More Research on Staying Motivated

I read an article in Scientific American the other day (Nov 2012, Daisy Yuhas) that I thought I’d share. I talk a lot about motivation primarily because I think it’s an interesting concept, but also because I’m always trying to find it and hold onto it myself. The article outlines three elements identified by research that are important for sustaining motivation. I figure they’re worth knowing, so I’ll share them here:

The first one is Autonomy. This one was interesting to me because I had never really thought about it before. I talk a lot about the importance of finding or developing an intrinsic vs. extrinsic payoff for sticking with a task – which I still believe to be true – but I’ve learned that that’s not the whole story. It turns out that regardless of whether you engage in an activity for the internal or external reward, the more important thing is that you feel a sense of control over the task. You need to feel that you’re in charge.

The second element, according to the article, is Value. This one wasn’t a surprise: I think it just makes sense that the more you believe in or value something, the more willing and able you’ll be to see it through.

The final element mentioned is Competence. To me this speaks to the cultivation of an intrinsic reward system: the better you get at something, the more rewarding is to do it. And the more rewarding something is, the easier it is to stick with it. We all like doing things we’re good at; the key is doing something long enough to develop a sense of mastery over it.

Think about the elements outlined above, and how they might apply to you and your own motivation. How can you gain a sense of autonomy in everything you do? What parts of the task can you identify that align with your values and beliefs? When you’re feeling unmotivated, can you remind yourself that the better you get at it the easier it will become to stick with it?

The important thing to remember, though, is that things like Autonomy, Value, and Competence are just words until you really make the effort to discover, create, manipulate, and use them successfully wherever you need a motivation boost. Often times this means creating a shift in perspective and being willing to see things in a new way. It’s about digging, stretching, and seeing the bigger picture. Every action you take, whether a one-time thing or a sustained effort, adds up to something bigger. Also know that this will always be a work in progress and that motivation has to be reinvented every day, with every endeavour.

The Secret to Success in Life

We know that there’s no true secret to success in life; but we’re all searching for a way to make it happen. Success can be defined in many different ways; and it’s our personal value system that defines it for each one of us. However you define success, though, there are some things we know to be true:

One is that in order to be successful you have to work at it consistently; there is no quick and easy road. Another is the fact that opportunity plays a big role: it doesn’t matter how hard we work if there is nothing for us to capitalize on. (Often times these opportunities are hidden from our direct consciousness; but they are there nonetheless.)

The other big thing we need to be successful is the willingness and ability to focus on our strengths.

I think this is a tricky one because we’re not always taught to do this. As kids in school we were expected to become proficient in many different areas; whether we showed an aptitude for them or not. (Granted, I realize that a child needs to be exposed to a broad array of knowledge in order to function well in society – but why does he have to struggle year after year to learn something he’ll never use? Wouldn’t his time and energy be put to better use through learning and practicing in the areas of his strengths and talents?)

But that’s a philosophical discussion for another time. My point is that fostering success through focusing on our strengths doesn’t always come easily: we’re not always given the opportunity to learn to know our strengths so that we can act upon them.

So to help this process, here are five cues from the research of Donald Clifton and Paula Nelson for identifying your strengths or true talents (as found in their book, “Soar with Your Strengths”):


Yearning: Which types of activities are you naturally drawn toward?

Rapid Mastery/Quick Learning: Which types of activities do you seem to pick up quickly?

Flow: In which activities do the steps come to you naturally and automatically?

Glimpses of Excellence: What were you doing when you did something extremely well and asked yourself “How did I do that?”

Satisfaction: From which activities do you derive the greatest amount of pleasure?


Think about these questions seriously. Are these the things you’re focusing on in your work and/or life? Are you putting in the time needed to gain expertise in these areas? Would an increased focus on these things cause you to feel more contented, balanced, and successful?

Making Changes

We all think of making changes in our lives; but making the decision to move forward and shake things up isn’t always easy.

I wrote an article some time ago about motivation and goals; the premise being that you don’t necessarily have to be motivated to act. I still believe this to be true, of course; but we also know that motivation isn’t the only reason we fail to move forward with things.

Self-imposed fear and doubt are also big reasons we fail to act; and we really have to work on overcoming these in order to be successful and happy in our lives. But there is also another, often unnoticed reason we should pay more attention to: the habit of telling ourselves that “it’s not the right time.”

