How to Get Motivated
Humans are motivated by many things--psychological needs, physiological drives, survival, urges, emotions, hurts, impulses, fears, threats, rewards (money, friendship, status...), possessions, wishes, intentions, values, mastery, freedom, intrinsic satisfaction, self-satisfaction, interests, pleasure, dislikes, established habits, goals, ambitions and so on. All at the same time. In the next major sections of this chapter we will deal with questions like: Why don't we do what we want to do? Can we prevent unwanted behaviors, like addictions and bad habits? Why is our behavior so hard to understand? How can we stop procrastinating? In this section, however, we will focus on increasing our drive to achieve our more worthwhile goals, as discussed in chapter 3.
Changing involves both knowing how (learning) and wanting to (motivation). It is important to see that learning is different from performing. A hungry rat in the laboratory will work diligently to discover how to get food. It learns how and vigorously performs, i.e. eats until it's stuffed, then it stops. The rat's eating behavior, after the initial learning, is determined by its hunger needs. We humans are the same; to grow and develop new behaviors we must learn. But, in terms of how far we get in life--how much we accomplish--motivation may be just as important if not more important than learning. We already know how to lose weight (don't eat) or get A's or give generously to others. A common barrier to accomplishing many goals in life is not wanting the goal enough to give it the necessary time and effort (or conning ourselves into believing we can reach our goal in some easy way).
Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost
a proverb. Education alone will not; the world is filled with educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
-Calvin Coolidge, former President of the United States
Edison: genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.
Atkinson: achievement is 50% ability and 50% drive.
Motivation gets you started, habit keeps you going.
Occasionally, a person will have enormous determination to achieve something requiring great effort over a period of years. It is emotionally moving to hear about such a person who has overcome great obstacles to achieve an impressive goal. Glenn Cunningham was told as a boy that he would never walk on his badly burned legs; he became a great miler. How do you get the drive to go to college at age 35, work full-time, care for three children, and graduate with honors? The same way Rebecca Lee in 1864 became the first black woman physician: you work to accomplish your dreams. There are many, many inspiring examples of great achievements. Yet, psychology can't, as yet, guarantee high drive or prescribe a cure for laziness.
The Importance of Setting Effective Goals
Motivation is trying to reach our goals. But, it isn't just a matter of setting high, noble goals, as discussed in chapter 3, although that is a critical step. It is common to wish for higher goals than we are willing to do the work to attain. We want to be a lawyer but goof off in high school. Many college students with a 2.7 GPA want to become Ph.D's. We want to be a star performer but don't like to practice. Even when trying to better ourselves we may lack the motivation. For example, Rosen (1982) found that only half of the people in a self-help program completed the work. Those who stuck with it got good results (overcoming their fears). Similar results have been found in toilet training of children and self-administered treatment for premature ejaculation. Likewise, Schindler (1979) reported that only 17 of 60 subjects made full use of an assertiveness book. What determines these vast differences in motivation among us? Why are some of us fantastic achievers while others take the easy route? We don't know for sure (but see learned industriousness later), but having explicit goals and certain attitudes help.
Life goals set our sails and give us a push, e.g. "I want to help people." People who reach many or most of their life goals are usually calmer, happier, healthier and less stressed or emotional. However, there seem to be certain life goals that harm our mental health, e.g. "I want to have the power to control or impress people." Wanting to be close to and good to others is associated with better emotional health (National Advisory Mental Health Council, 1995). Likewise, seeking to improve your skills ("mastery goals") results in feeling good about trying hard and in increased effort when an obstacle is met. But wanting to beat others ("performance goals"), such as having a winning season in football or being the best student in your math class, result in avoiding tough challenges, giving up when starting to lose, feeling more anxious, and less gain in self-esteem than with mastery goals. This is why enlightened coaches are teaching players to focus on mastering their basic skills, not on their won-loss record. It is also easy to see the connection between mastery vs. performance goals and intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation or satisfaction. The importance of intrinsic satisfaction and the problems with extrinsic rewards are discussed thoroughly later under "Why behavior is hard to understand."
