“The secret of getting ahead is getting started.”
But what happens if you can’t get started? Struggling with self-motivation is very common. We all have big things we’d like to achieve in our lives. But often we find it difficult to know where to start. We might want to learn to play the piano, but it’s difficult to motivate ourselves to try. It’s much easier to turn on Netflix and binge another season of Friends for the third time.
Unfortunately, though, when we aren’t achieving our goals, our mental health can suffer. So developing self-motivation can be a great way to improve our lives and get a mental boost.
The good news is, self-motivation is not something you’re born with (or not). In fact, you can learn to develop self-motivation and start working towards your personal goals. This article will help you understand:
- What self-motivation is (and what it isn’t)
- What stops us being self-motivated
- Seven steps to developing self-motivation
- Some tools and resource to help you build self-motivation
What is motivation?
We all have goals that we’d like to achieve – that’s part of being human. Whether we want to be a great parent, a successful artist, run a marathon, or win a promotion at the end of the year, we all have something that we’re striving towards. But not everyone finds it easy to work towards and achieve their goals. While certain people can happily jump out of bed at 6.15am for a spin class, some of us find it difficult to leave the sofa all Sunday after a long week at work.
Often, what divides these two groups is motivation. Psychologists define motivation as “the desire to act in service of a goal.” (1)
Motivation is what makes us get started and take action towards our goals. Daniel Goleman (2), an expert on emotional intelligence, states that there are four central aspects of motivation:
- Achievement drive
- Commitment to your own personal goals
People who are highly motivated display all of these traits and use them to pursue their goals. People who lack motivation may lack some or all of their traits. For example, they may not have a strong internal drive to achieve. Or they may be pessimistic about their own abilities and their chance of success.
What motivates us?
Put simply, we are motivated to do things that meet our biological and psychological needs. For example, we can be motivated to drink a glass of water because we feel thirsty. That’s an example of a basic biological need causing us to act in a certain way and achieve a goal.
But of course, motivation can be far more complicated too. What motivates a person to train to become an astronaut? Or devote their spare time to volunteer work? Or pursue a romantic relationship with a particular person? Because motivation is an internal process, it can be difficult to understand the exact motivation behind an individual’s behavior.
Motivation and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
One way to understand motivation is through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. (3) This famous research from 1943 presents all human needs on a hierarchy. Starting with the most basic biological needs, like food, water, and sleep, Maslow’s hierarchy moves through our need for security, our social needs, and our need for power. At the very top of the hierarchy is our need for self-actualization: personal development.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs helps us understand what motivates us. Nearly all goal-directed behavior helps us meet one of the requirements in the hierarchy. Think about the goals you’d like to work towards. Which needs on the hierarchy are you hoping to reach? For example, perhaps you are motivated to get a promotion because it will meet your basic needs for food and shelter. Alternatively, a promotion might fit your need for self-esteem and prestige. Finally, if you find your work really meaningful, a promotion may be a way to meet your need for self-actualization.
Intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation
So we’re motivated to meet certain needs by working towards our goals. But where does our motivation actually come from? There are many sources of motivation, and they can be split into two categories: extrinsic and intrinsic.
Extrinsic motivation is when we’re motivated by external rewards. That could mean money, prestige, praise, or good grades. It can also mean being motivated to avoid punishment or guilt. Extrinsic motivation can be very effective: not many of us would work a 40-hour week without some external reward. But relying on extrinsic motivation can be limiting.
Intrinsic motivation is what lies behind successful self-motivation. Intrinsic motivation “occurs when we act without any obvious external rewards. We simply enjoy an activity or see it as an opportunity to explore, learn, and actualize our potentials.” (4) Developing intrinsic motivation for activities is a much better way to stick at it, and in the long-term, achieve our goals. Intrinsic motivation will ultimately leave us feeling like our lives have more meaning.
What does self-motivation look like?
Self-motivated people are typically driven by intrinsic motivation. Whether they’re motivated to read more books, put in more hours at work, or devote more time to their family, they do it because they enjoy the internal reward of the activities. Typically, they don’t receive – or need – an external compensation for their behavior to feel good and stay committed to their goal.
This highlights a common myth about self-motivation. Lots of people think that to achieve your goals, you need to have lots of willpower. For example, if you want to stop eating sugary foods, you think you will need willpower and self-denial to deprive yourself of the enjoyable feeling of eating those foods.
But, research suggests that isn’t the case. In fact, what you need is to recognize and enjoy the intrinsic reward in not stuffing your face with cake and chocolate: like feeling healthier and perhaps losing weight. If you can enjoy that internal reward, you won’t find yourself relying entirely on willpower and self-discipline – and you’ll find it easier to stay motivated and focused on your goal.