I’m sure we all know on some level that there never really is an ideal time for anything; but we continue to use this excuse anyway because it’s so believable: “I can’t change jobs until I find one that offers the same security”. Or “I can’t buy the house (start the family, build the business plan…) because I don’t have the time or money right now”.

It’s easy to fool ourselves with this line of thinking because it sounds so logical. It can also be very helpful at times when fear and doubt is the underlying driving factor: we don’t have to take the chance and risk failing.

It’s true that our current circumstances often do present legitimate-looking barriers to our desired future. But what we have to remember is that taking action actually changes our circumstances. Once we actually do something, the situation we thought was holding us back is no longer our situation. We suddenly and automatically find ourselves in a new place with a new set of opportunities and challenges.

Of course it’s always an option to wait it out and hope that the stars align just right; but chances are we’ll be waiting a long time. As Albert Einstein once said, “Nothing happens until something moves.”

“It’s not the right time” is neither a logical nor self-empowering argument for staying still. The time to act on our goals and dreams will never be perfect; and we really can change our circumstances by changing our actions. To truly live our lives means having dreams, setting goals, and taking risks. It means learning to understand what’s really within our control, and not being afraid to make choices and take charge our own destinies.

The Winner’s Brain

I’ve been reading a fair bit lately about neuroplasticity: about how our thoughts, behaviors, and experiences literally shape the neural, chemical, and physical structures of our brains – molding them into more or less effective drivers of our physical and mental health and success.

One of the things I just finished reading is a book called “The Winner’s Brain”, and here a few things in the book that stood out for me:

1. I talk a lot about the importance of soliciting feedback – simply because of the fact that we don’t know what we don’t know. But what I learned in this book is that the parts of your brain that are involved with proficiency of a task are also the same parts involved in proficiency awareness. In other words, there’s a very real reason why we may be bad at something and not even know it! Hence the importance of feedback.

2. I’m a real proponent of “showing up in the world as our true selves” – but also that adjusting to different situations by calling upon different versions, or personas, of our selves can be appropriate and beneficial. The authors of the book acknowledge this, but also state that narrowing the gap between our public and private selves allows us to judge our social interactions more accurately, as well as cause others to see us as more confident and authentic people. A good reminder to not take our adaptive skills too far.

3. I write a lot about ways of cultivating and fostering motivation, but I’ve also learned that motivation has a lot to do with removing barriers as opposed to solely focusing on pushing forward with what you have. Makes good sense.

4. I also focus a lot on the field of positive psychology and the documented benefits of a positive perspective or disposition. The thing that really stood out to me in this regard is the authors’ conclusion that “happiness precedes success”. An elegant little statement, confirmed by solid research, highlighting the fact that we can choose to be happy – and that we’ll experience greater levels of success by doing so.

5. Last but not least, and I say this all the time, exercise and meditation is really where it’s at. The book confirmed again what we know to be true: that if you do nothing else to take charge of your own destiny, the best thing you can do is exercise and meditate.

These five points are not all the authors say about shaping your brain for better health and success; but they’re the things that jumped out at me at this particular point in time. I’d encourage you to do your own research about what else is being discovered, and about how and why these sorts of things work. (Naturally, a great place to start would be picking up the book.)

But at the very least, try focusing more on the five things outlined above, and see what kind of difference they make to your life!

There is one caveat, though: these things take time and practice to really make a difference. Remember, we’re talking about literally reshaping and modifying the brain on a physical and chemical level. Developing more adaptive perspectives and behaviors certainly creates some quick and powerful gains; but sustaining these gains requires persistence and work!

(Don’t be afraid of the work, though – just keep it fun… Remember the point about staying positive 🙂

Goals and Dreams

We all have certain goals and dreams, but for some reason we often keep them to ourselves. Here are three great reasons why you should share them out loud:

1. Feedback:

First off, when we share our goals and dreams with others we solicit their feedback about them. This isn’t always helpful, of course, but it certainly can be. People often have very good ideas if we give them a chance. They might have a resource we could use to help get us closer to the goal, or they might have a suggestion that might make it easier to attain.

Even the negative feedback we receive can be of great help. I’ve known many people who did something because they were told they couldn’t: someone’s negative feedback caused a sense of anger that spurred them to succeed.

