Lost Your Motivation? Maybe That's a Good Thing
Updated: Jan 16
Sunday is my favorite day of the week. I get up around seven, do my morning routine, enjoy a coffee while catching up on some readings, and then I do my weekly planning. This includes thinking about what we eat during the week. Sometimes I take one of my favorite cookbooks and search for inspiration. Nine out of ten times, I see a mouth watering recipe I want to make that same evening. We usually eat dinner between six and seven. So, I know I must start cooking at least an hour or two before. But on Sunday afternoon we also like to play with Lego, read or watch a movie. Around four, I already tell myself, "you must start with dinner in half an hour". At four thirty, the voice in my head sends a reminder again. After three or four reminders I finally start, realising that it's already too late. We will eat again after seven. Why do I do this? I know exactly how long it takes to cook dinner, and I love to cook. And still, switching from one activity to the other seems to be such a pain. Especially when playing with Lego. But to better understand why this happens, we need to talk about motivation.
What is Motivation?
So, what does it mean to be motivated to do something? It’s being enthusiastic and willing to act. Motivation is energy for action, whether we talk about taking action at work, at home, in our relations or for ourselves. Simply put, motivation pushes people into action, and it starts from a certain human need.
For a long time in the history of humankind, motivation meant satisfying biological needs. As people, we were driven to act, to keep ourselves safe and comfortable. Our main goal was survival. That meant having enough food to eat, water to drink, a shelter over our head and a partner to have children with. According to Maslow’s theory of needs, each level of needs precedes the other, in the order of the pyramid. That means physiological needs will be met first, then safety needs, then belonging, then esteem and only at the end, self-actualisation.
The first four needs are also called deficiency needs, which means that if they are not met, we will be more motivated to act toward that goal. If we are constantly hungry, the perfect life is one in which there is plenty of food. Growing up in communist Romania, I can relate to this example and I am more understanding when I see parents and grandparents so focused on food. But as these basic needs are met, motivation towards the goals decreases.
This is not the case with growth. With time, as humankind became an increasingly complex system, people also started to want more from life. And so motivation became an even more complex phenomenon to understand.
The Carrot and the Stick
In his book Drive, Dan Pink talks about Motivation 2.0, which started to shape as societies became more complex and work became more sophisticated. During the industrial revolution, Motivation 2.0 was the main operating system. If you do this, you get that. It’s also what we call the carrot and the stick approach.
When we are trapped in this type of externally controlled motivation, there might be two reasons why we ended up there. We were either seduced to take a certain action and there was a nice reward we were hoping to get. Or, we were forced to take action by fear of certain negative consequences or punishment. But when we are driven by extrinsic motivation, we will always look for the path of least resistance and we will try to get to the outcome with the lowest effort possible. There is no enjoyment in the process, except that we have to do what we have to do.
While rewards can work short term, just like a shot of caffeine can boost our energy for a short period of time when we’re too tired, on the long run, this strategy will prove counterproductive. It will make us comfy, lazy, and ultimately disconnected from who we are and from our potential.
In the context of work, controlled motivation based on rewards might be effective when we’re doing routine, unchallenging work, directed by others. But today, most of us have jobs that require some level of complexity and self-directedness. Our jobs require more mental energy, focus and creativity than ever before. So by seeking too much the reward instead of focusing on the content of the work we enjoy, we might end up doing more of the work we don’t like. The longer we stay in this state of complacency, the more we risk to lose our authenticity, as we move away from our purpose and unique set of personality, experiences, skills and drivers.
There’s a Better Way: Autonomy
It wasn’t until the half of the twentieth century that some new hypothesis regarding motivation started to emerge. In the 1930s, the American psychologist Harry Harlow, conducted a series of experiments on rhesus monkeys, to test their cognitive and problem-solving capacities. They were given a mechanical puzzle where they had to pull a pin, unlock a hook, and lift a small plate fixed with hinges. There was no reward foreseen. What the experimenters soon noticed was that the monkeys were genuinely interested in the puzzle, focused, and determined to solve it. It seemed like they were having fun. Soon, they were able to lift the plate easily and they kept on playing with it, again and again, without any reward in return. What happened here, was against the traditional thinking of biological motivation. They were acting for the pure enjoyment of the process and not for getting something in return.
Unfortunately, Harlow didn’t take the experiment further as he became interested in attachment theories. But luckily, someone else did, twenty years later. In 1969, Edward Deci was a psychology graduate student, looking for a dissertation topic. He was interested in motivation, so continuing Harlow’s experiment, he started his own. It was again a puzzle, but this time a more complex one.
Deci recruited two groups of psychology students and asked them to solve a Soma cube puzzle in three different sessions, as part of a research project on problem-solving. In the second session, one group was paid for each completed puzzle, while the other group was not. In a third session with the same people, neither group was paid. When Deci announced that the time was up, and left participants in each of the two rooms alone for a while, members of the group that had been paid for their work lost interest in the puzzle and started to read magazines instead. On the other hand, the group that had never been paid, continued to play with the puzzles. Deci concluded that the people who'd been offered money no longer experienced that intrinsic motivation.
