How to Improve Your Motivation

People often ask me how they can improve their motivation. Generally, I tell them that there are two big motivators in life. One is your values, or what is most important to you in your life. The other is fear, or trying to prevent the worst from happening.

Research by Tversky and Kahneman found that losses loom much larger than gains. This means that fear is usually better for motivation than values because we are more willing to try to avoid something terrible than we are to create something good. This bias is one of the main reasons your direct ancestors survived long enough to reproduce. So without their loss aversion, you may not be here today.

The problem with only using fear for motivation is that it triggers our fight-or-flight response. In addition, it increases our cortisol levels if we activate this response too often, which isn’t so great for our mental and physical health in the long run.

Being motivated by our values, on the other hand, is very rewarding. We aren’t just in survival mode. We are creating the life we want, and it feels enriching.

Intrinsic vs extrinsic values

Values are not the same thing as goals. Instead, they are guiding principles for life. They help you identify whether you are on the right track in your life or not. If you are unsure which values are most important to you, this clarification exercise can help.

The biggest problem with values is that it can be hard to know why your most important values are essential to you. Is it because society says they are? Or movies and TV shows? Or marketing companies? Or is it because your family or religion says so? Or just because it feels essential deep down?

Research has found that we are much more likely to experience motivation when motivated by our intrinsic rather than our extrinsic values. Extrinsic means something outside of us. Intrinsic implies something within us.

I remember back when I was doing my doctoral studies. I was not on a scholarship for the first six months and was studying for free. Then I was placed on an academic scholarship and was paid to learn. Being paid to study (an extrinsic factor) diminished my intrinsic motivation to study and made it harder overall. Before receiving the scholarship, I thought it would have been the opposite and that getting paid to learn would have helped me remain focused and finish my research even quicker. It did not.

Professional sports players who start getting paid to play can feel the same way. Growing up, you couldn’t keep them off the court or field. They just loved the game. But now, it’s a job. Some NBA or NFL players refuse to play unless they get more money or are playing for a contending team. Their intrinsic motivation has become overshadowed by their million-dollar salaries.

Volunteering in Vanuatu was the opposite. Because I was no longer getting paid to offer mental health support across the country, I could fall in love with psychology and therapy all over again. I was helping people to improve their mental health and the overall quality of their lives. I felt connected with my essential values and experienced lots of motivation.

Three Intrinsic Ways To Build Motivation

In his excellent book ‘Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us’, the author Daniel H. Pink says that there are three ways to increase your intrinsic motivation:

1. Autonomy

  • What do you want to do?
  • Why do you want to do it?
  • Is it for others or for you?
  • If it is for others, do you feel forced to do it, or is it because it is important to you?
  • If it’s important to you, what personal value is being highlighted as very important for you:
    • Dutifulness?
    • Obedience or Loyalty?
    • Altruism?
    • Empathy?
    • Sympathy?
    • Being supportive?
    • Being kind or compassionate?
    • Not being indebted to others?
    • Equality or fairness?
    • Something else?

2. Mastery

  • What skills do you want to build?
  • What do you enjoy learning?
  • What areas interest you?
  • What comes easily to you that doesn’t come easily to others?

3. Purpose

  • What are you passionate about?
  • What is personally meaningful to you?
  • If you didn’t have to earn money, what would you do?
  • What would you want your epitaph or tombstone to say?
  • What would you want to hear someone say at your 80th birthday during a talk about you and the person you have been?
  • What do you want your legacy to be?
  • What do you want to add to the world?
  • How would you like to be remembered?
  • If the world was going to end in 2 years, and you couldn’t do anything about it or tell anyone else about it, would you do anything different to what you are doing now?
  • If your kids didn’t listen to what you said and only looked at what you did, would you change your daily actions or what you do? If so, what would you do differently?

Is FEAR Holding You Back?

Let’s say you know what you want to change but still struggle to do it. Perhaps FEAR is holding you back from making the changes you want to. FEAR is an acronym Russ Harris created in his books The Happiness Trap’ and ‘The Confidence Gap’.

FEAR stands for:

F = fusion with unhelpful thoughts

If you are fusing with unhelpful thoughts, you need to practice defusion skills to let go of unhelpful thoughts and increase your motivation. Defusion techniques involve recognising thoughts, images, and memories for what they are. They are just words and pictures. You then allow them to come and go as they please, without fighting them, running from them or giving them more attention than they deserve. Google search Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) defusion exercises and try some until you find one that allows you to let go of unhelpful thoughts. My favourite activity is on the app ‘CBT-I coach’ in the ‘quiet your mind’ section called ‘observe thoughts – clouds in the sky’.

E = expectations that are unrealistic

If you have unrealistic expectations, review your goals and write the new ones down to improve your motivation. Break these goals down into smaller steps, give yourself more time to achieve them and allow yourself to make mistakes. For example, you are hoping to obtain seven hours of sleep per night, and you only sleep five hours currently. Start with improving your total sleep time by an average of 10 minutes over the next week. Once you achieve this, you can then aim for another 10 minutes. Within 12 weeks, you could get to where you want to be, so try to take the long-term approach instead of looking for a super quick fix. It is okay if you do not reach your sleep goal in one night. Just stick to your plan, and do not give up until at least two weeks have passed. Everyone has a terrible sleep from time to time, so it is important to keep realistic short and long-term goals to ensure your motivation remains high.

A = avoidance of discomfort

If you avoid discomfort, challenge yourself to improve your motivation by taking action. Remember that gradual exposure is the most effective intervention for any anxiety disorder, including post-traumatic stress disorder. With anxiety, we want to avoid it, but this only keeps the fear alive as our brain tells us that what we are avoiding is dangerous. So instead, we must challenge ourselves to do what we want and make room for our emotions in these moments. By doing this, we will generally realise that doing what we feared was not nearly as bad or uncomfortable as we imagined. Try expansion ACT exercises or a body scan meditation to increase your ability to sit with painful or difficult emotions. The CBT-I coach app has a body scan meditation under the ‘quiet your mind’ section that I recommend checking out.

R = remoteness from values

If you are not living consistently with your most important values, reconnect with them to increase your motivation. Then see if your plan or desired outcome will help you live more consistently with your most important values. If your plan will, put the list of your top values in a visible place to remind yourself why you are currently doing what you are doing. If your plan will not, change it to be more consistent with what is most important to you.

Remember, change is generally always hard but worth it if it will help us live the life we want to be living in the end. Remembering why you are doing something is also the key to improving your motivation to push through when things get tough.

Good luck with improving your motivation, and do let me know if these strategies help!

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Published by Dr Damon Ashworth

I am a Clinical Psychologist. I completed a Doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology at Monash University and a Bachelor of Behavioural Sciences and a Bachelor of Psychological Sciences with Honours at La Trobe University. I am passionate about the field of Psychology, and apply the latest empirical findings to best help individuals meet their psychological and emotional needs.

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