How to Finally Find the Motivation You’ve Been Missing

How to Finally Find the Motivation You’ve Been Missing

Nir’s Note: This guest post was written by Cheryl Maguire

The laundry hamper was overflowing with dirty clothes. Lacking the motivation to throw it into the wash, I pushed the clothes down deeper into the bin so I could fit more clothes. This occurs almost every other day. When you are married and the mother of three kids, the laundry is a never-ending task especially since we are all active in sports or working out that often require multiple clothing changes in one day.

Mustering up the motivation to do a dreaded task is a common struggle that most people can relate to experiencing. In the case of doing laundry, I end up finding the motivation to do it when I realize that I would not have any clean clothes to wear. Even though the task of doing laundry is tedious, wearing dirty clothes was less appealing to me.

“All motivation is a desire to escape discomfort. If a behavior was previously effective at providing relief, we’re likely to continue using it as a tool to escape discomfort,” says Nir Eyal, author of, Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life.

What is motivation?

Motivation guides your behaviors and is “the energy for action,” according to Dr.Edward Deci, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester. Dr. Damon Korb, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician in Los Gatos, Calif., and author of Raising an Organized Child, describes motivation as wanting something enough to overcome the inertia to get started.

“When we’re highly motivated, we have a strong desire, and the requisite energy, to take an action, and when we’re not motivated, we lack the energy to perform a task,” says Eyal.

Motivation Theories

Psychologists have suggested several different theories of motivation such as self-determination theory.

Self-determination theory proposes that the quality, rather than solely the quantity, of motivation influences how people act,” says Dr. Tsz Lun (Alan) Chu, sports psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

Dr. Chu explains that self-determination theory states that three basic psychological needs — autonomy, competence, and relatedness — need to be satisfied for people to be intrinsically motivated.

“Autonomy is a sense of volition and having choices, competence is a sense of effectiveness and mastery, and relatedness is a sense of connectedness and belonging. These are essential psychological nutrients, like vitamins and minerals, that couldn’t be missed for motivated behavior,” says Dr. Chu.

Eyal describes the theory called The Fogg Behavior Model which states that for a behavior (B) to occur, three things must be present at the same time: motivation (M), ability (A), and a trigger (T). More succinctly, B = MAT.

“In Fogg’s formula, ability relates to the facility of action. Quite simply, the harder something is to do, the less likely people are to do it. Conversely, the easier something is to do, the more likely we are to do it,” says Eyal.

The Neuroscience of Motivation

Dr. Michael Bruchas, professor at the University of Washington Bruchas Lab explains the neuroscience related to motivation.

“In our recent research about motivation we found specific pathways in the brain, chemical transmitters, that communicate and both increase or decrease motivation depending on the behavioral state of the animal,” says Dr. Bruchas. “This suggests that motivation is controlled by specific brain circuits and pathways, and that motivational deficits in humans (i.e. depression — downward, or addiction upward for getting the drug) might be treated by blocking or mimicking these pathways.”

Why do people struggle with motivation?

Dr. Andrew Westbrook, a post-doctoral researcher at Brown University explains that he studies cognitive effort.

“Studies show that tasks involving cognitive control and working memory are subjectively costly, and people seem to engage in a sort of cost-benefit decision-making when performing such tasks,” he said.

Dr. Westbrook explains that unlike physically demanding tasks, cognitively demanding tasks don’t cause the brain to use more glucose, on average, than just staring blankly out into space. So, then, why are we so averse to doing them?

“Investing in any given task can make you miss out on other opportunities. It makes sense to treat it as costly because it is, from the perspective of missed opportunities,” he said.

Dr. Korb explains that motivation is dependent on the belief that a task can be accomplished.

Super-motivated man running up a daunting number of stadium steps. Photo by Clique Images on Unsplash

“This belief depends on how one has performed in the past. If, for instance, a child consistently fails at spelling tests or is repeatedly told that they are poor at spelling, then it becomes more difficult to prepare in the future. However, if they succeed or are encouraged for their efforts, success appears to be more within reach,” he said.

Some people appear unmotivated because they are overwhelmed by the task.

Dr. Korb says that people may lack the organizational skills to break a task down into steps, so scaffolding a task for someone can be helpful.

“Others have problems with mental energy, an attention deficit, and find it more difficult to exert mental effort towards a task unless they find it interesting,” says Dr. Korb. “They are reward-driven and without sufficient intrinsic (brain neurotransmitter dopamine) or extrinsic (e.g. money, love) they struggle to perform.”

Dr. Korb explains that people often procrastinate because they need the adrenaline of being up against a deadline to feel motivated enough to get started. Those with attention deficits can benefit from counseling and medication.

Eyal discusses the idea that motivation is about trying to avoid pain.

“For hundreds of years, we believed that motivation is driven by reward and punishment. The reality, however, is that motivation has much less to do with pleasure but with the absence of pain,” he said.

