When it comes to getting things done, motivation is everything. No matter what goals and aspirations you have in life, you will most certainly need some motivation to achieve them.
The inner drive, the invisible push, the secret ingredient to productivity—regardless of which words we choose, the meaning remains the same. Motivation is what gets us to take action.
According to Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, motivation is the most significant predictor of success across all fields whether it’s sports, business, personal life, or education, you name it. Given the all-purpose benefit of motivation, it’s no wonder everyone wants to know how to get (and stay) motivated.
Understanding the Two Kinds of Motivation
Not all motivation is the same. In some cases, we get motivated by what we want to gain. In others, it is rather about what we have to lose.
There’s a popular carrot-and-stick concept that illustrates the difference better than any words would. Imagine a donkey. What is the way to make him move? Years of evidence show there are two ways. The first is to put a carrot in front of the animal. Seeing the something he wants, will keep him going. The second is to jam the donkey with a stick from behind. In the first case, the animal will move in order to gain what he wants. In the second, he’ll do the same to avoid punishment.
It is hard to say which type of motivation is more powerful. It all depends on the situation and what kind of person you are.
Take the career ladder, for instance. Some people achieve success because they love expensive clothes, vacationing several times a year, business class flights, and all things luxury. The idea of having it all is what motivates them. For others, it works the other way around. They might be satisfied with the life they have today, but be afraid to lose it all one day. The fear of poverty is what makes them do their best at work.
Both motivation types do the same job—they act as a driving force behind our actions.
The Science Behind Motivation
The good news is that you don’t have to understand how motivation works to get yourself going. If you are curious, though, get ready for the shortest neuroscience lesson ever:
In order for motivation to occur, we need to anticipate something important. When we feel anticipation, a neurotransmitter called dopamine spikes. Dopamine has a biological connection to our motivation—this chemical makes us maintain the level of activity required to accomplish tasks and goals.
As recent studies suggest, the major role of dopamine is to encourage us to act for one of two reasons that are paralleled by motivation itself: to gain something we want or avoid something we don’t.
Dopamine is necessary for both “getting” and “staying” motivated. At first, it will kick in as a response to our anticipation (that’s why it is important to set goals and imagine success as vividly as possible). Later on, a new portion of dopamine is released each time we achieve a sub-goal and get one step closer to the final goal (that’s why you should break big goals down into smaller ones and reward yourselves each time a sub-goal is achieved).
How to Get Motivated (And Stay Motivated Long-term)
By now you know what motivation is and how it works. It’s time to translate your knowledge into action. Below you will find five actionable steps that will help you replace distractions and laziness with productivity and motivation.
- Write your goals down and keep it in visible place.
Have you ever wondered why all those life experts insist on writing things down? We have. Turns out, the process of writing triggers certain reactions in our brain. Writing our goals down activates a particular area of our brain, which somehow keeps us more accountable. The moment we write our goals, we internally calibrate ourselves to stay on course. Why keep it in eyesight? To serve as a reminder of why you started if you waver.
- Monitor your progress and celebrate small achievements.
Few things are more inspiring than realizing you are already halfway to your goals. Or at least quarter-way. Or even one-tenth-way. Ok, you’ve got the point. When you monitor progress, two important things happen. First, you realize how far you’ve already gone from where you started. Second, it gives you a reason to reward yourself (do you remember that rewards spike dopamine levels and dopamine is what fuels your motivation on a biochemical level?) Monitor progress; celebrate achievements.
- Surround yourself with go-getters and achievers.
If it’s true that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with, then taking this step might be one of the most important of all. It gets increasingly hard to prepare for your finals if your roommates are party animals and your room is where every pre-game takes place. It becomes nearly impossible to maintain a clean diet if your family orders pizza every other evening. The bottom line is this: make sure at least half of your inner circle are motivated and inspired people. We all have ups and downs and when you are going through your down moment, you’ll need a go-getter friend by your side to remind you to keep going.
- Set deadlines and micro-deadlines.
Deadlines are commitments. Commitments are signals to our brain to keep pushing no matter what. Isn’t that what being motivated is all about? Another good thing about deadlines is that they help you stay organized and resist distractions. Micro-deadlines are commitments you make to complete your sub-tasks. Make sure you have micro-deadlines set for each sub-goal in your roadmap. Organization on a micro level means organization on a global level. Keep this in mind.
- If necessary, commit publicly.
This one is for the bravest. There is evidence that making a public promise to lose weight help people stick to a healthier diet and workout routine. There was a fascinating experiment, which showed that women with a long-term public commitment to their weight loss program exceeded their initial goal, while those who made no commitment at all reached only 88 percent of their goal.
The same goes for goals unrelated to weight. This pretty much explains why online challenges and support groups are so popular these days. If you fear social disapproval or know that it will make you feel highly uncomfortable to admit failure, consider this option as a part of your motivation-boost strategy.
The Final Word on Motivation
No matter what goals you have in mind, a little motivation won’t hurt. Motivation is what will help you get started. It will help you stay on course until you get what you want. Now you know how motivation works and what actions and behaviors fuel it. Make the most out of your knowledge and don’t forget to keep your eyes on the prize.