Human motivation is a fascinating concept to study, as what drives one person’s motivation might be very different than another person. Aside from our basic survival needs (i.e. food, sleep, shelter), what motivates people to excel in school, sports, relationships, and their careers varies from person to person. Psychologists who study human motivation take into account individual traits (nature), as well as life experiences (nurture) when trying to understand motivation, with some experts more inclined to identify biology as a major motivation factor, while others believe motivation is largely a product of behavioral reinforcement (meaning we tend to do more of the things in life where we are rewarded for our efforts). The reality is human motivation is impacted and influenced by both our biology, as well as the environmental factors around us that influence our thinking and emotions. Since we cannot do much about our genetics, this week’s column will examine strategies around improving motivation through our thinking and goal setting.
Breaking out of the comfort zone
Henry Ford had old saying “If you always do what you have always done, you’ll always get what you have always gotten.” What Ford said is true — if you do the same thing tomorrow that you did today, you can likely expect to experience the same results. For example, if you are a student who doesn’t study, and if you continue to not study, then it should not be a surprise that your grades will fail to improve. Why simply hope for better future luck when you can instead implement sound psychology to improve your future chances for success?
Another famous expression that applies to a discussion on human motivation has to do with the slang definition for “insanity,” the idea that if you do the same things day after day and yet still expect different results, you must be insane. While that might be a dramatic claim to assume insanity based on repeating the same daily behaviors, the larger point again is that if you do not change your thinking and behaviors, you can expect to experience similar future results.
When examining behavior modification we know that things have to change in order for different results to occur, but what things do we change — and how? One theory I have been working on over the course of my career is developing a better understanding of the importance of breaking out of our predictable, daily routines (I call this the “comfort zone”) so that we can increase motivation and develop new strategies designed for better future results. The comfort zone, as defined in my theoretical approach to human motivation, is a metaphor to describe the daily paths and rituals we do — often without even thinking. But we also know that we need to revisit our daily patterns if we want different future results, leaving us with the big question:
What motivates us to change from our comfort zone and implement new life strategies?
Improving human motivation
My experiences have shown that we have to be fully, “two-feet in” when it comes to developing the motivation needed to reach new goals. For example, you can’t kinda want to do better in sports or school, you have to experience conviction that this new goal has to be reached. Similarly, you can’t just kinda want to quit drinking or smoking, and you can’t kinda want to lose weight and get in better shape. No, in all of these examples you need much more energy and attention toward these big life changes — but what helps us get that momentum? Getting out of your comfort zone is the key.
If you look back at why you changed habits in the past, chances are you will discover two polar opposite reasons why you put your thoughts into action: Because of inspiration or desperation. Sometimes in life we improve our motivation because we gain inspiration from others — examples might include seeing a friend improve his health, school grades, or sport performance. In these cases we become motivated by seeing another person accomplish goals we also want to accomplish, and this energy can trigger our optimism, eagerness to succeed, and resiliency to overcome hurdles and barriers to success. And in some cases we can actually borrow the road map directly from our friend, thereby allowing us to work smarter, not harder, as we chase similar goals.
Inspiration is not the only variable that directs motivation, desperation can be a catalyst, too. In some cases it’s the realization you don’t have enough money to pay the bills that triggers applying for a new jobs, and in other cases its trying on a pair of pants that no longer fit that turns your attention to going back to the gym. For college students, an academic warning can propel a host of behaviors designed to improve future grades, including attending more classes, seeking outside assistance, and even finding the library to study!
We need break our comfort zone and engage in new behaviors in order to experience different results, as we know simply hoping for better luck is an inefficient way to improve for the future. Gaining leverage on yourself, therefore, is a big first step designed to change thinking, emotions, and behaviors — and this leverage can be found either by goals that inspire you for greatness, or budding problems that catch your attention and create a “desperation” mindset. Take a personal inventory of the things you want to change in the future, and create your own inspiration/desperation leverage to help you get there.