How to never run out of motivation according to science
We all love and seek motivation because it fills us with energy and purpose. But even if it makes us thrive, it is often tricky to find and even harder to maintain.
Usually, when starting a new project, the novelty of the process inspires your actions. And you can work for days without fatiguing. But as you continue, you may experience demoralizing reality checks. Perhaps because you overestimated part of the process, or maybe not everything was as easy as you expected.
Also, the freshness of the projects becomes routine. There is little to no novelty about it. So your motivation drops. And you only have two choices in this situation:
- Abandon anything you want to achieve and consider it a failed attempt.
- Reframe your mindset and build a more stable system that keeps you motivated while working on your project.
So which choice should you make?
When to abandon and when to reframe?
If you want to never run out of motivation, it would be stupid to suggest you abandon a project because this is what you are trying to avoid.
But if you are inexperienced and naive, the first choice is often the most clever. And it is better to pick up a project, learn as much as possible, and then dump it than to lose your time trying to make it work.
In a few years, you will have a broader idea of what worked for you and what didn’t. So you will know when to avoid a task or when to accept it.
However, experience is not everything.
Even when you think you have all the needed information, sometimes you can feel uninspired. And in those cases, you need to reframe your mindset and build a more stable system if you want to continue.
Luckily, scientists have researched incentives and motivators for centuries. And today, we know many ways to deal with them.
How to never run out of motivation according to science
In the 1950s, psychologist B. F. Skinner conducted a few experiments on pigeons to understand human behavior concerning variable rewards.
In the first experiment, Skinner put the birds in a box that gave them food every time they pressed a lever.
The pigeons soon learned the cause-effect relationship between the two actions: pressing the lever and receiving food. So they used it to get their reward.
In the second experiment, Skinner modified the box so it wouldn’t give food every time but only at arbitrary presses. So sometimes the birds will have received the reward, and some other times they won’t.
The random variable increased the number of times the pigeons tapped the lever. So adding variability to the reward made it addictive somehow.
Further experiments revealed many secrets about what drives our actions. For example, they prove that variability makes our body spike in dopamine levels, making us hungry for rewards.
So if we increase the rewards of our actions, our hunger to accomplish them grows faster. And this is the core concept that drives our motivation.
You can find variable rewards in every product and experience that tries to hold your attention. They fuel your drive to open YouTube and watch the latest videos, for example. Or even start a match on your favorite smartphone game.
They drive you from the most insignificant action, like checking your e-mail, to the most complex ones, like bargain-shop. So if you introduce variability in your behavior and projects, you will make them more addictive and enticing. And you will never run out of motivation again.
3 Types of Variable Rewards to Never run out of Motivation
If you want to never run out of motivation, you need to introduce variability of prizes in your projects. According to Nir Eyal, every product we use today that seeks our attention uses multiple types of rewards to keep us addicted. And if we find a way to introduce them into our routines, we will enhance our motivation.
The rewards can take different shapes, but they are all part of three main categories: the tribe, the hunt, and the self.
1 — The reward of the Tribe
The first reward we can introduce in our routines is a social contract driven by our tendency to connect with people.
The tribe represents our need to feel accepted, appealing, and included in our social ring. And since we seek the respect of the people we love and value, we are willing to invest our time in activities that show our importance to the highest audience possible.
As for the content creator economy, many industries trade products for social value. And to obtain it, you need to invest your time and money in activities that are often useless for a healthy life.
For example, why do you binge scroll social media like Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, or Pinterest?
- First, you do it because otherwise, you will feel the fear of missing out (FOMO). Still, FOMO is nothing but the need to show your friends that you are aware of the latest news and memes.
- And then, you do it because you want to be the first to discover the next exciting trend that could boost your value in your social circle.
But how can you use the reward of the tribe for less entertaining activities like a personal project? In this case, you have to reframe your mindset.
How to use the reward of the tribe
When I started writing online, I felt I was working only for myself. So I never told my friends about it. I didn’t want to bother them with my ambitions and was afraid to fail. But this can happen for any personal project.
If you love playing an instrument, you may enjoy writing your music. Or perhaps you are into software development and want to build revolutionary software or even a video game. But all those ambitions would never be possible without social support.
So how can you introduce the reward of the tribe?
- First, you need to find at least one person in your social circle who accepts whatever you will decide to do with your life. Usually, it is the person closest to you, like a partner or a best friend.
- Once you find it, describe to them your project and how much you care about it. Yet, you have to be explicit because sometimes people will not be careful with what you are saying, and they might undermine your project without realizing how much it matters to you.
- But most importantly, you need to tell them your final goal and what you want to accomplish with your project. If you care about it, you will use some good storytelling without even realizing it. So your supporter will empathize with your goal and engage with the latest news.
- If you are part of a bigger group, they will promote your project and push you to share it with others. So your goal will become a social contract that will enhance your value and motivation.
