Motivating yourself and others

What is motivation?

Motivation has the same root as the word motive. As such, it is best described as the various phenomena that give us a motive to do something. A motivation to eat, therefore, might be feeling hungry. Psychologists try to explain how people behave largely by what motivates them. In theories of leadership, for instance, motivation is often used to give people a reason to do something, such as offering a reward for success. For many people, however, being motivated is something that comes from within, a sort of self-drive, if you will. As such, there are both conscious and unconscious forms of motivation.

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 What psychological theories behind motivation are there?

 In short, many different psychological theories try to explain what motivates us and how motivation can be applied. One is called intrinsic motivation which states that people work out what it is that gives them the most inner reward regardless of external factors. Extrinsic explanations, on the other hand, tend to focus on rewards, such as being paid. Incentive theory includes the principles of extrinsic motivation but does not just look at tangible rewards but intangible ones, too, such as social acceptance and reward through habit. Some sociological theories of motivational behaviour are similar, emphasising the importance of positive feedback from others when working towards a goal.

Which incentives are good for motivation?

This depends very much on the individual you are trying to motivate and the task at hand. Money may be something that motivates one person a lot, whereas someone else is not at all driven by a monetary reward, for example. However, a very long and arduous task is unlikely to be undertaken if the monetary reward for it does not match its nature. Many people will reward themselves in some way once they achieve their goal. Some leaders and managers, therefore, simply ask the person they want to motivate what will work in their case. Usually, a mixture of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation leads to the best outcomes.

How are motivation and emotion linked?

When we are properly motivated to do something, we can feel more zip in our stride and a greater urgency to perform the assignment in front of us. This is an emotive reaction to the task at hand that is often outside of our conscious thought. When you are motivated not to do something, such as giving up smoking or quitting a similar habit, emotions are also at play. Guilt, for example, when you don't stick to your task can motivate you to try again with greater effort. Also, the feeling of pride when we feel like we are doing something well can motivate us to keep at it and try even harder.

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When motivation is low, what can you do?

If you find yourself lethargic and unable to find the strength or will to motivate yourself, then try breaking your goal down into smaller, achievable tasks that work towards an endpoint. Don't indulge yourself or wallow in your situation, no matter how miserable you might feel. Do something else, such as going for a brisk walk, and settle to your task later. Sometimes a little break can clear your head and make you come back with more energy and motivation. Low motivation can sometimes be linked to conditions like depression, especially if you have other symptoms like poor self-image. Seek professional help if that applies to you and don't suffer in silence.

How does motivation affect performance?

Simply put, being motivated will mean that your performance improves. This is why being motivated is so desirable in the fields of commerce and sport, for example. People who know what drives them and channel it into their performance will often achieve more than under-motivated people. Interestingly, this is often the case even when motivated people have less skill or knowledge to fall back on. In other words, most business people and sports coaches would prefer to have a driven individual working for them or playing in their team than a highly skilled person who lacks the self-motivation to perform at a high level. If you look at your own productivity, you will probably notice there are some days when you get on with the tasks at hand and keep going because everything feels like it is making progress or going the right way. On other occasions, we might find simple tasks onerous and error-strewn even when we complete them. This is usually because we have not been properly motivated in the first place.

How is motivation driven by purpose?

As you have already read, there is usually something behind what makes us feel motivated, be it a physical response like hunger or a more intellectual desire, such as the inclination to be a success. In the end, it is the end purpose that is, itself, the driver for the sense of motivation we feel. In other words, if the purpose of people and animals is to survive and reproduce successfully, then what motivates them might be the ability to find a mate, to hoard resources, to make and defend a shelter and to eat enough to get through the winter. In this sense, being motivated is simply a natural state that is built into many species, including humans, to continue to thrive. Of course, in modern human societies, there are many cultural aspects that surround being motivated, too, but in the final analysis, they are all driven by central purposes that are quite basic.

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Can motivation be taught?

Given that being motivated comes from a deep and almost primaeval need to fulfil basic purposes in life, you might reasonably assume that it is innate and consequently not a matter of learning. Nevertheless, this is not the full story, because it is the basic purposes behind being motivated that are so fundamental to us, not motivation itself. As such, you can teach people to be more motivated than they otherwise would be. It is simply a question of finding what drives one individual to fulfil their basic purposes. Some people do this by discussing their most important desires and working out why these things – and not others – are motivational. Others teach motivational techniques by getting people to make creative choices about goal setting so that they are always rewarding themselves as they make progress.

How do psychotherapy and motivation interconnect?