Ways to Find Motivation for Doing Boring Tasks

As a mom of three kids, there are many quotidian tasks like laundry, helping with schoolwork, and waking up at 5:45 am. Most people can relate to lacking motivation for doing these boring tasks that need to be done. So I asked the experts about these tasks and how I can find the motivation to do it.

HOUSEHOLD TASKS

Trouble with motivation because:

Dr. Chu explains why some people lack the motivation to do household chores. He says that according to self-determination theory autonomy is a sense of volition and having choices.

“Autonomy and relatedness are often missed in household tasks. People say to themselves ‘I have to clean or do laundry’ and this thinking reduces our sense of autonomy,” he said.

How to overcome it:

Dr. Chu says that we can overcome this lack of motivation for household tasks by enhancing autonomy.

“Say to yourself ‘I can or I get to clean’ which changes your thinking of household tasks as opportunities and choices that we shouldn’t take for granted.”

Dr. Chu also suggests doing household chores with our loved ones or talking to friends and family while doing those tasks to make it more interesting and relatable.

Dr. Korb recommends creating false incentives like for example saying to yourself, “If I get the laundry done by noon, I can treat myself to a show on Netflix.”

SCHOOLWORK (or any work for that matter)

Trouble with motivation because:

Maria Sanders, a clinical social worker and certified parent coach explains why some kids have trouble with being motivated to do schoolwork. She says that there are several different issues that can get in the way of kids getting schoolwork done.

Motivated student is excited to have finished schoolwork. Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

“From the outside, it might just look like kids are lazy or unmotivated, and that they don’t want to but the truth is that motivation comes from feeling competent, giving the child some autonomy and also building a connection by making sure the child feels seen and heard,” she said.

Sanders explains that often when parents see that a child does not appear to be motivated, they tend to place blame and judge. Instead, she recommends that parents should be curious about what is going on and try to work collaboratively by problem-solving.

Dr. Chu discusses agrees with Sanders about competence and autonomy in relations to self-determination theory and says, “Kids have trouble with school because at least one of the three basic psychological need is missed; autonomy ‘I need/have to’ and competence ‘I’m bad at’ are two common ones.”

“If schoolwork doesn’t matter to kids, forcing them to do something they didn’t want to do amounts to coercion and would only breed resentment,” says Eyal.

How to overcome it:

Sanders recommends that first parents find a time when they and their child are feeling calm.

“When the parent begins the conversation it’s best to start with focusing on the problem to solve and not specifically on the behavior making sure to avoid comments of blame or judgment,” she says.

When problem-solving with your child, Sanders says that the solutions should be driven by the child.

“With regards to competency we want to make sure that the child does understand and know how to do what is being asked of them,” says Sanders.

Giving the child some autonomy and decision making will help with building internal motivation.

Eyal also stresses the importance of having a conversation with your kids and to listen to them without judgment.

“Potential questions to ask include the following: Is keeping up with their schoolwork consistent with their values? Do they know why they are asked to do their homework? What are the consequences of not doing their assignments? Are they OK with those consequences, both short term (getting a bad grade) and long term (settling for a low-skilled job)?” he said.

Dr. Chu recommends saying to yourself “I can or I get to learn” to see attending school as opportunities and choices that we shouldn’t take for granted.

“We can focus on our strengths, as well as embrace a growth mindset and tell ourselves ‘I’m not good at math/my job yet, I can keep learning and grow,’ to recognize that we have strengths and then we can learn and grow to feel more competent,” says Dr. Chu.

Dr. Korb suggests that kids try to picture what success will look like. “Incentivize yourself to achieve that success,” he said.

Woman waking up, motivated for the day ahead. Photo by bruce mars on Unsplash

GOING TO BED or GETTING OUT OF BED

Trouble with motivation because:

Dr. Chu says the main issue with lack of motivation to get out of bed or go to bed is due to a lack of any goals or purpose.

How to overcome it:

According to self-determination theory competence is a sense of effectiveness and mastery, and relatedness is a sense of connectedness and belonging. To overcome trouble with the motivation to get in or out of bed Dr. Chu recommends enhancing competence and relatedness by setting goals for things that we are good at or can do with other people and reminding ourselves about long-term goals and purpose every day.

EXERCISE

Trouble with motivation because:

Dr Chu explains that the reason people have trouble with motivation regarding exercise, eating healthy, and saving money are usually similar.

“We feel pressured, do not have social reasons, and/or do not have the skills to exercise, eat healthily, or save money,” he said.

How to overcome it:

Dr. Korb recommends overcoming the lack of motivation to exercise by not making it a daily decision.

“Most people do not feel like exercising at any given moment. Instead, make it part of the daily schedule. If exercising seems difficult, join a beginner’s yoga, walking, or swimming class to make exercise feel more manageable,” he said.

Dr. Chu suggests finding exercise options that are fun and find “workout buddies” such as our friends and family to keep us accountable, and do exercise that is at an optimal level of challenge (things that are too difficult or easy make us quit).

EATING HEALTHY

How to overcome it:

Dr. Korb says, “If motivation to eat a healthy diet is low, then don’t purchase unhealthy foods when shopping.”