2. Clarity:

The second good reason for sharing your goals and dreams out loud is that doing so fosters clarity. Our goals and dreams tend to stay very vague when they’re trapped inside our heads; but the act of telling someone about these goals and dreams means first having to make sense of and articulate them for yourself.

And the clearer your goals are, the more attainable they become: it’s when we can clearly understand and visualize our goals that we can start to devise ways to move toward them.

3. Making it real

Last but not least, stating our goals and dreams out loud makes them real. When we declare what it is that we really want, we’re forced to take our goals and dreams more seriously. And it goes without saying that we have a better chance of getting reaching our goals if we see them as something more than just a fanciful wish.


So whatever you want is yours for the taking. And you deserve it. Ask yourself what you really want from your life, and share your thoughts with anyone who will listen!

Intrinsic Motivation

Here’s a piece of research I came across that serves as a good reminder about the importance of clarifying why we’re doing what we’re doing, and what we want to get out of life:

Years ago Edward Deci conducted an experiment in his search for discovering why people do what they do. He asked each of the participants in his study to complete a puzzle: half were given a dollar for working on the puzzle, and the other half were offered nothing. At the end of the time allotted, Deci left the room and instructed the participants that they could continue working on the puzzle if they wished (or read a magazine, or do nothing). The participants who received no reward continue do work, while the ones given money ceased to work on the puzzle.

The point of this outcome is that our interest in a task fades when we’re being governed by external forces; even if it’s something we’d enjoy doing otherwise.

I often talk about building in reward structures if you need that extra boost to finish a task (i.e., work for two hours then treat yourself to a latte). This is still a good strategy, but just make sure the latte isn’t the primary reward: the research results above show us that external rewards don’t maintain behavior.

Let the latte be the driver of your behavior if that’s what it takes; but when you’ve reached the goal always go back to the reasons you engaged in the task in the first place. Focus not the immediate reasons: “because I’ll miss the deadline if it doesn’t get done”, etc., but on the big reasons: “because this task leads to this, which leads to this, which leads to the realization of my ultimate goals and purpose”.

So enjoy the latte that helped drive you to the goal. But do so with the conscious acknowledgment that you wholly deserve it. Acknowledge your ability to set and achieve goals, and how hard you’re working to realize your dreams and become more of who you want to be!

Getting Motivated

Getting Motivated is a tricky thing. Sometimes we experience it, often times we don’t. And when we do get it, it doesn’t seem to stick around for very long.

I talk with my clients about ways to increase motivation, such as making the task worthwhile and keeping your eye on the prize, only committing to bite-sized chunks and building in rewards and consequences, and staying healthy and taking regular breaks. There are many more strategies; some more effective than others.

(There are also a couple of newer books out there on the topic of motivation; which are apparently quite good. I look forward to reading them to see if there’s anything missing in my understanding of the subject).

But more importantly, I think, is something that struck me recently: I think we often use the elusiveness of motivation as an excuse to not get things done.

The funny thing about motivation is that we tend to see it as this “thing” that we can get – and that as soon as we acquire it things will be smooth-sailing. And as long as we don’t “have it”, we’re not really pressured to accomplish: we can easily blame our inaction on the fact that we just haven’t tapped into it yet.

But the truth is that it’s not impossible to act if we’re not feeling motivated. We get caught up in the idea that we can’t move forward unless we’re “feeling it” – but this just simply isn’t true. It might not feel great to take action without possessing this magical thing called motivation – but we’re all capable of doing it anyway.

A saying I quite like is “action precedes motivation”. In other words, like so many other things in life, when you stop looking it will appear. We just need to get started. So put it to the test – or as Nike would say, “Just do it”. Just do it regardless of how you feel, and stop reaching for the magic formula – you’ll be glad you did!

Get Discouraged!

Discouragement is the result of all those little thoughts, fears, and assumptions that add up to a real sense of emotional and physical discomfort. For some it’s debilitating: stopping them in their own tracks out of habit; while others keep moving on immediately as if it never happened. In both cases they fail to actively identify and challenge the maladaptive thoughts and fears that feed it.

We’re told all the time to not get discouraged. What that means, obviously, is to not give up when we feel defeated. And we shouldn’t give up – but we should also remember that feeling defeated, and scared, and insecure are all natural human reactions. If we deny the experience of discouragement, either by letting it stop us in our tracks or by ignoring its existence, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to self-reflect and self-correct. We either don’t move at all, or we risk moving forward in a maladaptive way.

