The Secret to Cultivating Motivation

Reasons why you're less motivated than everyone else—and how to change it.

You woke up with intentions to go to the gym, but eight snooze buttons later, a mental argument with yourself ended in a compromise to start tomorrow. Sounds like you could use a swift kick in the ass from some motivation.

Chances are, if you’re not feeling motivated, you’re lacking in the productivity department as well. Let’s be real, if we don’t feel driven to do something, we’re not going to do it.

For many, New Year’s serves as a temporary catalyst; igniting the urge to finally lose weight, get a new job, or learn to play the guitar. But without continued motivation to fuel the fire, it fizzles out; leaving our resolutions collecting dust on a shelf until we revisit them for a few weeks next year.

But understanding what exactly motivation is—what drives us to pursue our goals—and how we can cultivate that desire not just in January, but the other eleven months of the year, can stop the endless cycle of setting goals and shelving them.

“Motivation is, rather simply, the drive to do something,” said Dr. Steven Brownlow, Licensed Psychologist and owner of ADEPT Psychology in Texas. “What makes it more complicated is that “it’s pretty tied up with emotion. Depending on the emotion you’re experiencing (sadness, disgust, fear), you may just not feel like doing anything right then.”

But that drive can come from two different places …

Extrinsic Motivation vs. Intrinsic Motivation

“Intrinsic motivation comes from within. You do stuff because it feels good to succeed or master it,” said Brownlow.

Intrinsic motivation is all about our own thinking and personal psychology and what we believe we want to achieve in life,” added Dr. Bart Rossi, clinical psychologist and 2014 Emmy award winner. “This is based primarily on our learning experiences in life. If we have parents who are successful and properly present the importance of motivation and achievement it will make a difference.”

Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, comes from an outside incentive: “External motivation is what we may be drawn to achieve. We may be motivated to be a star athlete or successful business person because that type of success is something we see as making us happy or personally successful. The pull or allure to some type of success based on money or personal recognition is extrinsic motivation,” said Rossi.

And it’s apparent that some people are more intrinsically motivated, while others are driven by the pursuit of external rewards—which experts say stifle that inner drive.

“Rewarding someone for something they are already going to do will get them to quit doing it unless they get the reward,” said Brownlow. Which means if you’re hitting the gym just to lose weight, and aren’t seeing the number on the scale budge, chances are your sneakers will end up collecting dust in the closet.

Unmotivated? Blame it On Your Childhood

So are some people just innately more motivated than others? Yes and no.  

“Everybody’s born with lots of intrinsic motivation,” said Brownlow. “It’s why most of us learn to walk and talk. We want to master new stuff.”

But the way you’re raised instantly begins to affect motivation levels and type.

“Some people have much more motivation because of the way they were brought up,” said Rossi. “Achievement in life is extremely important to happiness. But only some parents present it properly and relate achievements to personal happiness and enjoyment. Being successful should not be the result of a burden, but ‘doing’ what you think makes a difference. This concept is not easy to accept for many and is dependent on where the level of motivation is at for people with different backgrounds.”

But it goes even deeper than simply being taught that this inner drive is an admirable quality: relationships play a strong role in the development and fissure of intrinsic motivation. “We all have emotional upheavals during childhood, usually because of small ruptures within our core relationships,” said Brownlow. “Most of those are related to areas where our intrinsic motivation becomes inconvenient to others; They question our values. Those ruptures feel awful.”

The individual response to these ruptures separate people into three distinct groups: Type one abandons intrinsic motivation in many areas of their life in order to avoid feelings associated with these ruptures; type two dwells and ruminates on how bad the ruptures felt, leading to stress and anxiety that then requires external motivation to drive them to accomplish goals; type three stays true to their inner compass: with focus on their life’s meaning and purpose they’re able to endure hardships while continuing to be propelled towards their goals by internal motivation.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to identify the ideal type. But if you’re seeing yourself mirrored in type one or two, there’s good news:

“People can absolutely change between the three types, and often do so during their lives,” said Brownlow. “Being the third type is preferable to many people because type three people feel more joyful and less under others’ control. A huge chunk of my practice is helping people move into the third type.”

Goal Setting: The Key to Cultivating Motivation

The obvious next question is: How can I become a type three person?

“Motivation can definitely be recognized and developed,” said Rossi. “Some people decide as a result of their own successes and failures that they should establish goals and strategies to be successful. Failure is often the road to success for those who learn and move forward.”

It makes sense that the building blocks of motivation are goals. After all, you have to be motivated to do something. The establishment of these goals is a crucial step in building a solid foundation for intrinsic motivation to flourish.

But not just any goal will get the job done.

“It’s important to establish realistic goals that can be achieved,” said Rossi. “Achieving even small success in the new year can be a building block for very major achievements. Limited successes or small gains are always necessary for significant accomplishment.”

If motivation is a house, we’re talking the difference between building it out of large pieces of Styrofoam or small bricks—which will take longer, but provide a much more solid foundation.

Reframe Resolutions Based on Your Core Values 

The start of the new year is designated as a period for goal setting, so it’s an ideal time to start nailing down resolutions with the idea of intrinsic motivation in mind.

“The key to keeping New Year’s resolutions is to use a type three approach to them: ‘I want to lose 20 pounds” has no overt purpose, so it’s likely to fail. The same with ‘I’m going to work out 30 minutes per day, five days per week,’” said Brownlow.

Reframing the resolution based on the values at its core instantly makes it more intrinsically motivating: “I’m going to get in shape so that I can enjoy a hiking trip this summer with my family (and be able to actually make it up the mountain)” has a much better chance of success.

“There’s a sense of purpose there,” said Brownlow. “The best way to stay motivated is to start with your deepest values, develop a creative way to meet them, and only then focus on internal motivation. Having a greater purpose for your behavior will keep you moving forward.”