Boost your motivation

How can I boost my motivation?

Have you ever noticed that when you’re sitting on the bus on the way home from work reading this year’s Man Booker prize winner (as opposed to some work documents), you’re less likely to notice the person next to you, your thoughts are less likely to wander and you’re at greater risk of missing your stop? Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan would likely explain why you’re more engrossed in your novel, versus your work, using Self-Determination Theory (SDT).

SDT is a theory of motivation, that posits we have better psychological health and satisfaction when we have control (autonomy) and when tasks are complex and/or when they require a great deal of discipline. If we have autonomy, we’re also more likely to perform to a higher standard and achieve our goal. The theory holds that this is true whether we find the goal interesting in and of itself (intrinsically rewarding) or if we find the task uninteresting but that doing the task resonates with our self-identity (e.g. “I’ll show this customer how to fill in this form because being helpful is important to me”).

Conversely, when we feel controlled (as opposed to autonomous), we’re less likely to engage in goal-directed behaviour or achieve improved psychological wellbeing. Going back to the example of the customer’s form-filling, if I was operating from a “controlled” motivational stance, I might help the customer complete the form because my boss is watching or because if I don’t, I might feel bad.

In addition to feeling a sense of control, having a sense both of competence and of connection to others is also likely to help you internalise goals, and therefore engage in goal-directed behaviour.

Very often in our training, people tell us they’re familiar with SMART goal-setting but that this doesn’t seem to help them get going with their goal. Often the problem is one of motivation. If that’s you, then the following steps might help you a little before you try and turn your good intention into a SMART goal.

  1. Write down your goal.
  2. Read your goal back to yourself. What emotions come up? How motivated do you feel?
  3. Ask yourself, do I want to do this behaviour:
    a. because doing the behaviour is interesting and rewarding for me (e.g. “I love losing myself in a good book”)?
    b. because this fits with my values and who I am (e.g. “I like to be calm when I get home for the kids and my partner and reading on the bus helps me do that”)?c. so I can get something else (e.g. “I can tick off another prize-winning book I’ve read”)?
    d. so I can feel good about myself (or avoid feeling bad) (e.g. “If I don’t read this book, I’ll feel like a dilettante).If your reasons sounded more like (c) or (d), have a think about how the behaviour could better align with your values and sense of self. Then rewrite your goal, emphasising the meaning or value of the behaviour to you.
  4. Read your new goal. What feelings come up? How motivated do you feel, now?

If you’re not noticing a shift in your motivation, here are some more useful tips:

  • Make sure you feel able to achieve the goal (that’s the SDT bit about feeling competent).
  • Try and make your goal about relating to others, rather than about competition. Remember that the research says we’re more likely to achieve our goals and feel good if, for example, we read The Luminaries so we can participate in the morning tea chat, than if we’re just planning to show off our literary prowess to colleagues.
  • Write your goal in positive terms (e.g. “I’ll go back and re-read the last paragraph if I get distracted” rather than, “Don’t get distracted”). We’re more likely to do something when we’ve clearly articulated the desired behaviour.


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