How To Be Motivated: 4 New Insights From Research



Sometimes there is not enough coffee in universe to get you going. How to be motivated is something we all struggle with at some time or another. Or, um, daily.

Motivation is such a mystery. It’s a feeling and we understand it so poorly it feels impossible to do anything about it. Is there anyone who can unravel the science of how motivation works and tell us what to do? Yes.

Dan Pink wrote the book on motivation. Literally.

He’s the New York Times bestselling author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. He’s also the host and executive producer of the TV show “Crowd Control” which airs on National Geographic Channel.

His books have sold more than 2 million copies. And his TED talk on motivation is one of the most popular TED talks ever.

Here’s what I love about Dan: He’s not the type to write a book and just move on. He’s still thinking about these ideas and has new insights into motivation that you can learn from even if you’ve read his book or seen his talk.

Here’s what you’ll get from this post:

  1. Why you don’t feel motivated.
  2. What the research says really produces motivation.
  3. The single most motivating thing there is and how to have it in your life.
  4. The biggest mistake you’re making when it comes to motivation.

Let’s get to it…


1) This Is Why You Don’t Feel Motivated

You’re probably thinking too much about the rewards involved. “I want the promotion” or “I want the ‘A’ on the exam.”

You might be enthusiastic about the “carrot” or afraid of the “stick”, but you’re just not excited about doing the task itself.

Rewards like money are tricky. They are definitely powerful, especially in the short term. Here’s Dan:

What’s really clear is that “if-then” rewards are really good for simple behavior and short term behavior, definitely. So if you want people to do something really straightforward, like stuffing envelopes or processing papers, and you want good performance during the short term, then rewards work pretty well.

But looking exclusively at rewards doesn’t work over longer time horizons or for complex tasks.

We inevitably take the pay raise for granted, and if we’re still not excited about the task — boom — we’re less motivated again.

Here’s Dan:

“If-then” rewards just don’t work very well for complex, creative tasks with a long time horizon. It’s not like we don’t like rewards. We love rewards. They get our attention. But they narrow our field of vision.

We all want money. (Good luck getting people to show up at work if you stop paying them.)

Rewards are essential — but they’re not everything. We all know well-paid lazy people. And we all know people who enthusiastically engage in hobbies (which can look suspiciously like “work” to outsiders) for free.

(For more on how to stop being lazy and get stuff done, click here.)

So rewards just motivate us to get rewards. They don’t make us care about the task at hand.

Which raises the obvious next question: How can you make yourself care?


2) Here Are The 3 Things That Motivate You

Dan’s found three things in the research that go a long way toward getting us motivated (assuming we’re already paid a fair amount.) Remember “AMP”:

  1. Autonomy
  2. Mastery
  3. Purpose

Let’s break them down.


Autonomy means we don’t like being told what to do. Once we feel we’re being pushed around, we check out.

This is why kids might like puzzles but hate homework. They’re both problem-solving but only one has people nagging you about it. Similarly, nobody has ever said, “I love a micromanaging boss.” A lack of autonomy kills workplace engagement. Here’s Dan:

Autonomy is, “Am I directing my own life, rather than being directed?” Autonomy is simply self direction. Giving people some sovereignty over what they do, when they do it, how they do it, where they do it, who they do it with. To me, it’s the secret in the workplace of engagement.


Why practice the guitar? Are you getting paid for it? Why try to improve your tennis serve? Are you getting paid for it?

We just naturally like getting better at things. This is why video games have rankings, levels, and points. They say “You’re improving” and that feels good. Here’s Dan:

Mastery is, “Am I getting better at something that matters? Am I making progress in something meaningful?”

But the workplace can be just awful at this. Candy Crush and Call of Duty immediately tell you if you’re getting better. Yet at work you get an annual review. See why one is addictively fun and the other can make every Sunday night so sad?


Kids are expensive, time consuming and often difficult to deal with. I suggest you sell yours to the highest bidder immediately.

Are you religious? Patriotic? Loyal to friends and family? Sounds like a lot of obligations. Get rid of all that baggage right now.

Sound crazy? Of course it does. These things provide purpose to our lives and purpose is immensely valuable to all of us. Here’s Dan:

Purpose is, “Am I doing something in service of a cause larger than myself, or, at the very least, am I making a contribution in my own world?”

