What does it take to motivate you?



I don’t want to write this. I want to go back to bed and sleep for a month.

How do you get motivated when you just don’t feel it?


It Ain’t Money

We usually think of money as the great motivator and, actually, it can be a pretty lousy one. Dan Pink points to a lot of research regarding this in his excellent book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

Money is a good motivator only for boring jobs. For activities that require thought, creativity or problem-solving money competes with (and reduces) our natural motivation.

Rewards just make us more motivated to get rewards. Making money visible during tests leads to more unethical behavior.

Art is better when people aren’t paid to create it. And those artists who aren’t paid eventually go on to more success.

Via Daniel Pink’s very interesting book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

 “The commissioned works were rated as significantly less creative than the non-commissioned works… “Those artists who pursued their painting and sculpture more for the pleasure of the activity itself than for extrinsic rewards have produced art that has been socially recognized as superior,” the study said. “It is those who are least motivated to pursue extrinsic rewards who eventually receive them.”


You Need To Feel Something

If we’re really going to be motivated, we need to feel something. Having a goal in mind or thinking you want something isn’t enough.

Chip and Dan Heath say that the emotional mind is key in their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard:

Focus on emotions. Knowing something isn’t enough to cause change. Make people (or yourself) feel something.

When we don’t feel meaning, when what we’re doing doesn’t have a purpose, motivation goes out the window. Noah Goldstein, author of Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, reviews a study:

Adam Grant, a scholar in the field of organizational behavior, realized that workers often fail to live up to their potential because they’ve lost track of the significance and meaningfulness of their own jobs. He figured that if he could remind employees of why their jobs are important, they might become more highly motivated, and therefore, more productive individuals.

How do we find meaning when there doesn’t seem to be any?



The stories we tell ourselves are what creates the meaning in our lives. Studies have shown that stories are key to the most fundamental parts of our lives:

Stories are so powerful they can fulfill our need for belonging when we are lonely. Fiction actually makes us into nicer, kinder people.

Reflecting on yourself and how you see yourself creates an almost immediate change in behavior. Merely looking into a mirror can cause this to happen.

From Willpower: Resdiscovering the Greatest Human Strength:

When people were placed in front of a mirror, or told that their actions were being filmed, they consistently changed their behavior. These self-conscious people worked harder at laboratory tasks. They gave more valid answers to questionnaires (meaning that their answers jibed more closely with their actual behavior). They were more consistent in their actions, and their actions were also more consistent with their values.


Whenever people focused on themselves, they seemed to compare what they saw with some sort of idea of what they should be like. A person who looked in the mirror usually didn’t stop at, Oh, that’s me. Rather, the person was more likely to think, My hair is a mess, or This shirt looks good on me, or I should remember to stand up straight, or, inevitably, Have I gained weight? Self-awareness always seemed to involve comparing the self to these ideas of what one might, or should, or could, be.

What’s even more interesting is the truth may not matter.

Feeling that you know yourself creates a strong sense of meaning in life — whether or not you actually know yourself doesn’t make a difference.



What motivates us more than anything else? Progress.

I believe this is what makes the stories come to life. It’s what prevents them from just being fiction in our heads. When we see things moving forward, it makes our stories feel real.

And oddly enough, just as the stories don’t need to be real, neither does the progress.

In his excellent blog Mind HacksVaughan Bell points out that we don’t even need to make real progress — the illusion of progress is enough to light that fire:

I just came across a fantastic study published in the Journal of Marketing Research which shows that we can be convinced to shift into a higher gear of work and spending, even when the perception of progress is a complete illusion.


They did an experiment where they gave some customers a ‘buy ten get one free’ card, while others got a ‘buy twelve get one free card’ but with the first two stamps already filled in.

In practical terms, the loyalty scheme was identical, but the customers bought coffees more quickly to full up the ‘buy twelve’ cards in less time – in line with ‘goal gradient hypothesis’ – despite the fact that the actual progress towards the goal was no different.

The researchers call this the ‘illusory goal progress’ effect and shows that our perception of how close we are to achieving something can be easily manipulated by shifting the goal posts.

This can seem like a real existentialist nightmare: the stories don’t need to be real, the progress doesn’t need to be real…

But let’s not go too far down the philosophical rabbit hole. The strength of this flexibility is that if a story isn’t working for us, we can change it to one that does.

Timothy Wilson, author of Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change and the excellent Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscioustalks about how the process of “story-editing” can help us improve our lives:

…we prompted students to reinterpret their academic problems from a belief that they couldn’t cut it in college to the view that they simply needed to learn the ropes. The students who got this prompt—compared to a control group that didn’t—got better grades the next year and were less likely to drop out.

Ignore the facts for a moment. What’s the story you’re telling yourself about your life? Is it the best one? Are you making progress in it? If you want to get motivated, it might be time for a change.

More on motivation from Dan Pink here:

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