The science behind self-motivation

- Motivation

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by Jennifer Riggins

As an American who moved from Barcelona to London the week of Brexit, particularly this week, I’m finding it hard to get motivated. Add to that I’ve got a cold and am still catching up on sleep after election results. But thankfully it’s all following my annual weekend of inspiration and ass-kicking with my fellow Writers and Bloggers about Spain. (Yes, I haven’t played that particular role for awhile now, but when you find a group of like-minded entrepreneurs that motivates and inspires, you don’t want to leave it!)

And this year’s two-day conference — in addition to yummy tapas and vino in my adopted city of Valladolid — had not one but two talks on motivation.

Today I’m going to share my notes from Steve Tallantyre‘s talk on the inherent origin of our intrinsic motivation and the science how to get it back. Tomorrow, I’ll offer Molly Sears-Piccavey’s tricks for how to get out of this funk and get stuff done!

Self-motivation is a learnable skill

Book smarter-faster-better

Steve’s talk and wisdom was heavily taken from the book Smarter, Faster, Better by Charles Duhigg, a book he strongly recommended to our group.

Steve began his talk with two simple but key questions:

  • Why do we feel motivated or demotivated?
  • What can we do to trigger feeling motivated?

He put science first in talking about the striatum, the reward system and motivation part of our brains. It’s associated with anticipation and excitement, and when that part of the brain is damaged, people find it difficult to make decisions and are unmotivated with an overall general apathy.

Tests on this part of the brain have discovered that one thing really motivates us: decision-making.

“We’re more motivated to keep going when we’re making decisions, even if we’re losing, than when we’re making fewer decisions but getting more rewards,” Steve said.

This explains our love gambling even though we know the house always wins. And it explains why employees feel more motivated to come and work hard when they feel they are a part of the decision making within a team.

“When people believe they’re in control, they tend to work harder and push themselves more,” quoting Trends in Cognitive Sciences journal.

Just as empower our teams to make more decisions is a management skill, creating a sense of control for ourselves is a learnable skill for self-motivation. Steve pointed out how it has been since we were babies, learning to feed ourselves, finding motivation in choice and control.

Step One in Creating Self-Motivation: Just choose


When we are given choices — though not too many that we are overwhelmed — we become instantly motivated. Steve offered the following examples to overcome putting off what you just don’t want to do:

  • Can’t bring yourself to answer emails? Choose to answer them in alphabetical order of sender, or write only the first line of each, or start each one with an opinion or decision.
  • Stuck on a blog post? Choose to write the final paragraph first.
  • Don’t want to make that phone call? Choose where to make it — go to the park — or choose to start it with a question of your choice.

He also remarked that the word decision comes from the root to cut off and thus we make our life easier by whittling down those choices.

Step Two in Creating Self-Motivation: Take control

Steve, a Brit, invoked Full Metal Jacket and the U.S. Marines as an example here. Yes, the first couple weeks of bootcamp is a yelling-filled hazing, but then the goal turns toward building what he called “a strong internal locus of control.” This is the belief that you can influence your own destiny. People with it:

  • Attribute good results to hard work not talent
  • Take the blame instead of blaming luck

Then in a great contrast, Steve then quoted Stanford psychologist and “self-theories” expert Dr. Carol Dweck, on her experiments of praising effort versus praising innate ability.

The internal locus of control is a learned skill. Some people’s sense of self-determination gets suppressed by upbringing or experiences. Put people in situations where they can practice feeling in control and they can building habits or reawakening the feeling of taking charge. And the more they feel like that, the more they really are in control.

This is the continued theme of developing a growth mindset over a fixed mindset.

Step Three in Self-Motivation: Build a bias toward action

Steve continued his fascinating talk by giving tips for how to not only create your own bias toward action, but how managers can motivate their teams, following suit again of the Marines.

  • Only give praise for doing things that people struggle with.
  • Remind people that leadership is learned and then put them into leadership situations regularly.
  • Give complete control over small things first to build the habit of self-determination.

He also mentioned how a lot of these growth mindset motivational techniques don’t just work in the office, but in the home, as great parenting techniques in a world that gives a lot of trophies of participation.

Choices convince us we’re in control and endow our actions with a larger meaning.

Also Read: How happiness at home is a new part of work life balance

How do you bring these tips to you and your work? Steve offers these tips:

  • Practice making choices about work, even if they seem meaningless. It’s the act of choosing that matters.
  • Take control of the small things first.
  • Praise yourself for taking control to reinforce that feeling further.
  • Sometimes making choices can be uncomfortable. Instead change it so every choice feels meaningful.

“See choices not just as expressions of control, but as affirmations of values or goals,” he said.

Step Four in Self-Motivation: Keep asking ‘Why?’

Now Steve has two young kids so he is really used to this three-letter word. But he says that sometimes asking and then answering the Why is how we rediscover our motivation. He said you can even build a chain of Why questions if you need to, like his reminders of purpose below:

  • Why am I writing the last para of this stupid blog post? Because it’s a step closer to getting it done.
  • Why does it need to be done? It helps me build my skills or name as a writer.
  • Why do I want to be a writer? It was always my dream and it allows me to live in Spain. Why do I want to live in Spain? So I can live in a beautiful country, have time to spend with my family and fulfill my ultimate goal of coming to WABAS meetups each year.

Also Read: The most important work meeting? A high-level meeting with yourself

How do you instill your own self-motivation? Tell us in the comments below!

Feature Image by Jessica Lewis (Unsplash)

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