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Motivation: The Scientific Guide on How to Get and Stay Motivated​

* I generally write using the pronouns he/him when referring to narcissists, but females are just as likely to be narcissists or exhibit narcissistic traits. So please don't think just because article uses the word him or he that it could not be a woman in that same role.

Many motivational speakers and websites will tell you goody-goody stuff to make you feel warm inside but here we are all about focusing on stuff that works.

Yes, I would love to make you feel warm and fuzzy but only with the facts. If something doesn’t work, you simply won’t find it here, even if it’s really cutesy stuff.

What is motivation

When contemplating motivation is important to recognize that to simply define the term does not mean that you understand it. Motivation is one of many words people regularly use without understanding the complexity and deeper meaning it implies.

Consider the mountain climber, Aron Lee Ralston, who was pinned by an 800-pound boulder, and eventually freed himself by amputating his own arm with a pocketknife. Trapped for six days and dying, what else could have been the motivation for this daring surgery except survival?

Less obvious, but still impressive, is the motivation of cross-country runner Ben Comen. During every competition, this young man with cerebral palsy runs and falls for almost an hour. That is the entire length of time it takes him to complete the three mile race. His extraordinary drive does not lend itself to a simple definition of motivation.

Motivation: The Basics

Motivation is more easily defined than understood. That “inner drive . . . that causes a person to do something or act in a certain way” is always a matter of debate among people. Motivation is what causes you to take action, whether it is completing a homework assignment or showing up for work on Monday morning.

Why is motivation important?

Motivation is what drives us towards our goals and create the life that we want for ourselves. Motivation makes you stop asking questions and take actions that work you towards your goals.

Goals are the stepping stones toward your dreams so in order to achieve them, you need motivation to keep you chugging along towards them.

What is motivation?

The definition of motivation starts with the root word, motive. Webster’s Dictionary defines motive as, something that causes a person to act. Therefore, motivation can be defined as, the act of providing motive that causes someone to act. In other words, motivation causes someone to act and someone else cannot influence another person’s motivation.

Motivated and unmotivated are not opposites, but instead, there are deeply rooted factors that could cause someone to be unmotivated, such as life experiences and attitudes towards a specific task.

Extrinsic Motivation and Intrinsic Motivation

Different types of motivation are frequently described as being either extrinsic or intrinsic. 

Extrinsic motivations are those that arise from outside of the individual and often involve rewards such as trophies, money, social recognition, or praise. 

Intrinsic motivations are those that arise from within the individual, such as doing a complicated crossword puzzle purely for the personal gratification of solving a problem.

Components of Motivation

Before we start in on the science behind motivation we need to understand the three major components that all theories of motivation have in common: activation, persistence, and intensity.

Activation: This is the decision phase of motivation. You decide to initiate a certain behavior, such as googling “What is motivation?”.

Persistence: This is an ongoing effort you put in to move towards your goal. So you research hack to increase motivation and learn about self efficacy even though all the scientific talk gets boring.

Intensity: This is how you take those motivation hacks you learned and implement them. Perhaps you set more achievable and specific goals, get up 15 minutes earlier, and time block your working hours. Intensity is how you far you take the efforts you put in.

Scientific Theories of Motivation

There are many different theories that try and help explain motivation. Scientists have been studying the topic of motivation for over a century and have made tremendous progress for explaining motivation.

The following are some theories that have been proven and accepted by society. These include Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Herzberg’s two-factor theory, the Hawthorne Effect, Three-Dimensional Theory of Attribution, Expectancy Theory, and Self Efficacy Theory.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

The Hierarchy of Needs theory was coined by psychologist Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation”. The just of the theory is that individuals’ most basic needs must be met before they become motivated to achieve higher level needs.

The hierarchy is made up of 5 levels:

Physiological – these needs must be met in order for a person to survive, such as food, water and shelter.

Safety – including personal and financial security and health and wellbeing.

Love/belonging – the need for friendships, relationships and family.

Esteem – the need to feel confident and be respected by others.

Self-actualisation – the desire to achieve everything you possibly can and become the most that you can be.

