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  • Ben Breen

Maintaining Motivation – What Can Research Tell Us?

We’ve all been there: setting out with the best of intentions – to revise for an exam, lose some weight or write a dissertation – and then within a week seeing our grand plans collapse. Whether that be convincing ourselves that printing off papers to read later counts as research, skimming through notes whilst watching Netflix, or making an exception for that last piece of cake in the fridge, the issue is the motivation to reach our goals. This is because as humans we tend to be more motivated to get stuck into tasks we are comfortable with (Coe, 2013), rather than those which are more challenging but would promote greater progress (Didau & Rose, 2016).

So how do we go about motivating ourselves? Looking into the psychological research surrounding motivation is a daunting task, as the body of literature is huge. This article sets out to bring together some of our understanding of what motivation is, and apply it to the real world. As with any exploration of the literature, it is likely that much of our findings will confirm strategies we already use, but knowing why and how these strategies work is incredibly powerful – allowing us to refine our techniques and make smart compromises come crunch time. This article aims to provide a catalyst for that thought process.


In an ideal world, our motivation would come from within – we would be driven by an innate curiosity and desire to improve, and our enjoyment of an activity. Psychologists refer to this as intrinsic motivation. However, in reality external factors are often the driving force behind our actions – an exam on the horizon, the possibility of promotion, fear of a detention at school. This extrinsic motivation is useful, but tends to be less effective (Çınar et. al., 2011).

The distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation can be demonstrated by considering a child learning the trombone. Often, their initial practice will seem fruitless as little progress is being made, and to continue often requires nagging, bribery and threats from parents. However, at some tipping point the child begins to find the practice itself rewarding and no longer needs to be cajoled – they have transitioned from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation.

Of course, many people give up a musical instrument as their motivation slips away. So how do we create an environment conducive to maintaining motivation? Pink (2011) identifies three clear components:

  • Mastery – getting better at something that matters. This means that progress must seem attainable and over time should be observable, which is perhaps why our child initially struggles with the trombone. Does this mean that when we start something new, we initially need a source of extrinsic motivation before converting to intrinsic factors? We can hasten this development by regularly reflecting on the progress we have made, and breaking down our large goal into more achievable, bite-sized aims.

  • Autonomy – the freedom to make decisions. In practice, this means having control over how and when we put in the work to reach our goals (and believing we have power over whether we achieve them, but more on that later). For examination preparation, this might look like selecting the “types” of revision you find most helpful, and the times when you work most effectively. Caution must be taken in this instance to not simply choose the easiest path, as this is not where progress lies. Ask yourself: am I doing this to achieve my goal? Often, following the advice of more experienced colleagues is a good way to know your choices are justified.

  • Purpose – having a reason to put the effort in. Ideally, these recognise the inherent value of self-improvement; as discussed above, however, often we will start with external factors before converting to intrinsic motivation. It can be helpful to reframe extrinsic factors in terms of the bigger picture – rather than “I need to pass this exam”, try “I need this knowledge to pursue a career I enjoy”.


We have already seen that the way we set goals is incredibly important – we are more likely to remain motivated if we see clear progress, feel in control of what we are doing, and recognise the value of our efforts. There is lots of focus on the internet and in self-help books on how to set goals – who hasn’t sat through a presentation on SMART targets at some point in their lives. In reality, however, there is much less evidence that this is effective; Ordóñez et. al. (2009) find that, in the workplace, “the beneficial effects of goal setting have been overstated and that systematic harm caused by goal setting has been largely ignored”. They highlight a number of pitfalls to be aware of:

  • Attention blindness – overly specific goals promote tunnel vision, and so the things we aren’t explicitly focusing on suffer. Think of a young child diligently using full stops at the end of sentences when writing a story, but giving no thought to how he describes the characters or setting.

  • Perverse incentives – if a goal is too challenging, we are more likely to take unnecessary risks or lie to ourselves. If you have aimed to read three chapters of a book, and find your mind wandering after the first two, it is likely you will skim read the final pages. Instead, adjust your target to recognise the cognitive demand of the task.

  • Performance focus – becoming preoccupied with the process you are going through, rather than the end goal. If your aim is to look impressive to employers and you conflate this with a strong final degree grade, you may find yourself picking easier modules which do not fully demonstrate your skillset.


