Motivation is the desire to act in service of a goal. It’s the crucial element in setting and attaining one’s objectives.
A lack of motivation can be a major impediment to achieve fulfilment in our personal lives and relationships.
Most people want to change at least one thing in their life. But it can be challenging to find the motivation just to make a start. It helps to understand what motivation means to you so you can find your own ways to get motivated.
Motivation is the drive to achieve your goals or needs. It is influenced by:
- how much you want the goal
- what you will gain
- your personal expectations
Motivation is defined as the process that initiates, guides, and maintains goal-oriented behaviours. Motivation is what causes you to act, whether it is getting a glass of water to reduce thirst or reading a book to gain knowledge.
In everyday usage, the term motivation is frequently used to describe why a person does something. For example, you might say that a student is so motivated to get into her desired course at university that she spends every night studying.
Motivation is the “why” behind human actions. It doesn’t just refer to the factors that activate behaviours; it also involves the factors that direct and maintain these goal-directed actions. Such motives are rarely directly observable. Instead, people have to infer the reasons why people do the things that they do based on observable behaviours.1
What are the things that actually motivate us to act? Psychologists have proposed different theories to explain the motivation:
- Instincts: The instinct theory of motivation suggests that behaviours are motivated by instincts, which are fixed and inborn patterns of behaviour.4 Psychologists including William James, Sigmund Freud, and William McDougal have proposed a number of basic human drives that motivate behaviour. Such instincts might include biological instincts that are important for an organism’s survival such as fear, cleanliness, and love.
- Drives and Needs: Many of your behaviorus such as eating, drinking, and sleeping are motivated by biology. You have a biological need for food, water, and sleep. Therefore, you are motivated to eat, drink, and sleep. Drive theory suggests that people have basic biological drives and that behaviours are motivated by the need to fulfil these drives.5
- Arousal Levels: The arousal theory of motivation suggests that people are motivated to engage in behaviours that help them maintain their optimal level of arousal.2 A person with low arousal needs might pursue relaxing activities such as reading a book, while those with high arousal needs might be motivated to engage in exciting, thrill-seeking behaviours, such as motorcycle racing.
- Set goals. When you set a goal, you make a decision to act in a way that will help you achieve what you want. Goals give you a direction to focus on – one that’s measurable and has an endpoint. This can help you to stay motivated.
- Choose goals that interest you. You’re much more likely to stay motivated if you’re working towards something that you genuinely want to do or achieve, rather than what other people want for you.
- Find things that interest you within goals that don’t. Sometimes other people set goals or tasks for us that we don’t find interesting or want to do. So, try and find something within that task that does motivate you. For example: ‘I hate maths, but it’s going to help me become a builder, which I want more than anything.’
- Make your goal public. If you tell someone – or write down – your goal, you’ve essentially made a promise to keep your word.
- Plot your progress. When you’re working towards something, it can be really motivating if you can see evidence that you’re making progress. Draw or create a visual representation of how you’re coming closer to achieving the goal you’ve set yourself.
- Break up your goal. Start with easier tasks and work your way up to bigger challenges. Breaking up a task in your mind into achievable chunks helps build confidence.
- Use rewards. Promise yourself some sort of reward each time you complete a step/task.
- Don’t do it alone. Join a class, or find a teacher or someone you can share the experience with. Other people’s encouragement to keep going can be a big boost to your motivation, particularly when you’re doing it tough.
Lack of motivation can result in procrastination, not working toward goals, and oftentimes, depression or other mental health issues.
The problem with motivation is that we feel very inspired when it is present, so much so that we feel it is too difficult to put forth effort when motivation is absent. The result is that we often wait for motivation to inspire us to work toward our goals, and as a result waste a lot of time waiting for it to happen on its own. The more we wait, the more time goes by in which we don’t feel we are doing what matters, and we can easily become demoralised. It is incredibly difficult to become motivated when we are demoralised, so we wait some more…
The following treatment methods are available to help improve motivation:
CBT offers an effective treatment for low motivation. It involves a combination of changing thinking patterns that result in the aforementioned cycle, and changing behavioural patterns. These changes result in both increased motivation and increased accomplishment. By changing thinking and behavioural patterns that keep people stuck, cognitive behavioural therapy helps people get on track with their goals, and in a relatively short amount of time.