In the time since his book Drive came out Dan has a more refined view of purpose. There are 2 types:

  1. Big “P” Purpose is contributing to a grand cause. Supporting a charity, serving your country, saving lives at a hospital, etc.
  2. Little “p” purpose is feeling your work makes a difference. “Does my contribution matter?”

Here’s Dan:

Since the book has come out I have a more refined view of this too. Capital “P” Purpose, is “I’m working for a non-profit and we are devoted to protecting endangered species.” or “I am working as a surgeon and I am saving people’s lives. I’m doing something to serve a cause larger than myself.” But there’s another kind of purpose that I didn’t really explore enough, which is what you can think of as purpose with a small p: “Does my piece matter? If I didn’t show up today at work, would anybody care and would things be worse? Would I be missed because what I’m doing actually makes a contribution?” I overlooked that in the book.

Again, many workplaces can be a mess here, too. Whether it’s saving lives or just making a material contribution at work, we don’t often see the results we create.

Wharton professor Adam Grant did an amazing study where he created a huge spike in motivation at a university call center without spending a nickel. His secret?

He showed the employees letters written by grateful students who had received scholarships due to their efforts. They heard the difference their work made in young people’s lives. And their motivation soared even higher when the students were brought in and said thanks in person.

Via Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success:

When callers interacted with one scholarship recipient in person, they were even more energized. The average caller doubled in calls per hour and minutes on the phone per week. By working harder the callers reached more alumni, resulting in 144 percent more alumni donating each week. Even more strikingly, revenue quintupled: callers averaged $412 before meeting the scholarship recipient and more than $2000 afterward.

(For more on how you can motivate others, click here.)

So maybe you’re a total motivational rockstar and you make sure to find a situation where you have autonomy, mastery and a deep sense of purpose.

Even if you have the three tentpoles, what keeps you going day to day? What gets you through the rough patches?


3) The Most Motivating Thing Of All

Teresa Amabile‘s research at Harvard found that the most motivating thing is progress in meaningful work.

Via The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work:

This pattern is what we call the progress principle: of all the positive events that influence inner work life, the single most powerful is progress in meaningful work; of all the negative events, the single most powerful is the opposite of progress—setbacks in the work.

What’s fascinating is that this is so powerful that the mere illusion of progress is enough to get our engines revving. Seriously.

In one study, researchers gave people “Buy 10 coffees and get 1 free” cards. And they gave a different group “Buy 12 coffees and get 1 free” cards but with 2 purchases already marked. So effectively both groups were starting from the same point.

But that’s not how the recipients saw it. The “buy 12” group bought coffees a lot faster because they felt they had made more progress toward the goal. Merely thinking you’ve made progress can get you motivated.

(For more on how happiness leads to success, click here.)

But sometimes it feels like you’re just treading water. You may have goals but it’s hard to see progress. What do you do then?


4) Forget Big Goals, Focus On Small Wins

Goals are great but big ones are abstract, far away and sometimes hard to relate to. And it can take months or years to achieve something big.

The secret is small wins. Those little achievements you can see day to day. Anything that went well or worked out. Don’t take that good presentation or minor achievement for granted. That’s progress and paying attention to those can keep you trucking when you’re feeling less than motivated.

Here’s Dan:

Over the last several years of writing about this stuff I have kind of moved away from the whole moonshot, big hairy audacious goal approach, and much more towards the small win approach. What I like about small wins is they can cascade. One can lead right into another. Charles Duhigg has a very, very nice term for it, which I think is important. He calls them “keystone habits.” And you know Peter Sims has written about “little bets.”

And the science is with Dan. Teresa Amabile‘s research at Harvard backs him up.

Via The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work:

People’s inner work lives seemed to lift or drag depending on whether or not their projects moved forward, even by small increments. Small wins often had a surprisingly strong positive effect, and small losses a surprisingly strong negative one.

Olympic swimmers use small wins to make it through months of rigorous training.

And Dan even applied “small wins” to how you can best use my weekly emails:

Like when someone reads your weekly email, Eric. Somebody might look at that and say, “Can I do everything on here?” I have to say the answer is no. But that’s the wrong question. The real question is, “Can I do one small thing to get better today?” And the answer to that question is always, “Yeah, I’m sure you can.”

