New Psychological Research Teaches Us How To Be More Self-Motivated

We generally assume that too many obstacles to pursuing a goal impair our motivation. A new study published in the Personality Research Journal turns that logic on its head and suggests that it’s actually your motivation that determines the number and difficulty of the obstacles you face.

“Most people have big intentions when they pursue a goal and try to change their behavior. But often these intentions are not translated into action,” says psychologist Marina Milyavskaya of Carleton University in Canada.

According to Milyavskaya, any temptation that prevents you from achieving your goals is an obstacle. For example, junk food is a hindrance if your goal is to eat healthy, and cell phones and other distractions are hindrances if your goal is to study or work.

But this is where it gets complicated. Milyavskaya explains that obstacles (and their level of difficulty) can be perceived differently by different people. People’s personalities, the type of goal they are trying to achieve, the strength of their desire (etc.) are all factors that play a role in determining our perception of and relationship to obstacles.

Another important factor, according to Milyavskaya’s study, is our type of motivation. The study distinguishes between two different types of motivation that we experience when pursuing a goal:

  1. desired motivation represents our inner motivation – to do something because it is personally important or interesting to us, or because it aligns well with our values.
  2. must motivationon the other hand, includes behaviors that we think we should do, either because someone else requires or expects us to do so, or because we would feel guilty if we didn’t do those behaviors.

Milyavskaya and her team conducted seven studies to test participants’ motivation by assigning them different tasks and subjecting them to different temptations (like pizza during a board meeting).

They found that people who showed motivation when they wanted to—that is, people who completed tasks with feelings of personal interest—consciously stayed away from obstacles, making it easier for them to reach the goal. The opposite was true for people working with a must motivation.

This means that target tracking isn’t about being exceptionally strong. Instead, it’s about knowing the things that make us weak and keeping a safe distance from them.

How does this solve the motivation problem? Milyavskaya offers two small suggestions for tackling the inevitable problem of doing things because we have to do them. Instead of groaning our way through such a task every time, we can try to create a “want” motivation by:

  1. Think about how the task fits with your values ​​and identity. We embrace it as something that is more of a wanting. Perhaps I value being a conscientious worker, so completing that dreaded project report fits that value. Or I want to be a veterinarian someday, so doing my math homework is important to achieve that goal.
  2. Make it more comfortable in the moment. Pair it with something else fun or fun like. B. listening to music or enjoying a treat.

“When you find yourself pursuing a goal for compelling reasons, you’re more likely to struggle with that goal,” she concludes. “Perhaps it is worth replacing that goal with one that is more personally meaningful or important? Or can you find other reasons for the same goal instead.”

A full interview with psychologist Marina Milyavskaya about her research can be found here: New psychological research shows how to trade weak motivation for strong motivation

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