Image result for maslow’s hierarchy of needs

According to the hierarchy of needs, you must be in good health, safe and secure with meaningful relationships and confidence before you are able to be the most that you can be.

Hawthorne Effect

The Hawthorne Effect was first described by Henry A. Landsberger in 1950 who noticed a tendency for some people to work harder and perform better when they were being observed by researchers.

The researchers changed a number of physical conditions over the course of the experiments including lighting, working hours and breaks. In all cases, employee productivity increased when a change was made. The researchers concluded that employees became motivated to work harder as a response to the attention being paid to them, rather than the actual physical changes themselves.

Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory

The Two-Factor Theory of motivation (otherwise known as dual-factor theory or motivation-hygiene theory) was developed by psychologist Frederick Herzberg in the 1950s.

Analysing the responses of 200 accountants and engineers who were asked about their positive and negative feelings about their work, Herzberg found 2 factors that influence employee motivation and satisfaction…

Motivator factors – Simply put, these are factors that lead to satisfaction and motivate employees to work harder. Examples might include enjoying your work, feeling recognised and career progression.

Hygiene factors – These factors can lead to dissatisfaction and a lack of motivation if they are absent. Examples include salary, company policies, benefits, relationships with managers and co-workers.

According to Herzberg’s findings, while motivator and hygiene factors both influenced motivation, they appeared to work completely independently of each other…

Three-Dimensional Theory of Attribution

Bernard Weiner’s Three-Dimensional theory of attribution assumes that people try to determine why we do what we do. According to Weiner, the reasons we attribute to our behaviour can influence how we behave in the future.

Weiner theorised that specific attributions (e.g. bad luck, not studying hard enough) were less important than the characteristics of that attribution. According to Weiner, there are three main characteristics of attributions that can affect future motivation.

Stability – how stable is the attribution? For example, if the student believes they failed the exam because they weren’t smart enough, this is a stable factor. An unstable factor is less permanent, such as being ill.

Locus of control – was the event caused by an internal or an external factor?

Controllability – how controllable was the situation? If an individual believes they could have performed better, they may be less motivated to try again in the future than someone who believes they failed because of factors outside of their control.

Expectancy Theory

Expectancy Theory proposes that people will choose how to behave depending on the outcomes they expect as a result of their behavior. In other words, we decide what to do based on what we expect the outcome to be. At work, it might be that we work longer hours because we expect a pay rise.

Expectancy Theory is based on three elements:

Expectancy – the belief that your effort will result in your desired goal. This is based on your past experience, your self confidence and how difficult you think the goal is to achieve.
Instrumentality – the belief that you will receive a reward if you meet performance expectations.
Valence – the value you place on the reward.

Therefore, according to Expectancy Theory, people are most motivated if they believe that they will receive a desired reward if they hit an achievable target. They are least motivated if they don’t want the reward or they don’t believe that their efforts will result in the reward.

Self Efficacy Theory

Perhaps the most important and relevant scientific theory is Self Efficacy Theory. Self-efficacy is defined as people’s beliefs about their capabilities to produce designated levels of performance that exercise influence over events that affect their lives.

Self-efficacy beliefs determine how people feel, think, motivate themselves and behave. Such beliefs produce these diverse effects through four major processes. They include cognitive, motivational, affective and selection processes.

A strong sense of efficacy enhances human accomplishment and personal well-being in many ways. People with high assurance in their capabilities approach difficult tasks as challenges to be mastered rather than as threats to be avoided.

Such an positive outlook increases personal accomplishments, reduces stress and lowers vulnerability to depression.

Myths About Motivation

There are many myths and misconceptions about what motivates us and how we can increase motivation. Here are just a few:

Fear does not increase motivation.

Fear of punishment can definitely inspire action, but often only for a brief period of time. Rewards can be tricky as well, but research has shown that positive reinforcement is usually a more effective strategy than fear and punishments when it comes to boosting motivation.

Money is not the ultimate motivator.

For some people, money can be a great motivating factor but most people see money as the holy grail for motivation, while overlooking other more influential factors.

