It’s resolution o’clock. Many of you are either setting New Year’s resolutions, thinking about them or already have the ball rolling. Whether you’re trying to break a habit, form a new habit, create a new routine or anything else, you’re going to have to deal with the M word: motivation.
Looking back on my intentions at the start of 2016, I see a real mixed bag—plenty of goals fulfilled, but plenty others left by the wayside. I launched my website, but fell short on my language-learning goals. I learned how to measure my progress with projects, but the projects themselves had mixed results.
One reason for my mixed results was simply that my priorities changed as the year progressed. Things that had felt incredibly important at the start of the year kind of faded in significance, meaning that certain goals were simply dropped.
But this wasn’t the only reason for my mixed results. In addition to changing my priorities, I also failed to properly motivate myself.
This year, I’m feeling far better prepared. By taking the time to understand motivation fully, I’ve figured out how to structure my goals to maximise my motivation.
In his book Drive, Dan Pink identifies three key sources of motivation:
- Our desire to survive (‘animal’ desires)
- External rewards (extrinsic motivation)
- The enjoyment, satisfaction and challenge inherent in a task (intrinsic motivation)
We mostly end up focusing on number two—extrinsic motivation. We spend a lot of time doing things in order to earn rewards—a bonus, complements, admiration or praise.
The key to maximising motivation seems to be to maintain a balance between number two and number three (intrinsic motivation). Although it might feel like the enjoyment of a task is insufficient to keep you going, it actually forms a vital part of maintaining motivation in the long term. If you’re going to stick with a resolution for a whole year, long-term motivation is key.
The logic behind maintaining a balance of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation can be broken down into two key reasons:
It can be tempting to simply provide yourself with a steady chain of external rewards, creating a new reward whenever the current reward is earned. The problem, however, is that forcing yourself to do something purely for a reward takes willpower—you have to constantly remind yourself that it’s really worth it. ego depletion theory suggests that we only have a limited pool of mental resources to power our willpower—eventually they get used up. However powerful the reward, you might run out of willpower.
Although questions have recently been raised about ego depletion theory, it kind of just makes sense intuitively. Constantly forcing yourself to do something purely for a future reward is tiring. The more tired you get, the harder it gets. Eventually you might give up. It’s as simple as that.
When Hungarian Psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi introduced the concept of flow, he began to explain a phenomenon that many people had experienced. It’s the feeling of being totally absorbed in any activity so much so that you feel “strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of [your] abilities.”
Flow can be achieved during any activity, as long as it’s neither too simple nor too demanding. You must constantly be aiming for goals that are achievable but challenging, with immediate feedback on your performance. You could be playing a sport, attempting a puzzle, solving a problem at work or reading a book.
The power of flow is that in contrast to the tiring, willpower-sapping effects of forcing yourself to chase a reward, flow is rewarding in itself. It is the purest form of intrinsic motivation and can actually create a sense of increasing your energy reserves. You’re not forcing yourself to complete the task—you’re doing it because you enjoy it.
To put it simply, flow can provide the long-term source of motivation that is vital for resolutions. If you can identify tasks, projects or goals that can lead to flow, you can make the whole process of motivating yourself a LOT easier.
Ultimately, the key to maximising motivation is to achieve a balance between extrinsic motivation (rewards) and intrinsic motivation (enjoyment or challenge). When setting resolutions, this can be achieved through the following simple steps:
- For each resolution, consider whether you can utilise flow for achieving your goal. You’ll need to create the following two conditions:
- A level of difficulty that is neither too hard nor too easy, constantly challenging you without feeling impossible
- Immediate feedback on your efforts (either electronically, from someone else or through your own assessment)
- If you can utilise flow, structure your efforts for achieving the resolution purely around intrinsic motivation—make achieving flow the goal and results should come
- Regularly (either weekly or monthly) reflect on your progress and levels of motivation
- Only use external rewards as your backup when either the resolution doesn’t lend itself to intrinsic motivation or intrinsic motivation doesn’t seem to be working
By moving the focus from external reward to your own personal enjoyment, you can create an unlimited source of motivation for your resolutions. By creating a personal challenge with regular feedback, you can create a state of flow that can turn in to a long-term source of motivation.
Most importantly, using intrinsic motivation is fun! Why force yourself into a structure that requires willpower when fun can help you stick with your resolutions?