Motivation: It’s Not Just About How Much, But Also What kind.


How driven are you to pursue your goal? Are you willing to put in the work to run your marathon, finish the house-remodeling project, or develop your side business?

When it comes to motivation, we focus on the quantity of it. Do we have the energy and desire to get to the finish line or not? If we don’t have the necessary drive, then we look for ways to increase it. Maybe try some incentives or reflect on why we started our respective pursuit in the first place. And yes, while the quantity of our motivation is important, so is the oft-neglected other half of the equation: the quality.

The quality of motivation refers to the impact that the motivator has on you over the long haul. Does it change your mental framework in a positive or negative manner? Is the motivator sustainable or does it quickly deplete and need to be replaced by something else?

Take fear, for example. It’s one of the most powerful motivators there is. Tapping into our deep ancestral roots of survival, fear can push us to perform acts that we didn’t know we were capable of. But it’s also short-lived and has some nasty lingering side-effects. If fear becomes your primary driver, then your mental framework slowly shifts from playing to win to playing not to lose. The fear of failure becomes more powerful than accomplishing the goal itself. This is a quick recipe not only for burnout but also impaired performance over the long haul.

Another example would be a reliance on incentives. We can bribe our students or children with copious rewards for staying on task or completing an assignment. Over the short term, this might work. Our student’s homework completion goes up, as they seek out the candy or video games or whatever reward comes along with it. But over time, as the novelty of the reward wears off and loses its value, homework completion slides backward. The reward no longer provides the motivation it once did, and our students have ingrained that the only reason they completed their homework in the first place was to get the reward, not to get better at math or science. So to them, no reward means there’s no point to complete the task.

When it comes to motivation we tend to focus on the quantity. We focus on the here and now, trying to figure out what can get our athlete through the next rep, our kid to take out the trash, or our employee to execute on her operational responsibility. Seldom do we consider the quality, the longer-term impact that such a strategy might have.

That’s not to say that we should never utilize fear or rewards and punishment as motivators. They are tools, for sure, but by being aware of the quality of motivators, it allows us to consider their long-term consequences, use them judiciously when they are needed, and combat their negative impacts along the way. Next time you’re trying to figure out how to motivate your subordinates, or even yourself, give some thought to the quality of the motivator. What will the impact be down the road?

— Steve

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