You’re sitting on the bus on the way home from work. Instead of reading work documents, you’re reading your brand new copy of the latest blockbuster novel or this year’s Man Booker prize winner.  You barely notice the person next to you, your thoughts hardly wander and you’re at great risk of missing your stop.

Psychology professors Edward Deci and Richard Ryan use Self-Determination Theory (SDT) to explain why you’re more engrossed in your novel than you would be in your work documents on that ride.

SDT is a theory of motivation that argues 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 goals.

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 (eg “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 and act more to avoid bad feelings. In this state, we help the customer with the form mainly because the boss is watching, or because if we don’t, we might feel bad.

In addition to feeling a sense of control, having both a sense of competence and a sense of connection to others is also likely to help you own your 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 goals. Often the problem is one of motivation. If that’s you, then the following steps might help:

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 because:

a. doing this is interesting and rewarding for me (“I love losing myself in a good book”)

b. doing this fits with my values and who I am (“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. doing this helps me get something else that might be useful (“I can tick off another prize winning book I’ve read”)

d. doing this stops me feeling bad (“If I haven’t read this book, I’ll feel stupid compared to other people who have”).

If your reasons sounded more like (c) or (d), have a think about how the behaviour could be more in line with the positive values and sense of self in (a) and (b). 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, try some more useful tips:

  • Make sure you feel able to achieve the goal (that’s the SDT bit about “feeling competent”).
  • Try to make your goal about relating to others rather than about competition. Research says we’re more likely to achieve our goals and feel good if, for example, we read The Luminaries so that we can join in the morning tea chat than if we’re trying to show off our literary prowess to our colleagues.
  • Write your goal in the positive (“I’ll go back and re-read the last paragraph if I get distracted” rather than, “Don’t get distracted”). We’re also more likely to do things when we’re clear about what exactly we want to do.

– written by Anouk