Understanding how to improve motivation is essential for anybody who wants to accomplish something, overcome a challenge or improve any aspect of life, work or education. In our Tougher Minds programmes, we define motivation as the direction and intensity of effort.
This makes goal-setting essential for motivation. When we set a goal, we can direct and focus our efforts and energies on achieving it. Goals give us something to work towards.
Improve motivation – how to begin?
If you have done a self-reflection exercise (like the Tougher Minds APE Brain Test , it may have highlighted some areas of your life or work that you want to change. This might be a new diet habit, a new productivity habit or a new self-talk habit. From this list you identify one area that is most important for you. In other words, your number one health, happiness and/or performance priority.
Can you change to improve motivation?
Once you have identified the area you want to work on the question you may well ask is, “can I achieve this, can I really improve in this area?” Thankfully, neuroscience can help us understand more about this question.
Why are you skilled at some things in your life and work but not others?
We often consider the idea of nature versus nurture as follows. Were we born with certain skills and abilities (nature) or have we practiced and developed them (nurture)?
The science relating to this question is very clear. It shows that when we are born we cannot do very much. It is only by experiencing, doing things and practicing them that we develop basic attributes for life, including walking, thinking and talking.
Science also shows that with focused practice, we can improve any skill. Lots of this practice was done in early childhood so we do not always remember how much effort went into learning the skills we use today. For example, writing was not always easy.
When we practice anything our brains change. It Is these changes that allow us to improve our skills and abilities. The brain changing process is called neuroplasticity. It means that our abilities are not fixed, you can improve anything you want to with the right type and quantity of practice. We refer to this as deliberate practice.
In scientific terms, the theory of deliberate practice is fundamental to understanding how we become good at anything. In this theory, a person’s accomplishments are attributed more to deliberate practice than innate ability. Deliberate practice shows a significant correlation between what you practice and your abilities. The message here is clear: volume of quality practice informs future performance, more accurately than current performance.
Understand the learning process to improve motivation
Learning how to improve anything starts with acquiring knowledge. For example, when you learned the alphabet you received the knowledge from a book or perhaps a teacher, a parent or someone else. After that you had to practice your alphabet skills. This is using your knowledge e.g. saying the letters out loud and writing them down, making mistakes and learning as you go.
Learning anything new was not easy at first. However, with practice, skills become habits, making them easy to deploy, with almost no conscious effort. So the more you practiced your alphabet, the easier and more habitual it became. Eventually you could say the alphabet without really thinking about it.
We can improve anything with practice. First we need knowledge, then we need to practice the skills until they become habits. This process can take a long time, but the more we practice the more neurons we grow.
We think about this process in the following way. Imagine that practice, and moving from knowledge to skill to habit, involves freezing neurons in the brain until they become solid ice cubes. Once an ice cube is frozen, the habit is built. But if we stop using the skill, the ice cube melts, because neurons that are not being used become weaker – via a process called synaptic pruning.
We can imagine that we then organise our ice cubes into an igloo that represents how good we are at any particular activity. The more complete our igloo, the better we are at the activity. And there will always be new ice cubes that we need to freeze and add onto our igloo in order to develop our abilities and advance to the next level.
We can also imagine that we have a group of igloos (like an igloo housing estate) and each represents the different areas in our work and life, that are important to us for success and happiness. Different igloos will be at different stages of development, but they can each be built up or improved with the right type, quality and quantity of practice.
Our brains make it challenging but we can improve motivation (and anything else) with practice
Unfortunately the A.P.E. Brain does not like spending lots of time on practice. That is especially true when we are not very good at what we are practicing, or when it takes a long time to improve. The A.P.E. Brain is only interested in the next 10 minutes, and not working hard to improve. The good news is we can use our H.A.C. Brain and our Will Power to achieve this.
We have just considered developing new skills in terms of a rudimentary activity i.e. learning the alphabet. But again science shows us that process is the same for any type of skill (physical or mental), even those that might be considered more abstract and less tangible.
For example, we can learn to be happy. The first thing we need is some new knowledge. Perhaps you attended one of our Tougher Minds presentations in which you received some insights about happiness.
