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How to be motivated (1): understanding your inner forces

14. December 2015 in
How to be Motivated - Header

Motivation often is a pretty unreliable friend. You want it to fervently announce: “Yeah, let’s file the income tax return!”.

And motivation? Well, it would rather have some binge watching and a burrito. Fine friend.

But what can you do about that? How to be motivated?

We are definitely not the first who try to answer this question. Motivation is a big business with even bigger promises.

No big promises here, though: You might still not feel like filing your income tax return after having read this article. But at least, you will understand better how your motivation works and have a few insights from psychology that can help you use it better.

Motivation - Dream versus reality

What is motivation?

Motivation is a kind of psychological driving force – it makes people want to take certain actions.

Psychologists make an important distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

For its own sake: Intrinsic motivation

If you take Spanish classes because you enjoy learning a new language, your motivation is called intrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is the driving force whenever you do something for its own sake – for example, because you find it fun, it interests you or you are deeply convinced that it is the right thing to do.

For the sake of something else: Extrinsic motivation

But what if you were forced to take Spanish classes because they were a part of your syllabus? Or you were trying to do your partner a favor by learning their mother-tongue?

These are examples of extrinsic motivations. Here it is not the action itself that motivates you, but something you will get for doing it (or something bad you can avoid by doing the action). Some extrinsic motivations are: laws, social conventions, money or trying to please someone.


What are the differences?

Of course, in real life you will often have “mixed motivations” – you can be paid for something (extrinsic motivation), but still enjoy doing it (intrinsic motivation).

But which type of motivation is better? This is not that easy to say.

The difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation can be compared to the difference between a muffin and a whole-grain bread. Extrinsic motivation is the muffin: It is easy to gulp down, but it will not keep you full for long. Intrinsic motivation is whole-grain bread: a lot harder to chew, but with more long-lasting effects. Extrinsic motivations generally make you take action faster and easier, whereas intrinsic motivations are better to keep you going for the long run. It is the kind of motivation you should try to build up when you really want to achieve a long-term goal.

Intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation

What is willpower?

Now that we have talked about motivation, time to break the bad news to you: Motivation alone is pretty useless. You will never gather enough intrinsic motivation for filing your income tax return with a hearty ‘halleluja’. Therefore we need to consider another force before sending you to the tips and trick section: willpower.

Willpower: Suffer now, savour later

Motivation makes you want to do something. Willpower makes you do it anyway – even if you do not want to.

The way they work together is quite evident: If you are very motivated, you will not need any willpower – this is you playing Candy Crush or eating a bowl of chips. However, the more problematic an issue gets on the motivation side – consider paperwork, cleaning or diets – the more important willpower gets. Willpower lets you pull yourself together now, so that you will benefit from it in the future.

The concept of willpower is probably best illustrated in the famous Marshmallow Test where kids would get two marshmallows if they were able to abstain a while from eating the one in front of them.


Willpower is not an endless resource

Sadly, there is a problem with willpower: Research suggests that willpower is limited – and can be exhausted like a muscle. An experiment showed that people showed less willpower at solving a puzzle if they had already spent some of that resource on resisting the cookie bowl on the table. If you constantly have to resist temptations throughout your day, you will get weaker at it by evening time.

The muscle model, however, seems to apply even further: On the long run, your “willpower muscle” can improve by training.

Motivation: Willpower is a muscle

And there is one feature where motivation comes back in: There is evidence that you never completely run out of willpower. The little deposit that is always left can be activated – by a high motivation.


And now?

Now it is time to deduce some practical tips on how to be motivated – read more about those in our next article.




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Susanne Krause

About the Author

Susanne Krause
Researcher and author. As a graduate of psychology and philosophy as well as an experienced journalist, she knows not only where to find the information but also how to put it into words best.

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