(For more on the science of how to be resilient, click here.)

Some of you may still be skeptical. Or feel these strategies won’t work because of what an exquisitely special snowflake you are.

And maybe you’re right. So let’s take the biggest step of all and tailor this for you.


5) Ask What’s Meaningful To You

What’s really important to you? Yeah, you.

When we do things that are important to us personally (“intrinsic” motivation), not to get rewards and not to impress others (“extrinsic” motivation), we often become productivity machines, decimating obstacles.

Dan told me about a study at West Point where they compared the performance of intrinsically motivated students (“I want to serve my country.”) to extrinsically motivated students (“I want the prestige of being an officer.”) and to students who were an intrinsic/extrinsic hybrid.

The students who were intrinsically motivated, who were doing things because of internal reasons, bested the other two groups — and were the most satisfied. That’s happiness and productivity. Here’s Dan:

There’s a study by Barry Schwartz and Amy Wrzesniewsk about West Point grads. They had three groups of people. You’ve got those who are motivated intrinsically, you’ve got those who had a mix of intrinsic and extrinsic, and those who were motivated extrinsically. So extrinsic would be, “I want to rise in the ranks and become an officer because that’s a really powerful position and it’s prestigious. I want to go to West Point to get a free scholarship.” Intrinsic would be, “I want to serve my country. I want to test my abilities.” The mix would be, “I want to serve my country and test my abilities, but I also love the prestige of being an officer.” What they found is that the purely intrinsic motivated people outperformed the purely extrinsically motivated people. But the purely intrinsically motivated people also outperformed the people who were hybrids.

Ironically, it is often by being true to yourself and not thinking about rewards that you get the rewards and esteem you want. Here’s Dan:

So there is this kind of interesting zen-like thing. The route to these rewards is not to be cognitive of the rewards. What was so compelling about this West Point study was that they had a very, very, very large sample. A full decade of West Point graduates that looks at and measures their attitudes going in and then objective measures of what they did afterwards over a very long period of time. That’s what is so compelling about it.

(For more on how to stop procrastinating, click here.)

Okay, this is a lot of info. How do we put it to use?


Enough Reading. Time For Doing.

Here’s what we learned from Dan:

  • Being too focused on rewards is demotivating in the long term. You need more than just money and other “carrots” to keep yourself going day-in, day-out at a job. Be careful not to pick jobs based solely on money. Research shows it’s one of the biggest career regrets. And don’t think that a pay raise or promotion is a long term solution to lack of motivation if you aren’t interested in what you’re doing.
  • What should you look for in a job if you want to feel motivated? Remember “AMP.”

Autonomy: Look for places where you’ll have freedom to get things done your way as long as you achieve the boss’s objectives. Avoid micromanagers.

Mastery: Where will you learn, improve and grow at something that is meaningful to you?

Purpose: Will you be contributing to a big important cause? Or will you be doing something where you feel your contribution is important?

  • Track your progress. It’s the most motivating thing there is and most companies are terrible at doing it for you. Your career is like a video game: keep leveling up.
  • Note your small wins. Tracking only major annual accomplishments is disastrous for happiness and motivation. Even those tiny ways that you move the ball forward should get noted. That’s what gives you the energy to keep hacking away.
  • “Intrinsic” motivation rules. Make sure you’re doing things that are personally meaningful to you and you’ll find you accomplish way more than your peers who are just thinking about the shallow stuff. Ignoring the rewards can be the path to getting them.

Feeling a bit more motivated? I’ll leave you with this great quote from Neil DeGrasse Tyson:

The problem, often not discovered until late in life, is that when you look for things in life like love, meaning, motivation, it implies they are sitting behind a tree or under a rock. The most successful people in life recognize, that in life they create their own love, they manufacture their own meaning, they generate their own motivation. For me, I am driven by two main philosophies, know more today about the world than I knew yesterday. And lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.

Join over 151,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

Related posts:

How To Stop Being Lazy And Get More Done – 5 Expert Tips

6 Things The Most Productive People Do Every Day

New Harvard Research Reveals A Fun Way To Be More Successful


Subscribe to the newsletter