All feelings serve a purpose. Our physical or emotional reactions are rich with data that we can use to adapt, adjust, and evolve. We can identify the thoughts and assumptions that feed the experience of discouragement, and hold them up to examination. We can then replace the faulty ones with more realistic and/or energizing ones; and then resolve to act more purposefully.

Picking ourselves up and moving forward after acknowledging our discouragement also teaches us just how far our resiliency can be stretched. So we shouldn’t discourage discouragement: we should embrace it and use it as the powerful tool it is.

Improve Motivation By Creating A Space

There is much written about how to improve motivation and how keep it. Unfortunately, motivation is one of those things that easily elude us. Where does motivation come from? How do we get it and make it stick? Can we really do or say anything to motivate another person if it has to come from within?

These are hard questions with no easy answers. The truth is that we need to find what works for us personally, and what style of motivating matches the others person’s values and desires. Google ‘Motivation’, pick a couple of tools, and try them out. And it’s important to remember that once you’ve got it yourself, that doesn’t mean its here to stay: we need to keep working on our motivation whenever the need comes up. We have to renew it constantly and work hard at it (the irony is that we have to be motivated to stay motivated!)

So it’s not an easy thing, but as I mentioned, there are some tools to help draw out that elusive drive from within. One of the things that works for me is to ensure that my environment is set up in a way that helps my motivation rather than hinder it.

For example, like many of us, exercise is the tough one for me. I’m not much of a ‘get up and go to the gym’ type of person, and so I’d rather keep in shape at home. I have the bench and weights, elliptical trainer, and yoga mat – but unfortunately they’ve experienced a lot of darkness and dust over the years.

Fairly recently, however, I’ve created a space that actually makes me want to be there; and that’s made all the difference in the world. I painted the walls in the ‘exercise room’ and put a little stereo in there, as well as a couch and TV: all the comforts of home, so to speak (of course you can go too far: if I also decided to go with the beer fridge, for example, the exercise plan might have gone down the drain!)

So now I’m back on track and it feels good – and it really didn’t cost much.

Where can you ‘create a space’? Think about your home or work environment, for instance: is it cluttered and dull, or is it a clean, organized, exhilarating and inspiring place to be? ‘Exhilarating’ may sound like an exaggeration when you’re thinking of a workspace, but it’s really not: read about colour and aroma therapies, for example – there’s some good research to back these up (or even feng shui if that’s your thing; although the evidence on that one is rather lacking).

And remember, a cluttered environment makes for a cluttered mind. There are some good professional organizers out here who can help, if this isn’t your strength – don’t be afraid to use the resources available.

And don’t forget to change it up periodically: we habituate to our surroundings after awhile, and so we need to keep it fresh to keep those neurons stimulated!

Just Keep Trying

Thomas Edison once said, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up”.

Think about the meaning of that statement for a moment. Really.

Imagine pouring hours upon hours of effort and hope into something important to you – then giving it all up when you hit that certain level of discouragement.

Imagine what sort of stories of denial and rationalization you might create in order to explain the whole effort away to yourself and others: to minimize its weight in order to save you from embarrassment. Or of the dreadful feelings of precious time wasted. Or of the realization that you were wrong – that you were not as competent as you had hoped. Or of the feelings of frustration, depression, and loss…

Or maybe you’ve already done this. The truth is that people do it all the time.

But what if we were destined to reach our goal the very next day after we decided to quit? It’s impossible to ever know, of course, but it is a very real possibility.

We all know the story of Thomas Edison’s failures, perseverance, and ultimate successes – but, unfortunately, stories like these often tend to inspire us for the moment but have no real lasting impact (or worse yet, we become desensitized to them so that they carry no real impact for us at all anymore).

So, again, think seriously about this quote for a moment. What could it mean for your life and your journey? What do you really want? When have you quit and (falsely) rationalized the whole effort away? Where do sometimes feel like just throwing in the towel? Or where do you keep justifying your decision to not get started on that one special thing?

The good news is that we can avoid the pain of failure by never ceasing to try.

And even if we were to die trying, then at least we’d have died on a path to success. And isn’t that better than looking back at the end of it all and saying, “what if”?