Motivational ideas and some psychotherapies intersect with one another under certain schools of psychoanalytical thought. One uses the perceived lack of self-motivation among people with autism spectrum disorder, for example. In this approach, patients are motivated by their psychotherapist to become more engaged with societal norms. The idea is that it is a lack of motivational stimuli among such patients that accounts for some of their behavioural symptoms. In other cases, phobias have been treated using motivational techniques, such as encouraging people to face their fears. By being motivated to do so, the cause of the phobia is theoretically normalised, thereby treating the condition. It is important to add that not all psychotherapists take the same approach when dealing with these sorts of conditions, however.

Can motivation be negative?

Although being motivated is generally viewed as a positive thing which is there to enable desirable outcomes, it is just as possible to be motivated by negative emotions as positive ones. For example, someone may be incentivised by their boss to work late into the night to achieve a certain goal by a set deadline. It could be that the boss says there will be a big bonus upon delivery of the workload or that a promotion may be possible if the project is completed on time. These would be positive motivators. However, if, in this example, the boss were to say that the company might go out of business if the job isn't completed quickly or that the person will face the sack if they do a bad job, then these would be instances of negative motivators. Most psychologists agree that we are just as motivated by negative thoughts and emotions as positive ones and, in some cases, more so.

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Can you find motivation in quotations?

Many people find motivational and inspirational quotes and maxims to be beneficial. If you are looking for inspiration because you feel under-motivated, then it is certainly something worth trying. A motivational or uplifting quotation can alter your perspective and give you the kick-start you need to get going. If you don't find one that 'speaks' to you meaningfully, then you are not likely to have lost anything, after all. However, motivational quotations do not work for everyone. Some people find them a bit twee, and they can have the opposite effect, so only use them in the workplace if your team responds positively to them! If not, you may well find that performance starts to drop rather than peak as people become cynical about their use. That said, the judicious usage of motivational sayings can be a very positive thing for many people.

Why is motivation important in sport?

All sports psychologists recognise that being properly motivated is incredibly important in sports and physical activity of all kinds. This is especially the case in professional sport where peak performance needs to be maintained over very long playing seasons in some cases. As you have already read, motivation plays a big part in improving performance. It can also be just as crucial in maintaining it. Of course, for some sportspeople, being motivated is all about winning and the competitiveness that goes with that. However, some top sports stars who have already won a great deal can find that this becomes less motivational as their careers progress, so sports psychologists need to break down what it really is that drives them and to focus on those sorts of incentives. This is especially tricky in team sports when what motivates one player may be entirely different from that which affects a teammate.

Are motivation theories culture-bound?

Some people think that the main theories surrounding motivation are very bound up with certain cultures. For example, the US psychologist, Abraham Maslow's famous hierarchy of needs tends to describe behavioural motivators as starting with physiological needs, before moving onto safety, a sense of belonging, esteem and, finally, self-actualisation. Although this is a widespread theory, some critics say it comes from a world view that is very Westernised. Certainly, in cultures which honour ancestors or communal behaviour greatly, what motivates people tends to be very different from what might be considered the norm in much of the West. This is because what is driving people to behave in certain ways may not always be culturally similar depending on where in the world you happen to be.

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Motivation in summary

As a driver for behavioural responses, motivation can take many forms. As mentioned previously, a natural instinct to eat when food is available is something all animals will do, but we are even more motivated to do so when we are hungry. In this sense, the hunger itself is the motive to do something – to eat – that will help us to survive or gain strength. Other such motives include sexual desire which motivates us to reproduce. There again, people will often feel motivated by nest-building instincts because of the desire to look after those around them. In other words, being motivated is not always about self-preservation or self-betterment, especially in human societies which are highly social in their nature.

That said, although there are some fundamental motives that everyone feels to some extent – such as hunger or thirst, for example – people's sense of motivation differs. What might motivate you in the morning to get up and get going may not be the same thing that drives your partner, your friend or your neighbour. In order to motivate yourself or those around you, therefore, you need to find out what works and, perhaps more importantly, what does not. Otherwise, you will end up with some wishy-washy incentives that don't really work to provide true motivation.

Yes, there are a number of psychological and behavioural theories that surround the way we motivate one another, but it will often come down to trial and error with individuals you encounter if you want to motivate them. Empathy is a very helpful trait to have if you want to motivate others because it will help you to work out what is motivating them even if they have not fully identified it themselves yet. Managers and coaches without empathy tend to not perform as well with larger groups of people and will only end up working with individuals who have a similar mindset as one another.

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