Get Motivated!

I don’t even think about the prospect of not winning – it never occurs to me. I really am that confident.

– Daley Thompson, Olympic gold medallist

Now, get motivated!

If only it were that easy.

Daley Thompson is perhaps one of my most admired sportspeople, but even he must surely have felt unmotivated at times. How often have you felt like you don’t have the energy for a task or meeting, or encountered a colleague or employee who seems to feel the same? This lack of ‘drive’ impacts both individuals and organisations in terms of productivity and well-being, so it comes as no surprise that vast resources are ploughed into coaching and motivational speaking in an attempt to improve motivation.

Motivation is a particularly complex topic in the field of psychology and solving motivational problems is way beyond the scope of one article, but I hope to give here a brief outline of current thinking in motivational theory and then to suggest a couple of quick and effective strategies that you can use to improve your own motivation and that of others around you.

Motivation is hard to define. A common understanding is that it is some sort of ‘drive to action’. A mouse seeing a piece of cheese, is driven to eat the cheese, for example. But motivation depends on more than just the stimuli in our environment. If the mouse has already eaten, for example, then the cheese is no longer such a motivating factor. It seems obvious then that motivation must have both an external and internal component. University of Birmingham’s Professor of Sports Psychology Joan Duda describes how motivation depends on ‘some malleable, psychological tendencies’ as well as on ‘aspects of the environment’. So, in fact, your perceived ability to do something may actually be more important to consider in exploring motivation than environment. There are currently three popular theoretical constructs that deal with motivation and perceptions of ability: the concept of self-efficacy; achievement goal frameworks; and self-determination theory.

Bandura first coined the term ‘self-efficacy’ in 1986 as a person’s own beliefs about ‘how up to a task’ they are. He argued that these beliefs impact on future thought patterns, responses and action and that greater self-efficacy correlates with positive motivation. No single factor has proven a better predictor of self-efficacy than past performance. In other words, if you have done something well before, you are more likely to believe that you can do well at it again.

What can I do?

1. Success breeds success. Rather than tackle a difficult task immediately, try to break it down in to manageable chunks that get progressively more difficult. Initial successes will be conducive to developing positive self-efficacy, thereby leading to greater motivation.

2. Visualisation. Running through prospective tasks in your mind beforehand can increase self-efficacy by increasing perceived familiarity with a task. Rehearsing a particularly difficult conversation with a colleague in your mind before you have it should leave you feeling more confident, for example.

3. Persuasion. Having a significant other tell you that you can do something well can have tremendous impact. This may be a coach, a manager or a close friend. When encouragement comes from a trusted source then we are more likely to believe in our own capability.

However, self-efficacy doesn’t tell the whole story. For example, it is quite possible for people to have low self-efficacy and yet still be highly motivated. You might have entered a 5 mile road race before. How did you feel beforehand? Perhaps quite unsure of your ability but still full of motivation to do it? This is because the criteria that are used to define competence vary for different people. What becomes important here is how people decide they have been successful or not. Measuring our achievement means comparing it to some sort of goal or standard. According to Nicholls, these goals may be task or ego driven. Task goals centre on how well a task can be achieved in and of itself. In contrast, ego goals involve how well a task can be done in comparison to others. Since task-oriented goals do not depend on the performance of others, people tend to maintain motivation levels regardless of their perceived ability. Though ego-oriented goals can be highly motivating when ability is perceived to be better than others, they can be hugely damaging to motivation when perceived ability is inferior to competitors.

What can I do?

1. Does your workplace have the right ‘motivational climate’? Researchers in sport psychology have shown that a task-oriented environment is associated with enhanced motivation patterns when compared with an ego-involved one. A setting that promotes cooperation, rewards effort and values everyone’s contribution – regardless of ability – will promote development of high motivation.

Self-determination theory (SDT) was developed by Ryan and Deci in the early 2000s. Arranged on a continuum from amotivation through extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation, SDT explores the reasons why people choose to be motivated about something. If someone is motivated by extrinsic factors, then they are driven by the prospect of external rewards (a bonus, for example) or an internal reward and punishment system (if I finish this report, then I will treat myself to a take-out dinner, for example). Someone who is motivated intrinsically performs an activity because of the inherent enjoyment of the activity (producing music for the love of music, perhaps). Research so far does seem to support the idea that higher intrinsic motivation is linked with greater psychological well-being.

What can I do?

1. Try to avoid action-reward scenarios. Rewarding behaviours, say with bonuses, will increase levels of extrinsic motivation. This creates a situation where such behaviours are only demonstrated when the prospect of a reward exists. Setting goals that are performance rather than outcome based will encourage the development of a more self-deterministic approach.

So what have we learned? We know now that our state of mind is as important for motivation – if not more – than the environmental stimuli around us. Our own belief in our ability, or self-efficacy, is an important factor in motivation, and there is no better way to build self-efficacy than through repeated successes. We have also seen how orientation to task affects motivation. Being competitive with others can be a tremendous motivator, but it can also easily have the opposite effect. When we are oriented to successfully perform the task itself, then our performance relative to others is less important and it is easier to maintain motivation. Finally, we also saw the distinction between internal and external motivation. Being externally rewarded can only motivate people so far – meaningful motivation really comes from being able to self-determine your own reward through simply participating.

I hope that helps, now go get motivated!

– The neuropsyguy –


Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2002). Handbook of self-determination research. University Rochester Press.

Duda, J. L., & Treasure, D. C. (2010). Motivational processes and the facilitation of quality engagement in sport. Applied Sport Psychology: Personal Growth to Peak Performance, 59–80.

Nicholls, J. G. (1989). The competitive ethos and democratic education. Harvard University Press.


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