These insights will include the idea that it is important to pay more attention to the thoughts that are helpful to you. The new skill associated with this is writing down these thoughts to focus and target your attention. Even more specifically, you might learn how to identify and write down three helpful (not necessarily positive) thoughts at the end of each day.
For example, you might identify that you started your day with some exercise, which felt hard and challenging at the time, but made you feel much better afterwards, so you felt content and satisfied. Additionally, you may remind yourself that you enjoy working with a certain group of people that day, and also you are fortunate to be able to have a family that loves you.
If we keep practising this process of writing down thoughts that are helpful to us, then eventually our learning and development moves from knowledge, to become a skill and then it becomes a habit. For example, it will become much easier to think helpful thoughts. This process applies to anything or skill we want to improve.
As we grow from babies to adults, neuroplasticity means that we constantly acquire knowledge by watching people (via our mirror neurons )and experiencing things. We do not just learn in the classroom or by reading. We are learning all the time.
Motivation and Genetics – are they linked?
A person’s genes make it more likely that they will develop certain traits and attributes, but scientific research shows that genetics are malleable . People do have ‘raw genetic material’, which is their genotype. However, the physical expression (e.g. height, ability to catch, how they handle stress) of this can also be shaped, as it is strongly influenced by environmental interactions (practice). This results in their phenotype – this understanding is termed epigenetics. For example, although a person might have ‘less favourable’ genetic dispositions (genotype) to reach an expert level in a given area, it is still possible for them to become adept by engaging in the appropriate practice. This would allow them to develop suitable phenotypic gene expressions.
This is not a case of nature versus nurture, but nature plus nurture. Science now shows our environments can have just as great an influence on our development as our genes. Also the genome can be just as malleable as our environments.
Successful people show we can all improve motivation
The American billionaire Warren Buffett is regarded as one of the world’s most successful investors. He is ranked as one of the wealthiest people on the planet. The so-called ‘Oracle of Omaha’ provides a great example of a highly successful individual, who learned how to improve something that was important in his life.
When he started his career in the 1950s, by his own admission, Buffett was ‘terrified’ of public speaking and did it very poorly. He wanted to improve. So he enrolled on a popular training programme at the time, a Dale Carnegie Public Speaking course.
Buffett explained how the course improved his performance and helped his career. It also boosted his confidence enough so that he could propose to his wife. He has explained that if he had not learned to be an accomplished public speaker, his life would have been different and not as successful. Buffett has also said he has always been proud to display his certificate for completing the course on his office wall, and that it has pride of place over his prestigious academic degrees! Warren Buffett’s story shows that anybody can achieve their goals and objectives. This is because our brains are designed to change and develop throughout our lives. We never stop learning.
Is it worth the effort to improve motivation?
If we accept that we can improve any of our abilities and reach the goals and objectives we set ourselves, the next thing we often ask ourselves is, is it worth the effort?
An in-depth interview, that best-selling author J.K. Rowling gave to TV host Oprah Winfry, helps us think more about this. The writer responsible for the global phenomenon that is the Harry Potter books explained how she had a long-term ambition to publish a successful children’s book.
She explained how she struggled and did not initially succeed. But J.K. Rowling persisted and eventually found the inspiration for the story of the young wizard. However, this was not enough. She had to keep persisting because her Harry Potter book was reportedly turned down by 12 publishers before she finally got a book deal. This is amazing when we consider that the Harry Potter series became the biggest selling children’s books of all time, and one of the highest grossing movie franchises.
J.K. Rowling’s story highlights another critical aspect of motivation. To manage or change our behaviour in the present, it is very helpful to have a goal or a reason that is deeply meaningful for us.
Big Meaningful Goals are important to improve motivation
Research shows that, when they began doing business, some of the world’s most successful companies had what the researchers called Big Hairy Audacious Goals, or BHAGS. If we don’t have a clear vision of what we want to achieve, it is very hard to persist and work to our potential each day.
However, knowing the importance of a clear vision for the future is one thing, achieving it is another. The problem is that the A.P.E. Brain is only interested in the next 10 minutes of our time, not what will happen at the end of the year, or in 10 years. So, we have to use our Will Power to pay attention to the future – H.A.Cing the A.P.E. Brain.
