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.

“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.