In any area where we are hoping to self-improve, both short-term and long-range goals are needed. If your long-term goals clearly contribute to your most important values and your philosophy of life, they should be more motivating. Good goals are fairly hard--they stretch us--but they are achievable taking small steps at a time. As much as possible, you should explicitly describe your goals in terms of very specific behaviors. Danish, Petitpas & Hale (1995) provide examples of specific behaviors in sports psychology:
- Physical skills--"I'll do 3 more sit ups and 3 more push ups this week than I did last week."
- Cognitive skills--"I'll develop some self-talk that should reduce my fears and improve my batting."
- Gain knowledge--"I'll learn more about exercising to prevent my back from hurting."
- Courage--"I'll practice batting against a very fast pitcher for two weeks, then I'll try out for the school team."
- Social support--"I'll talk to the coach about batting; I'll make friends with guys/girls on the team."
Positive objectives are usually more motivating than negative ones, e.g. "I want to bat over .300" is a better goal than "I'd like to be less scared of the ball." Certainly, the more appealing goals are something you want, not something imposed on you. Mastery-oriented people, realizing success depends on their skills, become more self-directed, work harder, achieve a higher level of performance, and get more enjoyment out of the activity. In contrast, according to Murphy (1995), "performance"-oriented people are more likely to strive for attention and view beating others as a "life or death" matter (in this case, failure is interpreted as "I don't have the ability" and interest declines).
This book addresses many different aspects of psychological motivation. The needs for food, water, air, sleep, shelter, and even sex are always there but they don't usually dominate our lives. Our social-psychological needs, instead, dominate most of our lives, such as attention, companionship, support, love, social image or status, material things, power and so on. Also, psychological or cognitive factors, in addition to goals, strongly influence our motivation and attitudes, such as self-confidence in our ability as a change agent (self-efficacy and attribution theory). If we see ourselves as able and in control of our lives, then we are much more likely to truly and responsibly take control.
Sometimes, however, a person's motivation seems excessive. Our goals may be out of reach but we still strive mightily for the goal (as in the movie Rudy). Exceedingly able people are occasionally extremely demanding and self-critical of themselves. Between 1987 and 1990, Steffi Graf was ranked the #1 tennis player in the world; she won 97% of her matches. Yet, she was unhappy with her performance 97% of the time. She was so self-demanding that during practice she frequently had an outburst of self-criticism and broke down in tears. Surely intense motivation and excessive anxiety can sometimes be emotionally detrimental.
To be effective our motivation has to be focused on important tasks. As Covey (1989) cogently illustrates, most of us spend a lot of time doing things that seem urgent at the moment but are really not important in terms of our major mission in life. Also, we waste quite a bit of our life doing things that are unimportant and not urgent, such as reading trash novels, watching mindless TV, etc. So, assuming we do what we are motivated to do, then our motivations are frequently misguided. Covey also emphasizes that our efficiency could be greatly increased if we spent more time doing things that are often not seen as urgent but truly are important, e.g. clarifying the major purpose of our life, developing relationships that facilitate efficiency, growth, and meaningfulness, planning and preparing for important upcoming tasks, reading, exercising, resting, etc. He tells a story about a traveler who comes upon a hard working person sawing down a tree and asks, "How long have you been sawing on this tree?" The tired, sweaty worker said, "A long time, seems like hours." So, the traveler asked, "Why don't you sharpen your saw?" The reply was "I'm too busy sawing!" A lot of us are sawing with a saw that needs sharpened. We need to know a lot more about the processes of motivation and self-direction.
Challenging-but-achievable goals are themselves motivating. On the other hand, easy-to-reach goals are boring and/or demeaning. Impossible goals are frustrating (and there are lots of impossible goals, in contrast with the "if you can dream it, you can achieve it" nonsense). Since challenging but realistic goals require us to stretch and grow, they must constantly be changed to match the conditions and our ability. We are most motivated when we feel capable, responsible, self-directed, respected, and hopeful.