How do we develop self-motivation?
Scott Geller, a leading researcher in the field of self-motivation, describes four things we need to be self-motivated:
- Consequences – we genuinely want the positive consequences of our actions
- Competence – we are capable of achieving our goal
- Choice – we feel that we are autonomy over our behavior
- Community – we are part of a supportive social group
You can watch Scott Geller’s TED Talk on The Psychology of Self-Motivation to find out more about these four Cs. His ideas tell us a lot about how to develop self-motivation. They show us that we can only be self-motivated to do things that:
- Align with our personal values
- We know that we can achieve (even if it takes a bit of work)
- We choose to do ourselves
- We feel supported to achieve
So if you want to become self-motivated to achieve a particular goal, consider whether those criteria have been met. If so, you’ll be far more likely to achieve it. If not, it’s worth reconsidering whether you’re pursuing the right goal. A goal that doesn’t meet your values probably isn’t worth investing time and energy into. And it doesn’t make sense to strive towards a goal that you know you will never be able to achieve.
Self-motivation vs. self-discipline
There’s a common misconception that self-motivation and self-discipline are the same things. Many of us associate self-discipline with the kind of self-motivated people. We picture them strictly depriving themselves of nice things to succeed at a bigger goal.
But while self-motivation and self-discipline are related, you can probably now see that they aren’t the same thing at all. Self-discipline is defined as “the ability to subdue one’s impulses, emotions, and behaviors to achieve long-term goals” (6). So self-discipline means subduing your feelings to achieve a task, even though it may feel bad to do so. Self-motivation, on the other hand, provides an intrinsic reward – a natural, good feeling – for achieving a task.
In fact, some tasks that we’re self-motivated to do don’t require much self-discipline at all. For example, if you love doing the crossword puzzle, you won’t need to be self-disciplined to find time to do it. But you’re still self-motivated to fill in the puzzle because the only reward you get for it is purely internal.
That’s not to say that self-motivation doesn’t require some self-discipline. Self-discipline can help us get started on tasks before we appreciate the intrinsic reward they offer. Often, we’ll develop more self-motivation over time as we get closer to achieving our goal. Then we’ll rely less on self-discipline and more on intrinsic rewards.
Why is it so hard to be self-motivated?
Self-motivation is a simple concept, but it can be surprisingly hard to find in our own lives. There are lots of reasons for this: you might recognize some of them from your own experience.
1. Our basic needs aren’t being met
Self-motivation relies on us striving for personal development, or “self-actualization.” But we cannot focus on personal growth if our other needs aren’t met. To understand this, let’s go back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. As well as describing the hierarchy of our needs, Maslow theorized that we could never meet our higher needs before our more basic needs were taken care of.(4)
It’s impossible to seek recognition and prestige, for example, if your basic needs for food and safety aren’t being met. So if you aren’t getting enough sleep, aren’t living in a safe place, or are feeling lonely or powerless, it is very difficult to develop the self-motivation to achieve bigger personal goals.
2. Our goals are too big
As humans, we’re good at setting big, audacious goals for ourselves – but not so good at following through. How many times have you made a New Year’s Resolution to quit smoking or run a marathon, only to find your motivation dwindling rapidly by January 15.
When we set goals that are too large, we don’t feel capable of reaching them. We also struggle because we don’t see any success from our early efforts. The trick is to set goals that are challenging but achievable: more on that later.
3. We lack confidence
Most of the time, we set goals for things we’ve never done before: like finding a new career or learning to play to the piano. So, we aren’t sure that we’ll be able to achieve it. If we lack confidence in ourselves, the chance of failure can be anxiety-inducing, and prevent us from even getting started.
This is common in people who are perfectionists because they are afraid of the (perceived) consequences of failing. If this sounds like you, identify and question the thought processes that are stopping you from working towards your goal.
4. We’re facing mental health issues
Many common mental health issues can interfere with motivation. In fact, a lack of motivation is a symptom of depression and has also been linked to anxiety and other mental illnesses. If your lack of motivation is accompanied by other symptoms, speak to a professional to see if a mental health issue could be causing you problems.
Seven steps to self-motivation
You probably have some specific goals that you’d like to achieve. And developing self-motivation will help. People often try to develop self-motivation to achieve goals like: getting healthier; changing career; learning a new skill; completing your degree; or ending a relationship. If you’re struggling with self-motivation, here are some things you can do to help you get started and keep going on your way to achieving your goal.