If you take a job because it pays great, but brush off the fact that it has horrible hours, a long commute, high stress, and a cell phone that is constantly ringing after hours will the great money really be worth it in the end?

Research has even shown that people who are primarily motivated by money tend to suffer from worse mental health throughout their lives.

Rewarding talent while ignoring effort wont spark motivation.

Psychologist Carol Dweck suggests that focusing on natural talents rather than efforts can shut down motivation. If you believe that talents are something that you are born with it can lead to the belief that no amount of effort can change the results. This is an example of a fixed mindset.

A growth mindset, would be the belief that people can change and develop abilities through effort and dedication. This can be a much more motivating approach and one way to develop this mindset is to praise efforts rather than talents.

Motivation does not cause action.

We often think that if we watch a motivational video or read an inspirational book then it will spark some motivation in us and then we will take action. Motivation is often the result of action, not the cause of it.

Getting started, even in very small ways, is a form of active inspiration that naturally produces momentum. Similar to Newton’s Law of Physics, objects in motion stay in motion, once we start a task, it is easier to continue and finish that task.

Smart people need motivation too.

Most people believe that being smart is the best way to guarantee success, but researchers have repeatedly found that intelligence is not always a predictor of success.

In Lewis Terman’s famous longitudinal study of gifted kids, some of the most intelligent individuals later went on to lead very average lives void of any great accomplishments. You might be smart, but that doesn’t mean that motivation won’t play a role in your future successes.

How to Get Motivated

We could debate about the best way to get people motivated until we are blue in the face and we still wouldn’t have reached an consensus. There are so many tips, tricks, and old wives tales but how do you know what really works to increase motivation?

If your motivation is at an all time low, here are five science backed ways to get a boost of motivation and get you moving again.

1. Set a Deadline.

A lot of times procrastination and lack of motivation seem to accompany each other. Sometimes it is hard to get motivated when we still have weeks to get a work or school project done.

This is why science says it can be helpful to set your deadlines in days, rather than weeks or months. So, rather than telling yourself that your report is due in one month, establish a deadline of 30 days.

According to the research, setting your deadlines this way better connects your future self to your present self, which will inspire you to start working — even in those moments when you feel totally unmotivated.

2. Break it down into smaller tasks.

If you stare into the kitchen and see that the counters are full of food that needs put away, trash, kids school papers, dirty dishes, random toys, unopened mail, and a sink full of dirty dishes it is easy to get overwhelmed and just say screw it.

Then you may wind up on the couch with a glass of wine and Netflix.

While I love wine and Netflix, I seriously need to clean my kitchen. So instead of scanning the entire kitchen, making a to do list in my head. Ill just focus on the unopened mail. Once that is dealt with i will focus only on throwing away garage. Then maybe putting the food back in the pantry.

Science has shown that it is better to start off with smaller more manageable tasks.

Why? When you’re feeling low on motivation, research says that you need to get yourself into a flow state, which happens when you become so involved with your work that nothing else seems to exist. When you’re in a flow state, you’re totally focused and performing your best.

However, it’s not something that you can just dive right into. So, by getting started with tho se bite-sized, easier to accomplish tasks, you’ll give yourself the opportunity to ease into “get shit done mode.”

3. Set a timer. (TIME BLOCKING)

When you’re already feeling unfocused and uninspired, the thought of needing to suffer through work for hours on end can often seem daunting. But, the good news is this: You shouldn’t plan to do that anyway.

As it turns out, working only for a set amount of time with short breaks in between is much better for your motivation and productivity.

Whether you want to utilize a system like the Pomodoro Technique or take a cue from science and work for 52 minutes with a 17-minute break, splitting your work time into smaller chunks will make the whole process seem far less daunting.

Also, while taking breaks might seem unproductive when you have a lot to do, it turns out science is on your side there as well. There are plenty of benefits associated with giving your brain a quick rest — including better memory.

4. Phone a Friend.

If you still cant muster up any motivation, it may be time to phone a friend and ask them to hold you to your goals. Surprisingly, telling someone about our deadlines and stress increases our own motivation and may just be the kick in the ass we needed.