Some people do not know how to cook healthy foods and are overwhelmed by the concept, so it can help to take a class or watch a free video tutorial to learn how easy it can be to eat a healthy, easy to prepare, diet.

“Make a conscious choice and think about the ‘why’ such as being a good role model for kids. Consider eating healthy as a lifestyle rather than a diet, eat out with friends who like to eat healthy to keep us accountable, and find different healthy recipes that are fun to cook and tasty enough to eat.” says Dr. Chu.

SAVING MONEY

How to overcome it:

“People have trouble saving money not due to a lack of motivation, but because they are more motivated by the next purchase. Make saving motivating. Visualize a vacation, a car, or a child going to college in order to make the idea of saving more rewarding,” says Dr. Korb.

Dr. Chu recommends focusing on the “why” of saving money as a lifestyle rather than something we “have to” do.

How to Motivate Others

“If we want to motivate people in the long run, we can’t do that using external rewards or punishments … We should, instead, create an environment that satisfies autonomy, competence, and relatedness to foster people’s internal drive to act,” says Dr. Chu.

By understanding the real reason we are driven to do what we do, we can get the best out of ourselves and others.

From Friday Forward to Monday Motivation: Q&A with Robert Glazer

From Friday Forward to Monday Motivation: Q&A with Robert Glazer

Many of us start our Mondays wondering where our motivation will come from, and for some, whether we’ve even chosen the right career. Reference the (mostly) uplifting Twitter hashtag #MondayMotivation.

A recurring theme in my articles is the importance of aligning personal goals and values with not just your work but also your relationships and self-care. So I was pleasantly surprised, when I sat down to interview author Robert Glazer, to find that we shared similar thoughts on the same theme.

Robert is the CEO of Acceleration Partners and best-selling author of Elevate, a guidebook to performing to your fullest capacity in four key areas. If you find this Q&A with Robert useful, check out my other articles on motivation, time management, and habits.

Nir Eyal: Why did you write your book?

Robert Glazer: This really started a few years ago, when I had been trying to develop a proactive morning routine in my life, including reading something positive each morning. While I loved the routine, I found a lot of the books on motivation were a little too warm and fuzzy for my liking. I wanted something a bit more challenging and motivating, so I started writing about the types of topics and stories I wanted to read.

I started sending the messages to my team each Friday and wasn’t sure anyone even read them. However, to my surprise, employees began to respond and share that they were getting value from them and forwarding them to friends and family. I decided to open it to the public and it took off from there—today it’s read by 100,000 people in over 60 countries each week.

What became clear to me through this process was that there was an important middle ground between the negative stories that dominate the news headlines today and the more sugar-coated storytelling that tends to define the inspirational landscape. Friday Forward is about challenging people to examine their own potential and be honest about where they are falling short. The reality is most of most of us are living below our potential which is a hard truth to accept. I know I wish I had dug out of that hole earlier and I wanted to give people a framework to do the same.

Once Friday Forward gained a bigger following I pitched a compilation book to agents and the feedback was that publishers don’t like compilations. Then I met Rick Pascocello, who pushed me to write a book about the story and themes of Friday Forward. That examination led me to the concept of capacity building, which is the basis of Elevate.

NE: You’ve done some fascinating research. From what you’ve learned, what surprised you the most?

RG: I’m not alone in thinking burnout is one of the biggest challenges in the professional world. Gallup says 67 percent of workers have felt it at least some of the time. I know this from experience—early in my career I burned myself out multiple times, even landing in the hospital in 2009 after a panic attack.

What surprised me is that I came to find alleviating burnout doesn’t mean scaling back our workload, it’s more about reallocating our energy. Often, it just means we have to do more of the right things and say no to others—quality is a bigger factor than quantity.

I see many people today running fast in a direction in life without stepping back to understand who they are, where they are going and what they really want most. Think about the young professional who’s chasing a big-money job in an industry they hate, or the successful business owner who’s financially secure but estranged from their spouse and children. We can do a lot of damage to ourselves, and the people closest to us, if we don’t take stock of what’s actually important and then align our lives to pursue those things.

angler fish swimming in circles

When you think about successful long-term companies, almost all of them have a clear vision and values. The same is true for people. When I really articulated my purpose and core values for the first time so many things in my life made sense—including why I was bored and disengaged in school, or even when I would be asked to clean my room as a kid and would rearrange it instead. I was able to realign my life and business around my strengths and what was most important to me.

We just don’t take enough time to step off the hamster wheel and design the life we really want. Ask yourself: what types of environments make you feel energized, and which ones leave you drained? What work would you do for free? What impact do you want to make on others? By starting there, you can begin to get a sense of where you should focus your limited time and energy.

NE: What lessons should people take away from your book regarding how they should design their own behavior or the behavior of others?

RG: I’ll focus on three crucial things: setting goals, getting outside your comfort zone and evaluating relationships.

Most people are setting goals arbitrarily—they just put together a bunch of to-dos that will make them feel accomplished, but don’t build toward anything that is unified. I used to hit all my quarterly and annual goals, but they move me in a singular direction.