Our beliefs matter. In general, if you believe you can do something there is a good chance you will put in the work to succeed, and vice versa (McLeod, 1995). Obviously, these beliefs must be grounded in reality – no matter how hard you believe you can fly, you won’t be able to – but the effect of our beliefs on performance is clear and well-documented. A more recent development in the field concerns our beliefs about intelligence, and whether we view this as pre-determined (fixed mindset) or a skill developed over time with practice (growth mindset). Individuals who believe intelligence can be honed and crafted tend to put more effort into difficult tasks, and consequently make more progress towards their goals (Dweck, 2017).

Thinking back once again to our child learning the trombone, giving up is often a product of their perceived lack of “talent”, whilst those who persevere are likely to see results and continue working. Anecdotally, people tend to find it more difficult to view intelligence as a tool to be developed for “harder” skills such as essay writing and mathematics, but the analogy holds just as well – through practice, we improve.

Learned helplessness is a natural corollary of a fixed mindset, where we give up on trying because we believe we have no control over the outcome. Hiroto & Seligman (1975) demonstrated the dangers of this in a series of harsh-sounding experiments on groups of dogs. One group was given electric shocks which they could turn off using a lever, whilst the other was shocked at the same time but could not turn them off. Both groups were then placed into a room divided by a low fence, and half of the floor was electrified. The dogs who had used the lever quickly learned to jump over the divide, whilst the others had learned that they could not affect their situation and so lay down on the floor and whined.

How do we avoid being the dogs laying down and whining? The key is to believe in our own power to change our circumstances, and that our effort will translate into improvement. One important reflection point is the reasons we give for our failures – ascribing failure to “not trying hard enough” is likely to lead to greater engagement than someone who believes they’re “just not good enough” (Didau & Rose, 2016). Sometimes the circumstances are out of our control, but the key is to acknowledge these factors and resolve to deal with them next time (starting revision earlier, booking a meeting with your line manager to review progress), explicitly challenging our instinctive fixed mindset response. As a consequence, we are more likely to take on challenging tasks, and thus progressing towards our goals.


Motivation is a complex phenomenon, and there is no clear solution that will motivate everyone all of the time. The intention of this article was to prompt an internal dialogue reflecting on your approach to motivation, and the techniques you use to promote it. To encourage this dialogue, our practical applications are summarised:

  • Although extrinsic motivators may be needed when you initially begin an activity, focus on the bigger picture to convert this to intrinsic motivation once you start making progress.

  • Pause regularly to reflect on the progress you have already made, and how your effort led to it.

  • Break long-term goals into shorter, more attainable interstitial aims to make your progress explicit.

  • Clearly plan how and when you will act to achieve your goals, ensuring these decisions are rooted in what will work for you, not what is easiest.

  • Ensure your goals focus on what you actually want to achieve, rather than a poor proxy for it (E.G. number of pages read vs number of concepts understood)

  • Acknowledge that ability develops over time and with practice, and focus on learning from your mistakes when you inevitably make them.

  • Prevent learned helplessness by recognising the tools available to you to affect change.

The standard disclaimer for advice applies here – pick the things that sound good, try them out, and keep the ones that work for you. Research is conducted in highly idealised conditions, and things like motivation are impossible to accurately measure, so use research as a guide not a script.

Through developing our understanding of motivation, and ensuring this understanding is evidence-based, we equip ourselves to make better decisions about our activities, and thus accelerate progress towards our goals.


Çınar, O., Bektaş, Ç. and Aslan, I., 2011. A motivation study on the effectiveness of intrinsic and extrinsic factors. Economics & Management, 16(5), pp.690-695.

Coe, R., 2013. Improving education: A triumph of hope over experience. Durham University: Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring.

Didau, D. and Rose, N., 2016. What Every Teacher Needs to Know about... Psychology. John Catt Educational Limited.

Dweck, C., 2017. Mindset-updated edition: Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential. Hachette UK.

Hiroto, D.S. and Seligman, M.E., 1975. Generality of learned helplessness in man. Journal of personality and social psychology, 31(2), p.311.

McLeod, S.H., 1995. Pygmalion or Golem? Teacher affect and efficacy. College Composition and Communication, 46(3), pp.369-386.

Ordóñez, L.D., Schweitzer, M.E., Galinsky, A.D. and Bazerman, M.H., 2009. Goals gone wild: The systematic side effects of overprescribing goal setting. Academy of Management Perspectives, 23(1), pp.6-16.

Pink, D.H., 2011. Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. Penguin.

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