Motivation: Why We Do What We Do

Posted by | Sep 6, 2013

As summer draws to a close and preparations for September studies begin, academic ambitions fill the air. Ambitions of “trying harder” and “accomplishing more,” are held by adults and adolescents alike, as each resolves to make this new school year better than their last.  Unfortunately, this resolve – similar to that found in the early weeks of January - rarely lasts, and individuals who start the year out strong lapse back into former under-productive routines and habits by Thanksgiving. The academic ambitions that first filled the air come to be replaced by a new sound, a refrain of “How can I motivate myself do better?” And herein lies the problem.

In his book, “Why we do what we do,” psychologist Edward Deci explores the nature of individual motivation and unpacks the components necessary for individuals to become and stay motivated. Motivation, as Deci notes, can come from external sources (i.e., coercion, reward, etc.) or internal ones (an intrinsic desire held by the individual themselves). Attempting to motivate through external means is by far the most common approach employed by parents; “do your chores our you’re grounded,” educators; “do your homework or you’ve got detention,” and even individuals themselves; “if I study for 4 hours, I can hang out with my friends on Friday.” Unfortunately, attempts to motivate through external means are not only woefully ineffective but have also been shown to decrease motivation in individuals. This is because motivation is not something that gets done to people, but rather is something that people do. True motivation that is prolonged and sincere cannot be imposed onto a person but must come from within. Internal or ‘intrinsic’ motivation is more effective and likely to be maintained than external forms, because it allows individuals to engage in action out of a feeling of sincere want instead of obligation, anxiety, or fear. Instead of asking, “How can I motivate myself?” individuals should instead be asking, “How can I foster intrinsic motivation?”

The following are some suggestions that are found to be helpful:

1)Allow for choice

Choice is crucial to self-determination and autonomy. Because of this fact, whether or not we have a say in how we do things goes a long way towards deciding whether or not things get done. When individuals are allowed the ability to choose for themselves the approach taken, they recognize that their sense of autonomy is being respected and engage in action out of a feeling of genuine want and not obligation. Personalizing your approach can make even the most boring and tedious of tasks more pleasurable and, therefore, more likely to be completed.

2)Take Pride in the Process

Too often we measure our progress and accomplishment by largely arbitrary measurements defined by people separate from ourselves. Grades, earnings, personal statistics, and similar numeric assessors are all forms of external motivation and, therefore, largely inefficient. If an individual studies to “get an A” and proceeds to study but only obtains a “B–,” that student is less likely to study as hard for the second test, and will lapse back into old habits. However, should an individual seek to “study more effectively” or “increase the time put to studying by an hour,” they are vastly more likely to maintain and build upon the initial behavior.

3)Make it Personally Meaningful

Regardless of the importance of the task, one will only maintain motivation if they find personal resonance in the pursuit. While carrot-and-stick motivational techniques yield short-term results, their long-term detriment far outweighs any benefit wrought. Rather than force oneself into an ill-fitting pursuit, environment, or ethos it is better to reroute and explore alternative options. This may mean selecting new courses, taking a gap-year, or reframing short and long-term ambitions and the timeline for accomplishing them. Ultimately, no one can make an individual do something they are sincerely opposed to doing. Accepting personal choice and allowing for the freedom to find personal satisfaction in a pursuit is not only requisite to maintaining motivation, but to maintaining happiness as well.