1. Align your goal with your values
If your goal is aligned with your personal values, it will be much easier to be self-motivated to achieve it. For example, if you value being a good father, and your goal is to get healthier, make the link between being healthier and being a more active, better father for your children. Take the time to work out what your personal values are, and then make sure your goals are linked to your values.
2. Set challenging but achievable goals
A lot of big personal goals can seem overwhelming at first. So, it’s important to break your goals down into achievable, realistic tasks. Set SMART goals: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound. As you achieve the small goals, your confidence will grow, and you’ll feel intrinsically rewarded every time you tick an item off your list. It’s also important to have success early on. That way, you begin to believe you can accomplish your bigger goals.
3. Develop a growth mindset
Research has shown that our motivation decreases when we’re rewarded for fixed traits, like intelligence or natural sporting ability. But our motivation increases when we reward ourselves for effort and perseverance. This attitude is called a growth mindset – an idea popularized by researcher Carole Dweck(7). Cultivating a growth mindset is an effective way to stay self-motivated. Recognize and celebrate the effort that you are making and focus on the journey rather than just the final goal.
4. Visualize how you’ll achieve your goal
You’ll often be told that visualizing your success will help you achieve your goal. But research suggests that isn’t the case. In fact, visualizing ourselves successful can decrease motivation, because we fail to visualize the effort it will take to get there. Instead, spend time visualizing the process of achieving your goal. By visualizing the effort and the challenges, you’ll be better prepared for them and find it easier to stay motivated.
5. Get support from friends, family, or co-workers
Whatever your goal, it’s easier to achieve if you have support from others. Speak to someone you trust about what you’re trying to achieve and let them help you stay focused on your goal. If you’re willing to accept help, you’ll be far more likely to succeed. You can also use social accountability to help you keep you on track. The more people know about your goal, the more likely you are to stick to it.
6. Track and celebrate your progress
To stay on track, it’s important to remember what you’ve already achieved. Keep a record of all the small goals you accomplish in a journal or an app. As you achieve more success, you’ll feel more confident and motivated to keep going. The dopamine rush that you get from achieving a goal is a powerful reward that will increase your self-motivation in the future. You might also want to give yourself small extrinsic rewards when you achieve some goals too.
7. Be gentle with yourself
Research has shown that people who are self-compassionate find it easier to be motivated (5). They’re also more willing to learn and improve – which is vital to actually achieving your goals. On the other hand, being self-critical can reduce motivation and make us less likely to change our behavior. So if you have a bad day, don’t berate yourself. Instead, try to be compassionate with yourself. Talk to yourself as you would to a friend in the same situation, and be understanding and accepting of your failures.
Six tools to help your self-motivation
1. Assess your self-motivation
Learn more about your own self-motivation with this simple tool. The tool provides statements about self-motivation, like “I am someone who begins a task with a little prompting from others.” You rate yourself on a scale of 1-5 for each statement, and your total score will give you some insight into your level of self-motivation.
2. Learn how to set SMART goals
Setting SMART goals is a great way to jump-start your self-motivation by making your goals feel achievable. This resource will help you create smart goals out of your big dreams, taking the first steps towards achieving them.
3. Get a habit tracking app
A habit tracking app can be a great way to track progress towards your goals. It can also provide a prompt to get started each day. Popular apps like Productive, and Done let you set as many goals as you’d like, and remind you to complete them. You can see your progress in satisfying graphics, giving you extra motivation to keep going.
4. Start a success journal
Another great way to stay motivated is to record and celebrate your success. Keeping a journal is a great way to do so, plus it will also give you an amazing tool to look back on and see how far you’ve come. The Self Journal is designed based on psychology research to help you set goals and stay on track and positive.
5. Develop a growth mindset
A growth mindset (rather than a fixed mindset) is vital for self-motivation. Carole Dweck, the researcher who developed the concept of the growth mindset, explains her ideas in this video. Her research is focused on how to motivate students in a classroom, but it’s just as applicable to our everyday lives too.
6. Look after yourself!
Finally, we can’t achieve our big goals if we aren’t meeting our basic needs. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep, eating healthily, and looking after your body. It’s much easier to remain motivated when those needs are met. And remember: being self-critical actually decreases motivation. So be kind to yourself!
Start building your self-motivation today
You should now be able to see that self-motivation is something you can learn. It won’t happen overnight, but by trying some of these techniques, you should find your self-motivation increasing. And as you experience your first few successes (like making it to that first early morning yoga class), your brain will reward you and make it easier to be self-motivated next time. So set yourself some SMART goals, align them with your values, and go out and start working towards your dreams!