In fact, a study conducted by Dr. Gail Matthews — a psychology professor at Dominican University in California — found that participants were 33% more likely to actually accomplish their goals when they wrote them down, shared them with another person, and then checked in with regular progress updates.

We all need a little help every now and then. So, don’t hesitate to lean on other people when you require some added accountability.

5. Harness Negative Motivations

Now this one is often seen as the least warm and fuzzy but also the most effective.

Envision a world where all your work projects are complete, your house is sparkling, your kids are playing together nicely, and your spouse thinks you hung the moon every night.

How do you feel? Pretty good right…relaxed even.

Now envision getting fired from your job, having cockroaches for roommates (since you lost your job, you have no money for an exterminator), one kid is in detention and the other has already been expelled, and your spouse despises you tell you how worthless you are.

Now how do you feel? Did the get shit done mode kick in yet?

The point is, negative motivation is much more powerful than positive motivation.

When a grizzly bear is chasing you, you don’t imagine yourself laying down in the grass, all grateful for all the beautiful nature around you.


At that time, you’re just trying to survive and you give it all your effort. Your motivation level has skyrocketed!

When you harness that kind of attitude and energy toward your other life goals and not just surviving a grizzly bear attack, then nothing will be able to stop you.

Principles for Sustaining Motivation and Avoid Burnout

The challenge of sustaining long term motivation and avoiding motivational burnout is a very real challenge for most people. 

Motivational burnout is most commonly seen as: emotional exhaustion, feeling that you are starting the day tired;  depersonalization and strained relationships; and reduced satisfaction and that your work is meaningless.

The best way to approach this challenge is to develop responses to use during the tasks to sustain your motivation and stave off motivational burnout. Here are a few key principles to help you out. 

1. Make self-care part of you daily routine.

It is easy to get wrapped up in taking care of everything and everyone else before ourselves. Avoid treating your car or your house better than you treat yourself. Remember the instructions from the flight attendants, put the oxygen mask on yourself before you assist others. 

Try to add some self care activities to your routine. If you are feeling guilty about taking time for yourself sit back and ask yourself why you are feeling this guilt. You should never feel guilty for taking care of yourself so that you can better take care of others.

Remember self care and self indulgence are different. Getting adequate sleep, eating right, and taking time to go for a walk are excellent ways to put yourself first. 

2. Seperate what you can control from what you can’t. 

This is Imperative for life in general, and to practice in work in particular. You must must be able to separate the things you can control from those you cannot.

A key to success for recovering alcoholics is the ongoing serenity prayer for wisdom to make this distinction as well as strength to change some things and courage to accept others.

3. Understand the difference between being successful and just following the rules.

Success has different meaning for different people. What does success mean to you? Examine what success really will look like in your own life and make sure that your actions are in line with those goals.

Don’t just follow the rules because that is what you are “supposed” to do. 

4. Know your limitations. 

Knowing your limitations means at least three things. One: you will not sabotage the things you do well by taking on tasks for which you are marginally capable. Two: you will not neglect your responsibilities by taking on someone else’s obligations. Three: you will admit to being a limited resource and needing encouragement and advice to do your work optimally. Friends and colleagues provide such support.

5. Have a life outside of work.

Journalist Richard Cohen (2004, 222) has written, “Careers evolve into jobs, and sooner or later it becomes apparent to most of us that there is a lot more to life than professional recognition.”

Do you have relationships and recreational activities that physically and intellectually provide a rest from work? If you don’t, then do you ever really get a break from work?

6. Respond to the symptoms.

If you are showing some of the signs of motivational burnout, take action immediately. A saying among mental health professionals is: “Denial is not just a river that flows through Egypt.” The mere suspicion of burnout ought to be taken seriously and addressed.


It is important to understand at least a little about the psychology that drives our motivations and actions.

Once you understand what contribute to someones motivating factors you can make tweaks and manipulations in various areas to achieve the desired outcome. From parenting to work, to cleaning the damn house. Figure out lights your fire and harness it.

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