Instead, people should start with the end in mind, long-term goals—five year, 10-year or lifetime goals—and then make annual and quarterly goals that build towards those outcomes. Most importantly, those long term goals should align to your values and what you want most.

We also need to do things regularly that scare us a bit; there is rarely growth in comfort. Because humans have a need to focus on survival for so much of our existence, things like fear, and fight-or-flight responses are hardwired into us, even though they aren’t as useful anymore. Having a fear-response to something as simple as signing up for a 5K or traveling to a new country is natural, but we need to rewire our brains to understand that pushing outside our comfort zone and trying things that are “scary” is a critical part of growth.

humorous illustration comparing modern fears with prehistoric fears.

The other recommendation is to take an honest assessment of which relationships in your life make you better, and which ones are dragging you down. If there’s a person in your life you drains you of your energy—maybe they’re always playing the victim, feeding off drama and gossip, or never willing to help others—it’s time to remove yourself and your energy from that relationship. This doesn’t mean you have to have a spectacular breakup or you have to burn a bridge, start by withdrawing from that relationship when possible—stop reaching out to make plans, and minimize the time and energy you give that person. Doing this frees up time for the people who matter most to you, who lift you up and who help you grow.

NE: Writing a book is hard. What do you do when you find yourself distracted or going off track?

RG: Writing takes a lot of uninterrupted time, which is hard for anybody to find. I used the same strategy for my writing as I do for the rest of my schedule which is a tactic called time blocking. My calendar reflects my priorities, so I proactively schedule time for everything I need to do—writing, meetings, even personal things like time for family and exercise. This is the best way to guarantee that, whatever was going in my week, I set aside time to work on Elevate. (Editor’s note: see the free schedule maker tool we built.)

Another tip I’ve found useful is to recognize which parts of the day are most productive for me for certain types of work. For example, I know I’m most energized and cognitively sharp in the morning, so I blocked off time for writing and editing early in the morning and hold off most meetings until after lunch.

The other thing I do when faced with a large project or a big goal is to break it down into all the smaller tasks or dominoes that need to get done to hit the end goal. I then schedule those tasks into my schedule and focus on the parts, rather than being overwhelmed by the whole.

NE: What’s one thing you believe that most people would disagree with?

RG: I don’t believe there is a universally great company culture, and any business that claims to be a great place to work for everyone isn’t being honest with itself. Employees want to be paid fairly and treated with respect, but those factors are not what defines a great culture.

Great companies have clearly a defined view supported by differentiated values and a clear vision. What gets businesses into trouble is when they try to appeal to everybody with broad mission statements and down-the-middle values like “honesty,” or “integrity.” Honesty and integrity should be table stakes for the people at your company, not the values that set your organization apart from others.

The best companies are, by default, not great for everyone; they excel by finding people that align with their principles. If you are a hyper competitive leader who likes to play win-lose games, you will attract people who want to be in that system if you are honest about it. But don’t pick “teamwork” as a core value and pretend that’s what you value. Pick a core value such as “results-oriented,” and align your compensation accordingly.

male sitting at folding table and working from park

NE: What’s your most important good habit or routine?

RG: A lot of people preach this, but a positive, consistent morning routine is proven to be key to a productive day. I do my best to avoid my phone, email, and television in the morning when I first wake up and instead spend the first 30 to 60 minutes of the day journaling, reading, exercising or meditating. It helps me start the day with a clear head and have more energy throughout the day. I know I am most productive in the morning so it’s really important that I use that time well. I also do what I call “Commit to Three,” where I review the three most important things for me to do each day and resolve to get those done before noon. That way, no matter what else happens after, I know I’ve made progress towards what’s most important.

NE: What’s the most important takeaway you want people to remember after reading your book?

RG: We cannot reach our potential unless we achieve alignment and integration. That’s why I defined capacity building as having four interdependent elements:
  • Spiritual: who we are and what we want; our purpose and core values
  • Intellectual: how we plan and execute; learning, goal-setting, habits
  • Physical: our health and well-being; how stay energized even in challenging situations
  • Emotional: how we manage our emotional reactions and build positive relationships

We need to attend to all four of these in order to keep moving forward—if you are weak in one of the four, it will impact the other areas and hold you back.

A person who has the ambition, talent and energy to pursue a goal, but who has low emotional capacity and crumbles under the slightest adversity, will struggle to achieve at a high level. The same is true for a person who is brilliant, resilient and healthy, but has no idea what they actually want most.

Even the highest-performing people have to keep working on each area and identify where they are weakest at any given moment. Everybody who reads Elevate should come away with a sense of which area(s) may be holding them back and have immediate steps they can take to address and improve that element of capacity.

NE: Are you working changing any bad habits?

RG: I’ve been really committing to shutting down an hour before bed—no television, no email, no news or phone use. I find that when people have a lot on their plates, high-quality sleep tends to be the first thing that gets sacrificed, to the point that it’s even considered a sign of strength to function well on little sleep. I think getting a good amount of sleep, and avoiding stimulating or negative prompts right before going to sleep, are crucial.

