The Art (and Science) of Self-Motivation: How To Achieve Your Goals
We can all set life goals, but creating real positive changes takes commitment over time.
That goal of summiting Everest, for instance, takes planning, investment, training, traveling, and tenacity, all of which are driven by...something.
That something is self-motivation, and it pushes us to accomplish our ambitions. The good news is, you can learn how to strengthen your own self-motivation and use it to achieve your goals.
Read on for a look at what self-motivation means, how it works, and to learn three ways to increase your own.
What is Motivation?
Self-motivation, or the ability to drive yourself, is what pushes you to pursue your goals and fulfill your potential.
It drives you to overcome obstacles, seize valuable opportunities, and persevere with resilience when things get tough so that you can achieve your ambitions.
How Does It Work?
There are many theories of motivation, but when we talk about the ability to motivate yourself, we’re talking primarily about intrinsic motivation.
Perhaps the most popular reigning theory in this area is the idea that intrinsic motivation, or self-drive, is one of several competencies that make up Emotional Intelligence (EQ) (Goleman 1995; 1998).
According to this theory, motivation is a self-management skill.
Other researchers have suggested that motivation and EQ are linked, but that motivation isn’t a core part of the latter (Mayer & Salovey, 1997; Christie et al., 2007). These studies see motivation as a concept related to EQ, but one that works by helping us regulate our emotions effectively.
Regardless of how motivation is categorized, there is plenty of research showing that the ability to self-regulate is a key factor in our ability to practice it (Christie et al., 2007).
Can I Develop It?
In a word: yes.
Because self-regulation is a skill, the good news is that you can develop it, and all it takes to build your self-motivation is a little knowledge and practice.
The Knowledge: What Drives You
When it comes to our goals, two things can drive us (Ryan & Deci, 2000):
Extrinsic motivation: When we do things because they lead to a specific outcome (“I must do the dishes because the sink is full/I’m getting paid for it”), and
Intrinsic motivation: When we do things because they’re fundamentally enjoyable or interesting (“I LOVE doing the dishes!”).
Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation have different impacts on how we act, but the former comes from within, which is the reason intrinsic motivation is typically used interchangeably with self-motivation.
It encourages us to:
Take responsibility for our own behaviors
Choose (and pursue) our own actions, and
Stay on track in spite of temptations that may arise.
It’s also the key reason that it’s so important to set intrinsically motivating goals.
This alone can be a superb way to drive yourself, but we can also leverage extrinsic motivation to boost our progress along the way—by rewarding ourselves strategically.
The trick is to know when to use each, and we’ll show you how with three practical exercises.
The Practice: 3 Techniques To Motivate Yourself
These techniques are a lovely combination of self-determination tactics, goal-setting interventions, and motivational techniques that might help you get on track and stay with it.
1. Cost-Benefit Analysis
It’s common to have goals, then end up doing something else. We’re not talking distraction here, but more about unhelpful behaviors like avoidance or procrastination that tend to persist over time.
According to experts, there’s inner conflict to blame for these unhelpful behaviors—between what we ultimately want, and what we’d rather do right now (Metcalfe & Mischel, 1999).
Usually, what we’d rather do right now is driven by extrinsic factors, like the relief we feel from putting something off. This positively reinforces that behavior, and we’re more inclined to repeat it the next time an opportunity crops up.
One way to overcome this is by analyzing the costs and benefits of our actions from both a short- and long-term perspective. Using physical exercise as an example, try this:
What are the short-term costs of not exercising? (mild guilt)
What are the long-term costs? (potential health conditions, loss of fitness)
What are the short-term benefits of not exercising? (avoiding tiredness, avoiding changing/showering)
What are the long-term benefits of not exercising? (this one’s down to you!)
Listing the costs and benefits of your behaviors will help you identify what outcome means the most to you. The next time you face the same dilemma, having a reminder of your key ‘why’ will help you stay on track.
2. Build The Right Habits
You may have heard that motivation gets you started, but habits are what keep you going.
Creating a Habit Plan is an effective way to develop the behaviors that will get you to your goal one step at a time, but almost automatically. Follow these steps:
Write your goal down (e.g. learning French)
Follow it up with a proactive behavior that will help you progress toward it (talking with locals)
Think of a realistic amount of time you can spend on it weekly (be explicit about when, where, and how you’ll do it), and
A lovely trick is to leverage the fact that you already have habits to help you, so if you go for coffee every Wednesday, go with a French-speaking friend (Keller et al., 2021).
Don’t forget to (extrinsically) reward yourself for doing it, maybe by ordering your favorite drink?
3. Plan For Obstacles In Advance
We can’t foresee the future, but we can anticipate and plan for some of the most likely setbacks ahead of time to improve our chances of success.
Planning in advance can help you feel less overwhelmed or unprepared when things stand in your way, and it also allows you to assess what resources you’ll need for a better chance at overcoming them.
Set aside some time to reflect on your goals and the pathways you are hoping will get you there (Luthans et al., 2006). Ask yourself:
What challenges might arise on the way?
What are the most likely to pop up?
Which can I plan for?
What will help me overcome them? (which people, strategies, and knowledge?) (Abiola & Udofia, 2011)
Over To You
You can absolutely build your self-motivation by strengthening the skills involved in it. Make sure you keep that all-important goal in mind and the joy that it brings you, and the rest will soon come naturally, we’re sure.
Catherine is an avid surfer, MBA, and Positive Psychology researcher and advocate. Working remotely around the world, her goal for 2021 is to catch the wave of her life.
She holds an MBA at the University of Bradford and a BSc in Organizational & Industrial Psychology from the University of Melbourne, including studies in neuropsychology, cognitive psychology, behavioral psych, personality, and social psychology, quantitative & qualitative research methods, positive psychology.
Abiola, T., & Udofia, O. (2011). Psychometric assessment of the Wagnild and Young’s resilience scale in Kano, Nigeria.BMC Research Notes,4, 509.
Alberts, H. (2021).Costs and Benefits of Unhelpful Behavior.The Positive Psychology Toolkit. Retrieved from https://pro.positivepsychology.com/positive-psychology-toolkit/
Christie, A., Jordan, P., Troth, A., & Lawrence, S. (2007). Testing the links between emotional intelligence and motivation.Journal of Management & Organization,13(3), 212-226.
Goleman, D. (1995).Emotional Intelligence.Bantam Books: New York.
Goleman, D. (1998).Working with Emotional Intelligence. Bantam Books: New York.
Keller, J., Kwasnicka, D., Klaiber, P., Sichert, L., Lally, P., & Fleig, L. (2021). Habit formation following routine‐based versus time‐based cue planning: A randomized controlled trial.British Journal of Health Psychology. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1111/bjhp.12504
Luthans, F., Avey, J. B., Avolio, B. J., Norman, S. M., & Combs, G. M. (2006). Psychological capital development: toward a micro‐intervention.Journal of Organizational Behavior: The International Journal of Industrial, Occupational and Organizational Psychology and Behavior, 27(3), 387-393.
Metcalfe, J., & Mischel, W. (1999). A hot/cool-system analysis of delay of gratification: Dynamics of willpower.Psychological Review, 106, 3-19.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions.Contemporary Educational Psychology,25(1), 54-67.