Motivation: how to find it, and keep it going
Motivation can seem elusive – sometimes we are raring to go, and at other times we can't seem to find any will to engage. Motivation is what helps energise and drive goal-oriented behaviours; unfortunately, it's a relatively complicated process. Motivation involves social, cognitive, behavioural and biological factors. While we may desire something – to improve our fitness, or start our own business, for example – desire isn't enough to get there. We have to be motivated to stick to our goals despite the inevitable challenges that arise.
Motivation involves three key aspects: activation, persistence, and intensity. Activation is required to start in the first place; persistence is necessary in order to overcome any difficulties; a certain intensity is also needed, a willingness to keep working at the goal you've set yourself. Often, these last two aspects are the most difficult for people, when the initial rush of the activation phase wears off and we are left considering all the effort required of us to take it further. Especially today, in our quick-fix culture, we have become accustomed to being able to gratify our needs quickly, when in reality reaching big goals takes time.
We also often make the mistake of waiting for motivation before doing something. It may be more useful to think of motivation as following action. Get started, and you will quickly discover whether your motivation arrives.
What causes behaviour in the first place, and why does behaviour vary in its intensity over time? Psychologists have suggested different theories to explain motivation, including:
1. Drive theory
Drive theory suggests that people are motivated to undertake certain activities in order to resolve tension caused by unmet needs. A simplistic example of this would be being motivated to have a drink of water to quench your thirst. Or if you are driven by a need for praise and validation, you may be motivated to act in ways to people-please.
2. Instinct theory
Instinct theory maintains that we have biological reasons behind certain behaviours, and so there are certain things that we are motivated to attain due to our evolutionary makeup. This would include being motivated to form attachments with others in order to provide security and a sense of belonging. It would also include being motivated to do things in order to avoid negative consequences, like being rejected or feeling embarrassed or socially excluded.
3. Arousal theory
Arousal theory states that we are motivated to engage with behaviours that will either increase or decrease our arousal levels, depending on our needs at the time. Essentially, we act on things in order to level ourselves out. For instance, if we feel agitated, we are motivated to engage in an activity that calms us. If we feel stagnant, we may feel motivated to do some intensive exercise, in order to raise our arousal levels.
4. Humanistic theory
Maslow's hierarchy of needs best sums up this idea of human motivation. This hierarchy illustrates that people are first motivated to fulfil their basic needs: for food, shelter, love, for example. Once these needs are met, people are motivated by more complex needs, such as the need to fulfil a sense of one's own potential. Our first, more basic needs must be satisfied, at least to some extent, before we can be motivated to satisfy other needs.
5. Self-determination theory
Self-determination theory suggests that people are inherently motivated towards growth and self-actualisation, but sometimes these inherent motivations get blocked by other factors. In this theory, it's about clearing the obstacles blocking your inherent motivation towards personal growth.
There are also two different types of motivation: extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation.
What is extrinsic motivation?
Extrinsic motivation is that which is driven by things outside of ourselves, like praise, reward, social recognition, promotions at work. The greater the perceived reward, the more motivated you feel to attain it. While powerful, extrinsic motivation is arguably less sustainable than intrinsic motivation.
What is intrinsic motivation?
Intrinsic motivation comes from within – this kind of motivation is driven by what satisfies us. We are motivated to achieve the goal because it reinforces something about ourselves. We might read for our own acquisition of knowledge, do puzzles because we are motivated by problem-solving, or engage in self-care as we are motivated to look after our mental health. Or we might do something purely for the love of it.
Coach Kristina Kennedy explores motivation and accountability in coaching in this video
Motivation coaching: how does it work?
A motivation coach can help you to understand what drives your personal motivation, how you can best harness it and keep it going. Understanding what motivates you in a sustained way can increase your ability to reach your goals efficiently; it can help you take action in the first place.
Knowing how to motivate yourself effectively will increase your likelihood of engaging in goal-oriented behaviours, whether these are health-related, or work-related. This sets off a positive chain reaction: when we engage in constructive behaviours, we are less likely to engage in self-destructive or unhealthy ones.
Your coach can help you set realistic, smart goals that will help you build towards your goals in a sustainable way. A motivation coach will help keep you accountable to the tasks that you have set yourself, and will work with you to overcome any roadblocks. Achieving our goals, even in baby steps, can foster a sense of healthy control over our own lives.
By working with a coach, you may also discover that there is a fundamental flaw in why you are struggling to be motivated. Motivation tends to come more easily when our target aligns with our values and beliefs – if you are struggling to find any motivation, perhaps you are not on the right path. Coaches also often work with people at times of transition, helping them to self-evaluate their core values and life's trajectory, and helping you transition into a different career or lifestyle where motivation comes more naturally.
Lastly, a chronic lack of motivation – which we can also call apathy – can be a symptom of depression. If you are living with depression, working with a psychotherapist or counsellor may be a more appropriate support route.
Find a coach for motivation here
Further reading on coaching
What to expect in a first coaching session
What's the difference between counselling and coaching?
How coaching can help you beat imposter syndrome
Where coaching and therapy overlap, and where they do not
How coaching can help you thrive in times of change
Last updated 19 January 2021