At some point, most of us have found ourselves playing a frustrating game of keep-away with our goals. The motivation that got us going — that force that gets us to do, accomplish, and change the things we want — fizzles out, often without our understanding why.
So here, we address the nature and source of motivation, from the dynamics that cause us to procrastinate or break our commitments to the science behind making change even when change is hard. We explore the realities of harnessing the willingness to do what must be done, and we challenge the idea that all you need is more willpower.
And as always, we offer some experiments to help you tap into your own best sources of motivation and put them to work in ways that feel rewarding.
Dopamine as Do-It Factor
- Both the desire to do things and the act of getting them done are associated with the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is commonly connected with the brain’s pleasure and reward mechanisms.
- Levels of dopamine tend to be higher in people who get things done, but it’s not entirely clear whether that relationship is corollary, causal, or both. What we do know is that accomplishing things generally feels good, and it tends to motivate us to want to do more.
- You can rightsize your dopamine levels through good nutrition, rest, regular physical activity, play, pleasure, and social connection, and also through purposefully accomplishing small, concrete goals, including simple hands-on tasks, like tidying up.
Motivation and Success
- Self-efficacy, the belief that you will do the things you set out to do, is an important component of motivation. Deciding you are going to complete something (anything) and then successfully doing it grows your confidence that you can and will do the other things you set your mind to.
- BJ Fogg, PhD, founder of the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford, is one of the world’s leading experts on how to get people to do things. He observes that change happens when people are provided with the right combination of motivation, the right level of ability, and some type of trigger — all at the right time. But manipulating motivation is difficult, he notes, and it rarely produces lasting effects, so lowering a task’s difficulty (and thus increasing one’s ability to do it) is often a better strategy.
- One great way to lower difficulty is to break a difficult goal down into smaller steps. Fogg calls these “tiny steps,” and he notes that they really can be tiny (like flossing one tooth or doing a single pull-up) as long as they’re connected to a larger worthwhile ambition.
Connecting to Why — and What
- Research suggests that intrinsic motivations (those connected to our core values or sense of identity) are inherently more meaningful and lasting than extrinsic motivations (like impressing others or winning a reward). So it can help to dig into the deeper reason behind your goals.
- Simon Sinek, author of Start With Why, suggests repeatedly asking, “And why does that matter?” as you evaluate your reasons for wanting to accomplish things.
- Sometimes, though, what looks like a lack of motivation is really a lack of clarity. Ask yourself: What is my next clear step? If you’re not certain, defining that step may very well be the most important and motivating thing you can do.
Think about the last big thing you accomplished and notice: What allowed you to achieve it? Comparing that goal to one you’re currently working toward, consider: Does it meet the same standard of meaning and purpose? What were the steps you took in reaching it? Did it require multiple attempts? How did it feel to accomplish it? See if you can apply any of these retrospective insights to aid you in the thing you’re working on now.
Think about the thing you’ve been putting off or wanting to do: What’s the first step in doing that? Take that first step (or the very first tiny step toward that first step) today.