NE: What one product or service has helped you build a healthy habit?

RG: For sure, it’s SaneBox, an incredible tool that uses machine learning to help keep your inbox clean and filter out emails that you don’t need to read in an urgent matter. It also gives you the ability to snooze email and have them come back to your inbox at the right time; improve your focus; and remove distractions.

I hope this Q&A has got you thinking about how you might apply capacity building and Robert’s other ideas in your own life so you can look forward to your next Monday morning.

The Surprising Benefits of Unconditional Positive Regard

The Surprising Benefits of Unconditional Positive Regard

In 1967, a catchy tune by The Beatles, “All You Need is Love,” became the anthem for the Summer of Love. The Flower Power culture embraced the song and its message, “love is all you need.” If someone had asked humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers what the song meant, he might have said, “Unconditional Positive Regard!”

Although it didn’t quite roll off the tongue the same way, Rogers introduced the concept nearly a decade before the Beatles song, it has the same basic message: empathy invokes change.

Rogers emphasized the importance of unconditional positive regard in healthy personality development, and his work has implications beyond the lab or therapist’s office. Treating ourselves and others with unconditional positive regard can improve our lives in many ways.

In this article, we will cover:

What is unconditional positive regard?

Unconditional positive regard is defined by humanistic psychologists to mean expressing empathy, support, and acceptance to someone, regardless of what they say or do.

Unlike other practitioners of his day who offered therapies like behaviorism, which were quick to confront how poor choices hurt us, psychologists like Rogers started by validating their clients’ feelings, withholding judgment, and offering support.

Known as “client-centered therapy,” this treatment emphasizes the healing power of human connection. While Roger’s theory shifted the psychology landscape, it didn’t only benefit therapy seekers.

According to Rogers, problematic behaviors like overeating, drinking too much, and procrastinating aren’t altered with confrontation, judgment, or punishment; they are remedied with compassion, understanding, and acceptance.

In his view, people are wired for self-actualization, or the need to fulfill our potential. However, painful experiences like being bullied, shamed, or judged thwart our growth.

Unconditional positive regard restores hope by showing us we are loved and accepted. From Roger’s lens, when people feel safe, honesty follows. And being honest with ourselves and others is crucial for change.

What is an example of unconditional positive regard?

Unconditional positive regard means offering compassion to people even if they have done something wrong. A therapist practicing unconditional positive regard would respond with compassion to a person in treatment who may have gambled away their savings, lied at work, or mistreated a friend. It is striving to respond with understanding rather than contempt for the individual.

However, unconditional positive regard does not mean unconditional acceptance. We should be careful to not enable others to continue to act in harmful ways out of our desire not to hurt their feelings. Rather, having positive regard means treating people as fallible human beings regardless of what they do, even if we don’t like what they’ve done.

Whereas judgment and shame elicit defensiveness, acceptance fosters safety, which invites honesty and self-exploration. It’s offering the sort of grace we wish others would offer us when we fail.

Let’s say a friend borrowed your new car and brought it back with a dent. Instead of asking, “What on earth happened?” a person-centered therapist would advise you to say, “I see you feel awful. Do you want to tell me what happened?”

In our daily lives, question asking can help us gather information, but in certain tense situations, querying can come across as accusatory and judgmental.

Sometimes it’s hard to withhold our reactions, especially when behavior catches us off guard. For instance, if a co-worker spilled coffee on your laptop, you might be tempted to shout, “Why can’t you be careful?” But in this case, extending unconditional positive regard by saying, “We all make mistakes,” might be a better choice of words.

New parents know it can be stressful to leave their baby with a sitter for the first time. When an anxious mother says, “I’m terrified to leave my baby with a stranger,” the person-centered therapist doesn’t say, “What evidence do you have that your child is unsafe?” Instead, they respond with, “You love your child so much, I can see why you’re worried.” In Roger’s view, providing empathy and acceptance allows people to open up and share more.

Researchers have found unconditional positive regard can benefit us and the people in our lives in many ways.

A 2018 study found that athletes who received unconditional positive regard from their coaches were more motivated to play sports and felt more confident. When adversity cropped up, they rose to the occasion and took on new challenges. Most likely, positive regard sparked their inner enthusiasm and love for the game.

On the contrary, athletes who were criticized were less secure, less motivated, and more likely to burn out. Education researchers also suggest that students who receive unconditional positive regard from their teachers are more motivated to succeed.

The takeaway: unconditional positive regard can spark self-betterment, which can help us lead more meaningful lives. Social scientists also state that using this technique can keep us emotionally fit in several ways.

How does unconditional positive regard facilitate self-actualization?

According to Rogers, unconditional positive regard helps us reach our highest potential, also known as “self-actualization.” While psychologist Abraham Maslow believed few people are self-actualized, Rogers saw striving towards growth as part of the human condition.
Relationships that encourage openness, creativity, and honesty foster self-actualization by letting us know it’s okay to think, feel, and behave the way we do. Studies show self-actualization can help us solve problems creatively, embrace change, and cultivate deep and meaningful relationships. Self-actualization also ignites our “inner spark,” which helps us pursue our goals, even when obstacles stand in our way.