Create your own ‘F.A.M. Story’
We have developed a concept called the ‘F.A.M. Story’ to make it easier to set and connect short, medium and long-term goals. Think of creating a F.A.M. Story as a skill you can use to motivate yourself.
Why a story helps improve motivation?
The American author and scholar Jonathan Gottschall calls humans ‘The Storytelling Animal’. He believes we are conditioned to tell stories. From a neurobiological perspective, we can see that stories are so central to individuals and societies because they are easy for our brains to remember. We have powerful episodic (or autobiographical) memory centres in our brains. Our brains really like structuring knowledge and memories as stories, with a beginning, a middle and an end.
Will an average person be more likely to remember a list of facts, or an interesting story that incorporates those facts? The chances are that it will be much easier for them to remember the latter. This is why people studying for tests are encouraged to create memory palaces and mnemonics (stories about words).
We encourage people to create positive stories about their future lives because they are powerful in helping us to create change and achieve our goals.
F.A.M. stands for Future, Ambitious and Meaningful.
The F in F.A.M. stands for Future. Mapping out and connecting your short, medium and long-term Future goals will help you to control the controllable aspects of your life. Also, some people will underestimate your potential, so it is important to make your F.A.M. story Ambitious – aim to be the best, you possibly can be.
As well as Ambitious, your F.A.M. story should also be Meaningful. Your story should have a clear purpose that matches your personal values and beliefs. For example, you might want to become a people manager in your company, because for you to feel fulfilled it is important that you help others to succeed.
Writing a story about your Future which is Ambitious and Meaningful is not easy, and this is why you need the help of your family and important people in your life.
The F.A.M. story iceberg helps us to visualize our future progress and understand that when we see someone who is successful, we often only notice what they are good at, not the massive amount of practice and effort that went into developing their excellence. We only see the ice on the surface NOT the larger chunks of ice below the waterline. That’s why looking at someone who is good at something is like looking at an iceberg.
Six steps to improve motivation
To build your own ‘F.A.M. story Iceberg’ you need to:
- Think about what you want to achieve, and where you would like to be in the long-term future – the next 10 plus years.
- Then think about what you need to do in the next 1- 4 years to achieve those big, long-term goals.
- Then think about what you need to achieve in the next 12 months.
- Then think about what you need to achieve this month.
- Then think about what you need to achieve this week
- Then think about what you need to do today.
We will give you detailed guidance on how to create your own ‘F.A.M. story Iceberg’ later, and you can re-draft this as many times as you like.
Creating big meaningful goals helps improve motivation in various ways:
Create a Wave of Motivation
Firstly, they create what we call a ‘wave of motivation’. This helps direct our efforts and our energies.
Secondly, they help us to focus by developing an understanding of exactly what we need to accomplish in the short-term to achieve our long-term objective.
Thirdly, setting a major goal allows us to track how much progress we are making towards this. Harvard psychologist Professor Teresa Amabile coined the term, The Progress Principle. She highlighted how people feel better if their daily activity helps them to make progress towards a meaningful goal. She showed how small wins, or pieces of progress, make it easier to keep persisting in the face of challenges. According to some researchers the single biggest cause of work burnout is not overload, but working for too long without experiencing personal progress.
When we do not feel like our efforts are being rewarded with progress, we can feel stifled and overwhelmed. Whereas feeling that we are making progress in our lives can make us happier, more fulfilled and more motivated.
Setting and monitoring goals also makes it easier to reset and recalibrate when we falter. Goals are often thought to increase pressure. But because they are not set in stone they can be adjusted and reset to reduce pressure. Having goals makes counteracting stress easier than not having goals. When a goal becomes too stressful or unattainable reset it.
Fulfil your dreams
The final reason that makes big meaningful goals useful relates to the idea of self-fulfilling prophecy. Walt Disney famously said, ‘If you can dream it, you can do it.’ Work by Columbia University Professor Robert Merton also showed that if you create a belief that you can achieve something, you have a better chance of success. Merton is known as the founding father of modern sociology, his self-fulfilling prophecy theory has had far reaching implications for how we understand human behaviour.
Watch our ‘How to Boost Motivation and Personal Drive – WEBINAR’ and learn how to transform motivation into meaningful action.
Also, use our FREE resources to help your resilience, leadership and building new habits – click here