to our performance. In the same study, when those who were offered a reward the first time were asked to participate in the same challenge again without the reward, scans showed a decrease in activity in the anterior striatum and prefrontal areas - the parts of the brain that are linked to self-motivation.

2. We feel like we're done (when we're not)

While it's always good to have a clear goal, visualizing it daily may not be a good strategy. In a study of 210 females trying to quit smoking, participants who only imagined major success in their attempts with very few obstacles were less likely to reduce their cigarette consumption. Visualizations like this can often trick our brain into thinking we have already achieved our goals. That give us a sense of reward without the pain, and hence, reduces the motivation to work for our goals.

This doesn't mean negative visualizations are good. The best solution is to imagine the goals coming through with the obstacles and visualize ourselves overcoming each and every obstacle. In short, visualize the process, not just the goals. And this is known as mental contrasting.

3. Motivators can become the distractions

In one MIT study, students were grouped into two groups and given two tasks. In the first, they had to hit two keys on a keyboard as many times as possible in 4 minutes, and those that did it the fastest would receive money. The difference between these two groups is one group being rewarded with $300 and the other $30. Interestingly, the study found that the group with the $300 reward performed 95% faster, highlighting how money can be a motivating factor. In the second task, the same students were asked to solve a complex math problem. This time, those offered a higher reward did 32% slower than those offered a small reward group.

This is known as the Distraction Effect. Higher reward as a motivation works fine when we are given simple tasks that required low cognitive involvement in the process. However, when we are given tasks that required problem solving and creativity, economic and emotional pressure can cause our focus to shift from the tasks to the motivator. That ultimately dividing our attention and reduce performance.

Why is this a big deal?

So, motivation may not work, and it actually causes harm to our performance over the long run. However, I'd like to clarify that there are two types of motivation here. What we have discussed above (and what we usually depend on) is what the scientists called extrinsic motivation. This basically means motivation from external events or sources.

This is a serious issue because most of us are being taught and shaped to heavily depend on extrinsic motivation. But there is a bigger problem, the majority of businesses and organizations are built based on the extrinsic motivation.

  • Employees get a pay raise when they do a good job, get warning letters (threat of losing their job) when they made mistakes.
  • Schools reward students for their participation in certain activities without enforcing the benefits and fun part of it to promote self-motivation.
  • Many creative people are no longer working creatively. Many of us are not motivated by art within us but by extrinsic motivators like money, fame, and reputation.

In other words, we are motivating a majority of the population with the reward of a sweeter carrot, at the same time, the threat of a sharper knife.Before we get further to explore a few better options, we need to know - what is the opposite? The opposite of extrinsic motivation is intrinsic motivation, it's another type of motivation that comes from within us. Some may call it drive and some may call it passion.

In order to achieve higher performance, we should stop depending on extrinsic motivation, start building discipline and cultivating habits to enhance our ability in self-motivation. And most importantly, take a closer observation into intrinsic motivation.

Getting into action

As shown in a few pieces of research above, extrinsic motivation may be useful to help you get started with a task or a project, but is harmful over the long haul. To reinforce these moments of motivational spikes, the best solution is getting into consistent actions by strengthening our self-discipline and building constructive habits.

Start small

If you have a big goal to achieve or task to complete, try to break it down into smaller pieces. Larger task and longer to-do list may make you feel overwhelmed and require higher activation energy for your to get started.

Breaking the big picture down andBreaking the big picture down and taking tiny forward actions help to reduce the resistance and build momentum that allows you to start moving in the right direction.

Design your environment

We're directly shaped by our environment in one way and the other. People who stay nearer to the gym tend to workout more and who stay nearer to McDonald tend to eat the junk foods more often.

Consciously design your environment to help you make achieving your goals simpler and easier. Clean up your house and make it neat to promote higher focus, place your sports shoes in visually and physically accessible place to encourage yourself working out more often.

Last but not least, hang out with successful people so you can learn from them.

Focus on the process

Most people are focusing solely on the one-time event and outcome.

When Daniel lose 20 pounds in 12 weeks and Jenny made $100,000 in 7 months, everyone got excited and fired up. People forget about the process, ignore the works behind every accomplishment, or they simply don't care. This behavioral pattern also explains why we're hooked by extrinsic motivators because they fired us up and inject a dose of pleasure into our brain without us experiencing the pain.

One other reason we tend to focus more on outcomes is that they are obvious and easily measured. To shift our focus to the process and progress, we should make our work measurable. Try measuring your progress and output - blog post published, sales call made, numbers of workout session, this simple shift redirects our focus to what matters the most - the work.

Do it even if you don't feel like it

It's easy for us to take action when we're inspired and highly motivated. However, in order to perform in a higher state, we must follow our schedule even we don't feel like it. If you look at the schedule of top athletes in the all kinds of sports and famous performers in the entertainment industry, they have fixed schedule for their works, their studies, their training, and even their rest.

The key idea here is to plan up front, locking in a planned time-block to do what you intend to do from reading 10 pages of a book to working out for 40 minutes. This will also be easier to accomplish than you think if you implement environment architecture, as we mentioned above, in your work and life to make taking consistent actions easier.

How to build intrinsic motivation

Motivation is overrated, to be specific, extrinsic motivation is. The best solution is to build self-control and cultivate habits to move quickly into actions and executions. So, what about intrinsic motivation?

The intrinsic motivation for the everything we're doing comes from

  1. Is it worthwhile?
  2. Am I competent to do it?

When your answers to the two questions above are YES, you will find an almost infinite amount of the intrinsic motivation. To break it down, the first question is about gaining a complete clarity on your vision, polishing your self-awareness, and aligning your values with things you do. It's extremely crucial because one of the main reasons for the lack of motivation is actually the lack of interests in what we're doing. This basically means many people are doing things they think that are not worthwhile. It's clear now that why many of us are trying to motivate ourselves using external rewards and extrinsic motivators.

Then comes the second part - in order the gain the inner drive, we need to feel competent for the task. One part of the equation is learning what to do and how to do it - this can be harness by proper education and training. Then, the other part is collecting feedback. And that's why building self-discipline and cultivating habits are so important.

By implementing a few suggestions above, we're learning, at the same time, putting us into action and collecting feedback from our experiences. With the feedback at hand, we can ask ourselves the tough questions again and again.

Is it worthwhile? Am I competent to do it?

Many psychologist and sociologists are actively conducting experiments and studies to uncover more about how human's motivation works. However, I like to make a daring conclusion here, based on the works we have done at this moment - that just like any other skill we possess, motivation is learned.


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