How does unconditional positive regard breed self-confidence?

In 2009, Susan Boyle auditioned for Britain’s Got Talent. The 46-year-old hardly looked like your typical pop star with her untamed curly hair and crooked teeth. Before Boyle sang, the audience sneered at her appearance. But when she belted out “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Misérables, the judges were stunned.

When reporters asked Boyle about the audience’s initial criticism, she replied: “I know what they were thinking, but why should it matter as long as I can sing? It’s not a beauty contest.” In other words, Boyle didn’t accept their criticism.

In the end, Boyle didn’t win the competition, but she signed with Columbia records. At 47, she turned her hobby into a profession. None of this would have happened if rejection had ruined her confidence.

Sharp words and judgment can shrink our confidence, but unconditional positive regard, for ourselves as well as others, can bring it back. After the audition, one of Boyle’s favorite singers, Elaine Paige, called her a role model and praised Boyle for pursuing her dream.

How does unconditional positive regard bolster motivation?

While Rogers considered unconditional positive regard necessary for successful therapy, research suggests it’s beneficial in the workplace as well by increasing motivation.

A 2018 study, published in the British Journal of Management found that employees who received unconditional positive regard from their colleagues felt valued, which enhanced their motivation, job performance, and job satisfaction. These collaborative relationships also cultivated a sense of inclusion, which heightened workplace morale.

When it comes to goal-setting, mindset matters. Let’s say we set out to exercise more, be less distracted, or go to bed on time. At the outset, if we call ourselves “lazy,” or “lacking self-control,” our internal narrative can evoke false beliefs that influence our behaviors by reducing our motivation to change.

When we strive to make changes or meet new goals, research suggests positive self-regard can unleash intrinsic motivation, which is the “desire to do something for its own sake.” Taking on challenges that interest us can make us more motivated and more self-determined.

How does unconditional positive regard foster authenticity?

Social worker and shame researcher, Dr. Brené Brown says authenticity is “the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.” Rogers said authentic people are comfortable with vulnerability and approach others with openness and curiosity. In short, authenticity builds intimacy.

But frequently, our authentic self is shut down by shame, judgment, and criticism. Perhaps someone once told us we were “too sensitive,” “not talkative enough,” or “too nerdy.” Or maybe we were teased for not following the crowd in some way. These messages convey that it’s not okay to be who we want to be.

As a result, we’re forced to choose between living out our values and feeling rejected (usually by those we need and love most) or changing our views to fit in. Often, we’d rather ignore some aspect of ourselves than feel left out.

When we make choices that don’t line up with our values, we often look back in regret. For instance, we may forgo giving a speech or applying for a promotion because we’re afraid of embarrassment or not being able to live up to expectations on the job. But turning down opportunities that can help us become who we want to be because we’re scared of social rejection, stymies our growth and taints our self-perception.

Insecurity and self-doubt may hinder motivation, but unconditional positive regard can dismantle shame, which helps us stay true to ourselves, even when others doubt us.

Behavior change is identity change.

If we are to alter the way we act, we need to change the way we see ourselves. Extending ourselves towards unconditional positive regard and self-compassion invites us to live out our values without fear.

It can be easy to associate unconditional positive regard with “feel good” psychotherapy, but as studies show, the practice can bolster self-motivation, confidence, and foster authenticity.

Perhaps we want to run a marathon, write a book proposal, or develop our ability to be indistractable; whatever the aspiration, compassion and acceptance can get us there. It’s all we really need.

Extrinsic Motivation: Why You Make Terrible Life Choices

Extrinsic Motivation: Why You Make Terrible Life Choices

Nir’s Note: Discover other reasons you make terrible life choices like confirmation biashyperbolic discountingdistinction bias, fundamental attribution errorhindsight bias, and peak end rule.

Everyone struggles with dwindling or misplaced motivation from time to time, and I’m no exception. Thankfully, I’ve learned to overcome my penchant for procrastination: getting what I want done, even when I don’t feel like it. Learning the difference between the two kinds of motivation, extrinsic and intrinsic, made all the difference.

Take the dirty work of household chores. Today, I’m generally pretty good at keeping things tidy. As a married dad, I clean the dishes, take out the trash, and make sure the shower drain stays unclogged. Don’t be fooled though. I wasn’t always this way.

When I lived alone in my first apartment after high school, I’d let the dishes and laundry pile up. I figured if no one was coming over to visit, there was no reason to keep things neat. But if I had a big date that might end with a lady friend seeing my apartment, then you’d better believe I’d get things cleaned up.

My tendency to clean only when my smelly secrets might be exposed revealed my dependency on the extrinsic motivation of pleasing a potential visitor or at least making sure she didn’t run away in horror after seeing a trashy bachelor pad.

What is extrinsic motivation?

