One Motivation Trick to Rule Them All

Motivation seems like a mystery to many people. Sometimes we have it and sometimes we don’t. But motivation is actually pretty simple when we break it down to its most basic components.  

You see, at its most basic level, motivation is a reward problem.

Have you ever noticed that you don't need to be motivated to do things that you like? In fact, we're always motivated to do things we like, and sometimes we need to be motivated to NOT do things that we like. For instance, who needs to be motivated to walk down the street and get their coffee every day? 

Literally no one. 

In fact, sometimes you will make your day harder in order to get coffee. You might have a tight deadline, but you’ll make time to get your caffeine hit, or you might walk further – past one or two closer coffee shops – in order to get a particularly good coffee.

By contrast, we need to find motivation to do those tasks that we find hard. Things like:

  • Go to the gym
  • Make cold calls
  • Work on that long term project that seems overwhelming
  • Do those daily tasks that are boring

Why do these require motivation? Because they don't have immediate reward.

The most basic driver of human behaviour is simply that we seek pleasure and avoid pain. We choose to engage in behaviours and activities because:

  • We like them – I love eating chocolate! No need for motivation. 
  • They make us feel good – Helping my kids with their homework or doing favours for people gives me a good feeling
  • They help us avoid immediate consequence – I hand in a report today so that my manager doesn’t get angry with me
  • They reinforce our self-concept – I run every morning because I am a runner, or I tend to help people because I am a helper (even though sometimes it makes my day more difficult).

Unfortunately, not everything makes us feel good. And herein lies the problem: doing things that are worthwhile involves discomfort.

So the question is: how do we take something that feels bad and make it feel good? 

If you understand this concept, you can start to get a little creative with how you make this work. If I don’t like going to the gym, I can decide that I am going to listen to a podcast that I love when I am at the gym, or I can watch an episode of that Netflix series I’m binging while I am on the bike (preferably not during a class!). If I am doing a boring task at work I can listen to some music or give myself a little reward for completing 30 minutes of a project. 

Sometimes we don’t even need a material reward. Research shows that even if I give myself a virtual fist-bump and acknowledge that I have done something good (“nice job, you!”) – this is enough to give us a little shot of dopamine, our rewards chemical. Of if social connection is my thing, I can take a pic of myself at 5am and post it on social media – letting all my friends know I made it to the gym. 

Some people are lucky. They just love all the things that are good for them! For the rest of us, this is a simple concept – just take things that feel bad and make them feel good. If you can do that, you can unlock another secret to motivation.

** Tony Wilson is a Workplace Performance Expert focussed on helping leaders build the environment for high performance. His insights into performance science and it's application in the workplace will make you re-think the way that you approach leadership, culture change, high performance and productivity. Tony has an MBA and a BSc majoring in physiology and combines the two for a different perspective. He is also the author of Jack and the Team that Couldn't See and delivers workshops and keynote presentations around the globe.

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