From these first experiments, an entire new theory of motivation took shape, what we know today as Self-Determination Theory or SDT. This is what Deci calls autonomous motivation. When you’re autonomously motivated, you will experience willingness and choice to do what matters for your long-term goals. When you do something, you are the first ambassador of that behaviour, it feels authentic, right, in line with who you are.
This of course doesn’t mean we should only do what feels right. Freedom to do what we desire, also comes with the responsibility to accept the consequences. Encouraging autonomy doesn’t mean discouraging accountability. We all need to be accountable for the results of our work and actions. As Deci’s research partner Richard M. Ryan puts it:
“The course of human history has always moved in the direction of greater freedom. And there’s a reason for that—because it’s in our nature to push for it. If we were just plastic like some people think, this wouldn’t be happening. But somebody stands in front of a tank in China. Women, who’ve been denied autonomy, keep advocating for rights. This is the course of history. This is why ultimately human nature, if it ever realises itself, will do so by becoming more autonomous.”
There are two aspects that support autonomous motivation:
1. Interest and enjoyment: if there are things, we already know we like doing, doing more of those things will keep us motivated and in the flow. Children are motivated to play without the parents asking how do I motivate my kid to play?
2. Our personal system of deeply held values and beliefs. When we do something that is in harmony with our values and what we believe in, there is more intrinsic motivation to act.
When we are autonomously motivated, we are more creative, we solve more problems, our performance improves, we feel more positive emotions, and our wellbeing is at higher levels (physical and psychological health). We feel we are in control of our life, in the driver’s seat.
The Road to Mastery Starts with a Purpose…
Having autonomy and freedom will not help us per se, unless we have some goals we want to achieve. Setting a goal requires quite some mental energy and effort as we need stop, zoom out and reflect on our life, our wishes and most of all, on ourselves. Having the intention to understand our strengths and weaknesses already takes a lot of courage. But going through the actual process takes patience and perseverance.
Achieving mastery in a certain domain or skill that matters to us, starts with the desire to get better and better. One of my favorite examples that illustrates this attitude to life and work is Jiro Ono, the 96 year old sushi chef who runs a three star Michelin restaurant in Tokio. He dedicated his own life to perfecting the art of sushi and even at his age, he believes that he is not there yet. Wanting to get better at something is a life’s task and will keep us motivated to improve if it’s the right thing. Mastery is a long process and essentially means staying on a task longer, deeper, without switching objectives. Actively seek challenges, push yourself, be persistent and have patience. But stay long enough on a path, or you’ll always be searching for something, without building on what you’ve already achieved. Or like Oliver Burkeman would put it: Stay on the f*&^%$* bus.
It’s for sure essential to reflect on what is important and what we want to do. But it is equally important to decide what not to do. The Goldilocks principle that Dan Pink also mentions in Drive, is something I discovered recently, while I was reading about feng shui. Ask yourself “is it too much” of something you dislike? If you enter a room and your first thought is “it’s too dark”, stay on that thought a bit longer and see what’s there to be better understood. If you’re doing work you don’t like, ask yourself what is it that bothers you. Is it too boring, is it too difficult, it takes too much time? You might be surprised to find out new things about your relation to what you’re doing on a daily basis and realise that you just took it for granted.
Hundreds of studies have shown that having an aspiration in life is more important than how much money we make. It makes for more fulfilling lives. It’s important to have enough money to enjoy the experiences that make us happy. But from one point onwards, there is no correlation between wealth and happiness. So, it’s not important to just have goals. It’s important to have the right goals.
“Purpose provides activation energy for living. I think that evolution has had a hand at selecting people who had a sense of doing something beyond themselves”. (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi)
…and Needs to Be Fueled by Flow
What a rich and fulfilling life ultimately means, is to feel that we are the main character in our own life, in control of what we choose to do, without wasting our time and potential. If what we do is serving other people’s goals and ignoring ours, we will feel trapped and controlled. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi noted in several of his studies on flow, what people do daily is not so different. We all need to work, eat, interact with other people and rest. Production, consumption, maintenance, and leisure are four core components of everyone’s life. However, how we choose to experience these activities and areas of life will be different from one individual to the other. And because we can only experience one thing at a time, how we focus our attention will become the essential skill to master. Our environment is constantly bombarding us with external stimuli that our senses jump on to process. If we don’t learn how to concentrate and if we don’t have clear goals, our mind will become reactive and unreliable.
"Without focus, consciousness is in a state of chaos. The normal condition of the mind is one of informational disorder: random thoughts chase one another instead of lining up in logical causal sequences. Unless one learns to concentrate, and is able to invest the effort, thoughts will scatter without reaching any conclusion." (M. Csikszentmihalyi)
Flow is a state of mind in which we are completely immersed in an activity. When we go through a flow experience, what we feel, what we wish and what we think are aligned and in harmony. That’s because what characterises flow experiences are clear goals, a clear set of rules and immediate relevant feedback.