CBT for improving motivation may include some combination of the following interventions:
Cognitive restructuring: Cognitive restructuring is a method to identify unhelpful patterns of thinking, and learn new, more helpful ways of thinking about difficult situations. Getting stuck in the cycle of lack of motivation can leave us feeling hopeless, and helpless. Cognitive restructuring reverses this cycle by altering the way we think about things to increase our belief in our abilities.
Behavioural chain analysis: Chain analysis is a tool to assess what factors are contributing to behaviours we have had difficulty changing, and target them with effective behavioural interventions. By removing or limiting the influence of the causes of ineffective behaviour, we become significantly more likely to make changes that were previously too difficult.
Contingency management procedures: Contingency management works off the principle that human beings tend to do what is immediately reinforcing, and avoid what is immediately punishing, no matter the long-term consequences. Contingency management planning for motivation helps people shift the balance of the consequences of their behaviour so that their desired behaviour becomes more immediately reinforcing, and thus easier to do.
Anti-procrastination training: Anti-procrastination training uses a combination of contingency management and specific techniques to stop procrastination in its tracks. Waiting until we are motivated to do something is a form of procrastination, and can result in decreased motivation over time.
Systematic exposure: Exposure therapy works on the theory that avoidance of situations we fear prevents us from realistically evaluating whether they are as bad as we assume. By exposing ourselves to situations we would otherwise avoid, we learn that they are not as bad as assumed, and thus our anxiety about them diminishes. Using exposure to help us master what causes anxiety can help us increase our motivation to do what has previously been aversive.
Mindfulness training: Mindfulness is a skill designed to help people contact the present moment, and not get so caught up in thoughts and worries. By seeing mental activity as merely events, we become more able to engage in skilful behaviour, despite feeling unmotivated.
Motivational Interviewing (MI)
MI is a counselling method that helps people resolve ambivalent feelings and insecurities to find the internal motivation they need to change their behaviour. It is a practical, empathetic, and short-term process that takes into consideration how difficult it is to make life changes.
MI is often used to address addictions, anger problems and the management of physical health conditions. This intervention helps people become motivated to change the behaviours that are preventing them from making healthier choices. It can also prepare individuals for further, more specific types of therapies.
Research has shown that this intervention works well with individuals who start off unmotivated or unprepared for change. It is less useful for those who are already motivated to change. MI is also appropriate for people who are angry or hostile. They may not be ready to commit to change, but MI can help them move through the emotional stages of change necessary to find their motivation.
Nevid JS. Psychology: Concepts and Applications. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning; 2013.
Hockenbury DH, Hockenbury SE. Discovering Psychology. Macmillan; 2010.
Zhou Y, Siu AF. Motivational intensity modulates the effects of positive emotions on set shifting after controlling physiological arousal. Scand J Psychol. 2015;56(6):613-21. doi:10.1111/sjop.12247
Myers DG. Exploring Social Psychology. New York, NY: McGraw Hill Education, 2015.
Siegling AB, Petrides KV. Drive: theory and construct validation. PLoS One. 2016;11(7):e0157295. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0157295
Tranquillo J, Stecker M. Using intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in continuing professional education. Surg Neurol Int. 2016;7(Suppl 7):S197-9. doi:10.4103/2152-7806.179231
- Nevid JS. Psychology: Concepts and Applications. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning; 2013.
If you feel that a lack of motivation is impacting on your ability to enjoy life, a Life Psychologist may be able to help.
- Life Psychologists are highly trained and qualified professionals, skilled in providing effective interventions for a range of mental health concerns, including motivation.
- A Life Psychologist can help you to identify and address factors that might be contributing to your low motivation and the most effective ways to increase motivation using techniques based on best available research.
- Life Psychologists usually see clients individually, but can also include family members to support treatment where appropriate.
A medical check-up with a GP might also be helpful to see if there is an underlying health issue.