The Science of Motivation

Posted by on Nov 22, 2020 in Motivation | 0 comments

Being motivated is something we all struggle with at some time or another.  Sometimes there’s not enough coffee in the world to get you going.

Motivation is a mystery, a feeling that we understand so poorly that it feels impossible to do anything about it.  But if we try to understand the science behind how motivation works we can better take advantage of its power in our lives.

One of the biggest reasons people don’t feel motivated is that they think too much about the rewards involved.  “I want that promotion” or I know I’ll feel better if I lose 10 pounds.”

Rewards are tricky.  They’re definitely powerful, especially in the short term.  Dan Pink, the author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, says:

“What’s really clear is that “if-then” rewards are really good for simple behavior and short term behavior.  So if you want people to do something really straightforward, like stuffing envelopes or processing papers, and you want good performance during the short term, then rewards work pretty well.”

But rewards don’t work over longer time periods or for complex tasks.  We take the pay raise for granted or our enthusiasm for feeling better requires us to change our eating habits and this causes us to be less motivated again.

Pink goes on to say:

“If-then just doesn’t work very well for complex, creative tasks with a long time horizon.  It’s not like we don’t like rewards.  We love rewards.  They get our attention.  But they narrow our field of vision.”

So rewards just motivate us to get rewards.  They don’t make us care about the task at hand.

During the research for his book, Pink found three things that cause us to be motivated.  They are autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Autonomy means we don’t like being told what to do.  Once we feel like we’re being pushed, we check out.  No one likes a boss that micromanages.

Mastery is getting better at something that matters to us.  I’m getting better at playing the piano or making free throws from the foul line.

Purpose is doing something larger than yourself.  Am I making a difference in my organization or to society in general?

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