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What is Motivation? Two Theories You Can Use to Understand and Manipulate Your Motivation

Be more motivated and get more done!

What is motivation?

Motivation is why you do what you do. Motivation is your drive to act in service to your goals. Motivation is why you choose to do certain actions or activities, instead of others.

Motivation underlies every action you take. If you understand motivation, you can better understand the people around you and you can better manipulate your own motivation to get more done.

The drive I'm going to explain is not a general feeling of energy. Motivation isn't the opposite of lethargy and laziness. When people say things like, "I'm not feeling motivated…", or "I need to increase my motivation…", they're leaving out a critical part of the equation. What they mean is, "I'm not feeling motivated to do something I ought to do." They are feeling motivation … just not to do the things they think they should be doing.

This article is a dive into what motivation is. If you're here looking for ways to increase your motivation for ought-to-dos and get more done, read my articles on How to Procrastinate Less by Increasing Your Motivation and Decreasing Temptations and How to Build Self-Discipline: Why Awareness and Intrinsic Motivation are Key.

Motivation comes from autonomy

Motivation can be explained by two useful and complementary psychological theories.

First, we have Self-Determination Theory (SDT). Developed by psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, this theory suggests that human motivation exists on a continuum from intrinsic to extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation (sometimes called autonomous motivation) means we are acting with a full sense of volition and choice; we are doing things we find rewarding in themselves: it gives me joy, it builds up a relationship, it contributes to something I value. Under SDT, humans are intrinsically motivated by three core psychological human needs: competence (excellence, mastery), autonomy (volition, integrity, doing things by one's own choice), and relatedness (social connection with others).

Extrinsic motivation (sometimes called controlled motivation), on the other hand, has some element of external pressure or demand from external sources toward specific goals. For instance, when we act for specific rewards or to avoid specific negative consequences. Most of the time, we experience a mix of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, but any given activity or event may learn toward one or the other.

Here's an example. In a classic psychology study by Lepper, Greene, and Nisbett, children aged 3-5 years were invited to draw pictures. Some children were told they would receive a reward for drawing; some were given a reward after the activity (but didn't know they would get it); and some did not get a reward. Children who expected a reward showed less intrinsic interest in drawing, they spent less time on their drawings, and the drawings were not as good. As Daniel H. Pink explained in his book Drive (read my review):

"When children didn't expect a reward, receiving one had little impact on their intrinsic motivation. Only contingent rewards—If you do this, you'll get that—had the negative effect. Why? "If-then" rewards require people to forfeit some of their autonomy."

This was true of adults for. In one of their early studies, Deci and Ryan found that people who were intrinsically motivated to solve puzzles—i.e., people who worked hard at solving puzzles because they wanted to work hard at solving puzzles—persisted longer at solving puzzles than people who were given external rewards (e.g., cash) for solving puzzles. The choice to do the activity matters. Classic reward systems frequently backfire.

One example Pink gave in his book was of a childcare facility that began fining parents for picking up their children late. The fine was a controlled motivator; it was a negative reward for an action. The goal, I presume, was to encourage parents to pick their children up on time. But the opposite happened! After the fine was implemented, more parents picked the kids up late. It was no longer a moral obligation or nice thing to do to ensure that the teachers did not have to stay late, it was a transaction. They could buy more time. .

(For the academically minded reader, here's an interesting review article on the state of research on SDT, with an emphasis on recent neuroscience studies.)

(Read: Book review: How Children Succeed by Paul Tough)

We are motivated by value, attainability, and time to reward

The second theory is Temporal Motivation Theory (TMT). Motivation is an equation with four terms: value, expectancy, impulsiveness, and delay. Value is the fun or pleasure of an activity; we are more likely to do high-value activities. Expectancy is the likelihood of success; we are more likely to do things we will succeed at. Impulsiveness is our general level of self-control, which influences our susceptibility to high-value activities. Delay is when you get the reward. We prefer immediate rewards and discount delayed rewards. If this equation doesn't tip in favor of an activity, we delay it, and do something else instead. (That's why this theory is useful for explaining procrastination.)

While these two theories approach motivation from somewhat different directions, I think they are complementary. Both explain aspects of why people do what they do. The psychology literature has little to say about how they compliment each other; here are some of my thoughts.

Any theory of motivation is a theory about why people take actions. Under SDT, people are more likely to act when they feel they chose to do so themselves. In TMT, people are more likely to act when activities are pleasurable, attainable, and immediately rewarding. (The "attainable" factor seems like Albert Bandura's self-efficacy theory, which says people act when they feel capable and able to attain a goal—i.e., when they have high efficacy).

SDT seems to capture elements of TMT's value and reward factors. When we talk about motivation as being intrinsic versus extrinsic, we're looking at where the reward is coming from and the kind of value the activity has for you. Activities we are intrinsically motivated to pursue often feel rewarding in themselves because the actions contribute to our goals or feel meaningful—which means the reward of the activity may be more immediate than delayed.

SDT considers value more broadly than TMT. TMT focuses on how fun or pleasurable an activity is, while SDT acknowledges that we find some activities valuable because they contribute to meaningful goals or relationships (i.e., to our three core psychological needs of competence, autonomy, and relatedness), not because they are fun.

(Related: Cooperation Without Coercion: How to Motivate Children)

How do you manipulate your motivation?

We can use both SDT and TMT to glean strategies for manipulating our motivation.

Extrinsic rewards can undermine intrinsic motivation for tasks, as I discussed in my review of Drive by Daniel H. Pink. But you can use extrinsic rewards effectively for some tasks.

Pink categorized work as either algorithmic or heuristic. Algorithmic work is routine, following steps or formulas, and outsourceable. Heuristic is nonroutine, self-directed, and creative. Extrinsic rewards can be useful for algorithmic work. You can also increase motivation for routine and dull tasks by increasing their sense of purpose. Consider why the task is necessary and how it contributes to your goals. Acknowledge that the task is boring, but know you'll get through it; sometimes knowing up front that something will be difficult increases our ability to stick it out. Do the task in your own way to emphasize autonomy.

You can also increase your general level of intrinsic motivation by doing things you're intrinsically motivated to do. Really! William Stixrud and Ned Johnson argued for this approach in their book The Self-Driven Child (read my review!). That is, do things by choice. Do things you want to do that contribute to your goals or relate to your values. In doing those things, play and be in flow, and thus get the relatively immediate reward of being in a flow state of deep engagement, doing hard work and being challenged (which relates to developing competence/mastery); then, be more motivated to do more things as a result!

(For more details on increasing intrinsic motivation and decreasing impulsiveness, read my article on building up self-discipline.)

From TMT, there are many other ways to manipulate your motivation. I list a bunch in my article on how to procrastinate less, including ways to increase the value of an activity, increase the likelihood of success, decrease your impulsiveness for things you shouldn't do, and decrease the delay to reward for any given task.

Why should you care about motivation?

I care about motivation because motivation matters to everything. Pursuing excellenceis finding intrinsic motivation for everything you do.

As Daniel H. Pink explained in his book Drive:

"When the reward is the activity itself—deepening learning, delighting customers, doing one's best—there are no shortcuts. The only route to the destination is the high road."

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