Motivation is both a thought and a feeling. It is the desire to do something — an inner drive that keeps you going until you reach your goal. But the key to motivation is to not just keep these thoughts and feelings inside your head but actually to translate them into behaviour. A transformation which, in the best case scenario, causes you to take action, persevere in those actions and see them through to the end.

But motivation can often prove elusive. Sometimes you just can’t get started. You procrastinate. You give up halfway through. You are overcome with an apathetic sense of not being bothered. And because motivation is so complex, there are many reasons why we fail to get, or stay, motivated.

Weighing up the costs and benefits.

So what does motivation look like from the perspective of the brain? Well, one of the simplest frameworks that is used when talking about motivation is the idea of costs versus benefits. Similar to how you might think about economics. The idea is that for every goal, there are both expected benefits that you will receive by achieving a goal, and the expected costs that you will have to endure to achieve it.

And at a very simplistic level, when the benefits outweigh the costs then bingo, you have motivation.

But the catch is that these expected costs and benefits are multifactorial. There can be multiple benefits –  positive gains that you get from achieving your goal like feeling in a positive mood, a sense of satisfaction and self-worth, a feeling of progress, an increase in social status, or more tangible benefits, such as learning or financial gain. Similarly, there can be multiple costs. These can include things like how much effort you have to put in, how much time it will take, material costs, unwanted consequences along the way, or maybe even the fact that doing the task might cause you to miss out on alternative activities.

And so weighing up the costs and benefits isn’t always simple. What’s more, they can change from moment to moment, state to state. So what might seem like a key benefit in one context, might seem less important in another. You, therefore, can’t just compute all the possible costs and benefits and apply them in the same way to all situations and expect success. It doesn’t always work like that.

Also, the costs and benefits are also subjective. In other words, it isn’t the actual costs and benefits that matter; it is the way you think about those costs and benefits that are important. And this can vary from one person to the next depending on personality, capabilities, attitudes, social norms and past experiences. So what one person might see as a cost, another person might see as inconsequential. In essence, there isn’t a one size fits all approach to motivation. It is personal. Other things like the overall value of your goal (e.g. every day vs career), and the likelihood of you actually achieving the goal (e.g. how difficult it is) are also important factors within this framework.

Intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation

Another aspect of this framework is to divide up motivation regarding intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is when people engage in an activity because they find it interesting and inherently satisfying. Or, to take it further, intrinsic motivation is “the spontaneous tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise one’s capacity, to explore, and to learn”. In essence, the motivation comes from within you. In contrast, extrinsic motivation is when people engage in an activity to obtain some external reward (financial, social etc.) – in other words, you do it because of something external to you.

And while both types of reward are important (although in general intrinsic motivation is considered preferable), they can interact together in negative ways. For example, science suggests that if people are initially intrinsically motivated, then giving them some kind of tangible extrinsic reward can reduce their intrinsic motivation.

So based on this framework what can you do to increase your motivation? Here are nine ideas:

1. Manage your time and plan effectively. Time is precious, and wasting it unnecessarily with interruptions or procrastination makes it more difficult to find the time to achieve your actual goals. By planning effectively, you can help to reduce the time cost burden which can sometimes outweigh the expected benefits, and boost your motivation.

2. Don’t fall for delay discounting effects. Remember that goals far in the future are irrationally discounted as being of lesser value. Don’t fall for this inbuilt bias and instead compensate for it when you are motivating yourself for your longer-term goals.

3. Break big goals into smaller ones to make them less effortful. Motivation costs are often about effort. And a big job is often way more effort than a small one. Break big goals down into smaller ones to fragment your effort into manageable chunks and so adjust the way you weigh up the costs and benefits.

4. Foster learning, curiosity and enthusiasm. Remember that learning, curiosity and enthusiasm are all linked to motivation. Being interested and enthusiastic about the task helps to drive intrinsic motivation and fostering a mindset based around learning and opportunity, rather than success and failure means that you will find it easier to motivate yourself, as well as being more resilient to setbacks.

5. Capitalize on the restorative power of nature. Motivation doesn’t mean working flat out until you’ve completed your goal. It means planning how you are going to get from A to B, in a way that makes sure you actually effectively get to B. To this, you will need to take breaks along the way, and capitalizing on the restorative power of nature can help rejuvenate your focus. 

 6. Manage expectations. Motivation is based on expected costs and benefits. If your expectations are wildly unrealistic, then you will either be surprised or disappointed. By sitting down and considering the realistic costs and benefits of any goal, taking into account the context and your attitudes, you can set meaningful expectations and therefore avoid unforeseen consequences along the way.

7. Find ways to make the activity more fun. Not all goals are enjoyable, but finding a way to make them enjoyable helps to boost the benefit side of your cost-benefit motivation equation. Often people find that turning a task into a game immediately frames the activity differently and helps to tip the balance in favour of the benefits, rather than the costs.

8. Focus on the extrinsic benefits when necessary. Sometimes it is not enough to rely on intrinsic motivation, and we require extra encouragement from the outside. When you find yourself struggling for intrinsic motivation, write a list of the external benefits that you will get from doing the task as a motivation pick-me-up, focusing especially on how the benefit is personally relevant to you (i.e. to increase its value further).

9. Make alternative activities unattractive. One thing which can impact motivation is when there are potentially more enjoyable things that you could be doing (i.e. that require less effort or are more rewarding in the short term). Trying to focus on the negatives of these alternative activities, or making them more difficult to carry out for a certain period, can help to boost their perceived costs, making them seem less attractive.

If you would like to find out more about how to increase motivation in your organisation, then please get in touch with us as Synaptic Potential.