My seven-year-old son recently discovered an ingenious app that can teach you how to play the piano. It’s truly fascinating to see how well the app is using psychological elements to keep him hooked and in the flow. First, it shows him what he will learn (setting goal), then it explains the technique through a video (activating his mirror neurons), then it sets the expectation for the exercise (rules) and gives him a nice round of applause and a glittery star badge at the end of the exercise (reward). It’s definitely not the same as studying with a teacher, but it’s still helping him make progress.
There is an interesting relation between flow and happiness. When we experience flow, we are not necessarily experiencing happiness. We have no time to think about happiness when we’re so deeply focused on what we’re doing. But flow experiences give us happiness in retrospect, as we feel satisfied and grateful to have lived such an experience. It’s also important to mention that we can also feel happy without flow, for example when taking a walk in the forest on a sunny day, or when seeing a baby smile. The only difference is that this is a more vulnerable form of happiness, as it depends heavily on external factors: weather conditions, good company etc. On the contrary, flow is something that we can control ourselves, no matter what the external conditions are.
Surprisingly, work involves more flow experiences than many other activities that we do every day. The only other activities that could be comparable are active leisure activities like sports and hobbies. Socialising and talking to other people are also generating flow and it’s because we must keep attention on the train of thought and require investment of psychic energy. Unfortunately, not the same amount of effort is put into maintaining family relations. People often expect that after a hard day at work, they come home and everything will be easy and natural, not requiring any additional mental energy. This is a wrong assumption and the cause of many family dysfunctions. It’s sometimes easier to ignore close family and put work or other people first, because “family will understand”. And after having lived like this for years, we come home and we are surprised to hear that our partner wants to leave us. It doesn’t matter if it’s work or leisure, if we seek to have excellent experiences, we need to focus all our attention on each of them.
Many of the things we find interesting are not so by nature, but because we took the trouble of paying attention.
So, if you find yourself lacking the motivation to do what you have to do, it’s a good start to take a break and reflect on why that could happen. Is it boredom, is it someone else’s goal that doesn’t matter to you, is it too challenging? The reason why I kept on postponing to start cooking dinner on my Sunday evening, was not because I don’t like cooking. I love it. But I also love building Lego sets or watching movies or writing. So when I am immersed in that activity and I’m in the middle of a flow experience, it’s really hard to stop.
In my next blog post I will explore in more depth how we can keep ourselves in the flow, once we identified the experiences that make us happy and how to set up a plan to schedule more of them. I will talk about some ideas from Nir Eyal’s Indistractable, a book that deeply influenced the way I have been doing things in the last two years. Until then, I challenge you to take at least one of the exercises below. If you want, you can send me a short email at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me how it went. I would be happy to hear from you.
This is a selection of exercises from Dan Pink’s Drive Toolkit
1. Get a flow test
Set a reminder on your computer or mobile phone to go off at forty random times in a week. Each time your device beeps, write down what you’re doing, how you’re feeling, and whether you’re in “flow.” Record your observations, look at the patterns, and consider the following questions:
• Which moments produced feelings of “flow”? Where were you? What were you working on? Who were you with?
• Are certain times of day more flow-friendly than others? How could you restructure your day based on your findings?
• How might you increase the number of optimal experiences and reduce the moments when you felt disengaged or distracted?
• If you’re having doubts about your job or career, what does this exercise tell you about your true source of intrinsic motivation?
2. A great (wo)man is a sentence. What’s your big sentence?
For example mine is: “I want to inspire people to become better every day, and nurture meaningful relations in my life.”
3. Then ask the small questions. Achievement is a process. What can I do better today? For me, writing this article was a meaningful experience that kept me in the flow. It required a lot of concentration and mental energy, presented challenges that push my writing and thinking skills and hopefully will inspire someone with an insight that will move them forward.
4. Make a list of activities that you do in a week. It’s very important to capture your life experiences at weekly level, as there are activities that don’t happen every day. Then try to categorise them in either of these buckets: Production, Consumption, Maintenance and Leisure. Reflect on the result and think about whether what you do is aligned with your goals and how you envision to experience your life.
Recommended and Mentioned Resources:
Finding Flow: the Psychology of Engaging With Everyday Life [BOOK], by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us [BOOK], by Daniel H. Pink
This column will change your life: Helsinki Bus Station Theory [ARTICLE], by Oliver Burkeman
The Puzzle of Motivation [VIDEO], TED speech by Daniel H. Pink
Jiro Dreams of Sushi [DOCUMENTARY], directed by David Gelb, 2011
The Scarcity Trap: Why We Keep Digging When We're Stuck In A Hole, [PODCAST], Hidden Brain, with Shankar Vedantam.
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