Extrinsic motivation relies upon factors outside ourselves, such as the approval of others, to provide an incentive for action. In my case, the extrinsic motivation to clean my apartment came in the form of the lost intimacy of a lady friend. If I wanted to find a mate, I needed to clean up my act.

What are some examples of extrinsic motivation?

Examples of extrinsic motivators include the pursuit of money, social status, praise, food, material wealth, or fame. Other examples of extrinsic motivators could include avoiding something unpleasant such as physical pain or embarrassment.

Growing up, whenever I’d bring home a medal, ribbon, or award, my mother always had the same bland reaction. She’d ask, “Did you have fun?” Then, she’d take the prize and stuff it in a box where no one would ever see it.

As a child, her reaction felt cold. Why didn’t she place the accolade on the mantle for everyone to admire, just like my friends’ parents did? Didn’t she want to brag that her son was now a Tae Kwon Do yellow-belt with one green tip?

When I graduated from college, I framed my diploma and sent it to my parents. I expected to see it proudly displayed in their home, but it wasn’t. It was on a shelf next to the box with my Tae Kwon Do certificate of achievement from the fifth grade. I asked her about why she never put my accomplishments on display, and she said something I’ll always remember: “Because that’s not why I love you.”

My mother knew something about motivation that I didn’t. Accolades, like trophies, diplomas, and awards, may give us a sweet sensation of superiority for a while, but the feeling quickly fades. The enjoyment of doing something for its own sake is a much longer-lasting source of motivation.

Relying on extrinsic motivation isn’t inherently bad, but it’s a pretty blatant quid pro quo. In fact, many of the things we do in life, we do because we want to get something in return for our efforts.

Our jobs pay us money, and we get to do things we normally would not do without compensation. Working for a living generally means doing something you don’t really enjoy so that you can feed yourself and your family. Hopefully, we’re left with enough extra money and leisure time to do something fun.

The modern economy depends on extrinsic motivation. However, extrinsic motivation has some shortcomings. Extrinsic motivation does not always work best; sometimes it can make us perform poorly at certain tasks.

For instance, studies reveal that high stake rewards, like cash bonuses, can hinder cognitive capacity because they shift our focus away from the task and onto the outcome. We can become preoccupied with rewards and all the things that come with them, such as our social status, instead of just doing the work. Extrinsic rewards also tend to narrow our focus on a defined goal and reduce our ability to see other possibilities, hindering creativity. Studies find people perform worse on tasks requiring imagination and ingenuity when they are offered extrinsic rewards, such as higher pay.

Extrinsic motivators are effective for clearly defined tasks that require little to no variation or creativity. For creative work, on the other hand, intrinsic motivation is better.

What is intrinsic motivation?

Intrinsic motivation is the desire to do something for its own sake. With intrinsic motivation, we enjoy the action as its own reward, and we do it without taking money, fortune, or fame into account.

What is the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation? Intrinsic motivation comes from an internal source, while extrinsic motivation comes from outside ourselves. Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation can be combined to produce excellent, synergistic results.

For instance, have you ever struggled with a task at first and then found yourself learning to love the challenge? In my case, writing has never come easily, even after publishing two bestsellers and countless articles.

In school, language arts was my worst subject and I hated writing research papers. There’d be no way I’d start an assignment without the threat of getting a bad grade. Without the extrinsic motivation of seeking validation from my teacher, I would never have written another word.

Today, however, I’ve learned to love writing. I do it in my spare time just for fun. As I found my own intrinsic motivation, my reliance on extrinsic motivation declined. I’ll discuss how to find intrinsic motivation in any task, even the ones you don’t enjoy, in just a bit. For now, it’s important to understand when each type of motivation can serve you in different ways as long as you use the right tool for the job.

Who proposed the concepts of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation?

Self-determination theory (SDT) is among the most widely accepted theories of human motivation and flourishing. It has emerged as the leading psychological approach for understanding how intrinsic and extrinsic motivation work on the human psyche. As part of their theory, Doctors Richard Ryan and Edward Deci propose that intrinsic motivation comes from the desire to feel competency, autonomy, and relatedness. According to SDT, anything done purely out of extrinsic motivation will fail to meet these needs and hinder performance over the long-term.

What’s an example of the self-determination theory in action? Imagine you’ve always had a dream to work in healthcare. You desire to help people feel better and can’t wait to see smiles on children’s faces when you heal whatever ails them. That sounds wonderful until you realize that’s a tiny part of what being in medicine is really all about. Waiting for the approval of your patients to keep you motivated sounds altruistic, but it may not be enough to sustain you through medical or nursing school, not to mention the years of actually practicing medicine.

To sustain a long-term practice in healthcare, you need to first understand what the job is really like. Many bright-eyed doctors and nurses to-be enter the field for the external rewards of gaining their parents’ approval or the respect of their peers, but as they often find out, that feeling is temporary.

Rather, healthcare professionals who stick with the profession don’t do it for the praise of parents or patients. And while the pay is good, there are certainly more lucrative ways to make a buck, so that can’t be the only motivation either.

