It’s not uncommon to struggle with motivation. It’s a tricky beast to tame, but it’s also incredibly powerful. A bout of motivation every day is all you need to sustain a career move or pursue a personal goal over the long-term.
For most people, motivation is fleeting. It drives you to complete a whole week’s worth of work over the weekend without realizing it, but disappears on Monday when you really need to get started with something new at work. It’s hard to control and keep alive when you need it most.
Scientists seem to define motivation as the willingness to do something. It’s a very intrinsic and natural drive to take something new on and complete it successfully. Digging deeper it seems every action and thought we have is guided by our built-in motivations. Psychologists believe that the basis of human behavior is the sticks and carrots the mind associates with different activities. Every decision and behavior is rooted in the mind’s perception of pleasure and pain.
It appears that the mind and body will simply not act till the pain of not doing something outweighs the pain of doing it. Similarly, the rewards of doing something must outweigh the temporary reward of not doing it. This means there are two forms of motivation – negative and positive. But which one works better?
Positive motivation comes from an internal drive to seek out pleasure. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs explains this well. You’re more likely to act when the results of an action are a direct impact on one of your needs – like the need for self actualization or self esteem.
Some people respond very well to positive stimulation. Thinking about the pleasures of being financially independent or well recognized within an industry can push people to achieve impossible feats in their career.
You can create positive motivation by either reminding yourself of the benefits of a task or by setting up rewards for yourself for completing something. It’s the equivalent of setting up carrots or thinking about the carrots as you go about doing what you need to do.
For example, visualizing a thinner, better looking version of yourself could push you to get up and exercise in the morning. At the same time, you could probably reward yourself with a bottle of wine if you meet your weekly targets at work. Both these methods are positive and can really get you to meet the targets you set.
“Ability is what you’re capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do. Attitude determines how well you do it.” – Lou Holtz
Negative motivation is about punishment and fear. It’s the sort of motivation that gets you to quit smoking because you’ve witnessed someone struggle with cancer. Of course, not every motivation needs to be dramatic or dreadful. You could be motivated to stay at your job because you don’t want to lose the house, or could be paying the bills on time because you want to avoid the penalty.
Negative motivation is likely to work just as well as positive motivation, but for some people it’s a lot more effective. Certain people are driven by fear and anxiety. The looming threat of loss is too much to bear for some individuals and they tend to take action more quickly in such scenarios.
You can apply negative motivation by reminding yourself of the consequences of not doing something. You could also apply this sort of motivation by setting up punishments for not completing some task. Working over the weekend because you didn’t complete an assignment over the week or seeking out criticism from friends to help you improve your work are both examples of negative motivations that propel action.
“Success is not built on success. It’s built on failure. It’s built on frustration. Sometimes, it’s built on catastrophe.” – Summer Redtsone
Which one is better?
So, which of the two types of motivation work best? The good news is this is an area of psychology that has been well researched and there is a definite answer. In the 1940’s B.F. Skinner published a number of academic studies that showed the effects of what he called “positive and negative reinforcement.” Skinner’s studies were based on experiments on lab mice that indicated how human beings responded to reinforcement.
The research found that both types of reinforcement were abundant in the systems created to extract work. Some people responded better to positive reinforcements like rewards, while others responded better to negative reinforcement like punishments. Researchers Kelly J Bouxsein, Henry S Roane, and Tara Harper expanded on this study and found that a combination of the two types worked best. It seems the average person is best motivated when there is a little bit of reward and a justified amount of punishment for completing or not completing the task at hand.
You can apply this knowledge to better motivate yourself in the future. At work and in your personal life there’s likely to be a system of checks and balances that motivate you to do things. But you need to go beyond this and create a sense of personal motivation. Take the time to understand yourself and set up a system of rewards and punishments that will push you to achieve more.