Also, as psychologist Albert Bandura studied, when people observe someone rewarded for a particular behavior, they are more likely to alter their beliefs and imitate the same actions. So once you talk about your project in your social circle and show your friends some success, they will support you even more and try to emulate your actions.
2 — The reward of the Hunt
In Hooked, Nir Eyal introduces the second reward by narrating a story about how our ancestors hunted.
In South Africa, people used to hunt large deer-like animals called kudu, but they did not have the technology to build spears and weapons. So they had to use one of the best abilities of our species: our resilience.
San hunters separated one kudu from the group and started following it. But the big animal couldn’t dissipate heat as well as humans because of his furry skin. So even though the San hunter was slower, he could recover the kudu when it stopped to recover. And then capture it when it collapsed.
From this example, you can understand how your biggest weapon to never run out of motivation is a mindset that never gives up. Our ancestors used it before even building weapons, and you can still use it nowadays.
The determination that made the San hunter chase the kudu is the mechanism that makes us want and buy new products and services. So to never run out of motivation, you can use this type of reward in your projects.
How to use the reward of the hunt
The need to acquire objects, like food and other supplies, is part of our brain. If you wanted to survive thousands of years ago, you needed to hunt. And even today, you need to work, get money, and buy food if you want to eat.
The intermediate passages changed, you don’t have to run down a kudu anymore (fortunately), but you still need to work to fulfill a need. And you may want to hunt other things too.
You may desire practical objects like a new smartphone, for example, or even inconsistent ones like fame and audience. If you want to have all those things, you need to hunt them down with determination.
So to introduce the reward of the hunt in your projects, you need to think about goals.
- Starting from the reward of the tribe and your final goal, visualize what you are trying to achieve. Whatever your vision, imagine how you would feel if you ever finished that project.
- Once you picture those emotions, you will probably feel the urge to work on your project. And you can use this exercise to refresh your motivation sometimes. But it doesn’t always work.
- Sometimes, you need immediate results to stay motivated. So split your final goal into milestones, then bigger goals, and finally small goals you can achieve at high frequency, like a month or even a week.
- Every time you finish a small goal, you can refresh your motivation by thinking about the bigger plan. And then, once you complete bigger goals, you can think about milestones. And each of those steps gives you a significant refresh of motivation because you feel closer than ever to your final dream.
So if you want to never run out of motivation, you need to hunt down small goals that converge into bigger ones. As for the San hunter, you cannot run towards your prey at maximum speed and hope to catch her because it may outrun you. However, if you act with patience and determination, you will capture it piece by piece until it collapses at your feet.
3 — The reward of the Self
The rewards of the tribe and hunt encourage you through other people or practical objects. On the contrary, the last one is stronger because it motivates you through your feelings.
Sometimes, we want to do something only because we seek a personal form of gratification. And we could conquer anything only for the satisfaction of doing so.
Completing a task can influence people to continue all sorts of behaviors. And we pursue some of these rewards even when we stop enjoying them.
For example, when I started watching Game of Thrones, I thought it was the best TV series I had ever seen. And even if the last two seasons were awful, I watched them anyway because I wanted to complete the task.
Edward Deci and Richar Ryan studied those types of intrinsic motivation that fuel the rewards of the self. In their self-determination theory, they explain how people desire to gain a sense of autonomy and competency. And for this reason, they are willing to complete any project in which they invested enough time only to become more competent.
Also, not knowing everything about a project makes the goal even more enticing because it triggers our curiosity and needs to reveal the mystery.
And for this reason, I finished Game of Thrones even if I didn’t like it anymore. I wanted to know how it ended and acquire competence in that topic.
How to use the reward of the self
If you want to never run out of motivation, you can introduce any of the tips above. But to keep it consistent, you need the reward of the self, or you won’t finish longer or lifetime projects.
- You can use the reward of the self only on projects on which you invested enough time. And since it is intrinsic in our motivation, you cannot think it through or analyze it — you need to trigger it.
- So if you want to trigger the reward of the self, work on your consistency. Concentrate on the job in the first weeks or months, depending on the length of the project.
- It doesn’t matter how much you achieve every day, but make it a habit. Include your project in your routines, and check your progress every evening if needed.
- Visualize yourself on the completion path, and focus on the work you still need to do. Also, keep a list of the things you learned since you started.
Eventually, the trigger of completion and competence will show up, and they will boost your motivation without you even realizing it.
If you want to never run out of motivation, you need to reframe how you think about your work — whatever you do. And the only way to do it is by introducing rewards that make you feel better and refresh your motivation.
According to Nir Eyal, author of Hooked (referral link), there are three types of rewards industries use to increase our motivation towards their products:
- The tribe motivates us by giving us a higher value in our social ring.
- The hunt increases our motivation by giving us materialistic prey we want to capture.
- And the self attracts us with a sense of completion and competency that feeds our hunger to know more.
So if you learn how to implement those three types of rewards in your routines, you will never run out of motivation again.
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Cover photo by THIS IS ZUN; First photo by Jopwell; Second photo by Julia Volk; Third photo by RODNAE Productions