Instead, those who make a lifetime career in the field do it for the intrinsic rewards. They relish the challenge of mastering a difficult procedure, the autonomy to call the shots during high-stakes situations, and the connection with colleagues working together to heal hard cases or reform procedures at a hospital.

Unfortunately, as many in healthcare today will attest, the job often involves completing loads of paperwork, navigating bureaucracies, and managing difficult personalities, all of which rely upon heroic amounts of extrinsic motivation. According to Ryan and Deci’s theory, the less intrinsic motivation people find in the work they do, the less likely they are to remain in their chosen career.

How do you transition from extrinsic to intrinsic motivators?

What do you do if you can’t find the intrinsic motivation in your work? How do you learn to do something for its own sake without relying solely on extrinsic motivation?

As I describe in my book, Indistractable, the answer lies in finding a way to “play anything.” According to Georgia Tech professor, Ian Bogost, play doesn’t have to be fun. Play simply has to capture your attention long enough to help you do whatever needs to get done. Finding a way to play a task is how you find the intrinsic motivation to keep you going.

Bogost says there are two ways to learn how to play anything. The first is to focus more intensely on the task. Find the variability and surprise in what you’re doing. Next, Bogost advises against the Mary Poppins approach of adding a “spoonful of sugar” to a task, which is nothing but pinning an extrinsic reward to the end of a desired behavior. Bogost instead recommends adding constraints to make the task more interesting and meaningful. Every game has rules, and sometimes adding the rules yourself makes the task into more of a game.

For instance, when I transitioned out of my untidy manchild phase, I learned to find the intrinsic motivation in cleaning up by focusing more intently on the task at hand. I learned how others kept their homes clean and took an interest in methods to maintain a clean household. I remember taking a minute to appreciate the way IKEA thoughtfully designed it’s houseware to keep everything in its place and ogled at how amazingly well put together the furnished rooms in their stores looked.

Then I added constraints. I wondered how many individual food items I really needed in my home to feed myself for a week. How many plates and utensils were necessary? I tried to determine the minimum pieces of furniture necessary to ensure my apartment still felt cozy. Getting rid of the extra stuff started me down the path to cleanliness and paid dividends in that it made my home easier to clean. Then, I added more constraints, like challenging myself to see how much cleaning I could do in 15 minutes. I’d set a timer and promise myself I’d do no more than 15 minutes worth of tidying up to see how much I could do before the alarm rang. Adding a constraint adds challenge, which the brain registers as play rather than drudgery.

Can you really turn any task into play? It sounds crazy, but chances are many of the things you wouldn’t do unless you were paid big bucks, someone else already enjoys doing.

Making someone coffee? Not unless you made me do it! But my bean-obsessed friend, Jonathan, would gladly pull you the perfect espresso. He’s learned to play the game of coffee-making. Ask me to knit you a sweater? Not unless you paid me cash money in advance! But my friend Leslie would complete the tedious task and thank you for the opportunity.
Once we understand when to rely upon the different kinds of motivation, we can use extrinsic and intrinsic motivation in concert. Most importantly, we can learn to do tasks we want to do consistently by making them less taxing. It’s all a matter of appreciating the details, finding the surprises, and playing with the constraints. We can turn just about any previously difficult task into play so we can be the kind of people we want to be. And if we’re lucky, and keep our apartments clean, we can also be the kind of people others want to be with as well.
If you found this guide for understanding extrinsic and intrinsic motivations useful, I hope you’ll share it with others. Perhaps you’d like to introduce the concept to a close friend, your boss, or a team you’re collaborating with? If you’d like more science-based insights on motivation, click here or check out my other articles below.
How to Achieve Your Goals By Creating an Enemy

How to Achieve Your Goals By Creating an Enemy

DJ Khaled, the one-man internet meme, is known for warning his tens of millions of social media followers about a group of villains he calls “they.”

They don’t want you motivated. They don’t want you inspired,” he blares on camera. “They don’t want you to win,” he warns. On Ellen DeGeneres’s talk show, Khaled urged the host, “Please, Ellen, stay away from them!”

The “they” Khaled invokes are clearly a sinister force. But who are they? Khaled offered clues when he told DeGeneres, “They are the people who don’t believe in you.…They is the person that told you you would never have an Ellen show.”

Although Khaled’s claims may seem outlandish, he is in fact leveraging a powerful psychological hack: scapegoating. The practice of imagining a villain that’s conspiring against us, scapegoating can be an effective way to motivate ourselves and change our behaviors. Of course, as history has shown, terrible things can happen when people act on baseless conspiracy theories. But sometimes the antidote is in the venom.

Khaled isn’t the first to use the technique. In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield uses an entity he calls “Resistance” to describe the force conspiring against creative output. “Most of us have two lives,” Pressfield writes. “The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.” Throughout his book Pressfield reminds readers, “Resistance is always plotting against you.”

The author and game designer Jane McGonigal described a similar conspiracy of bad guys in her book SuperBetter. McGonigal blames villains like “Mrs. Volcano” and “Snuff the Tragic Dragon” when she loses her temper with her kids or feels self-pity.

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