The Psychology of Self Motivation

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“Purpose is the ultimate determinant of motivation. You are only as motivated as well as you understand the purpose of a thing (situation or life).”

One of my biggest problems in life has been lack of self motivation. That push I need to get things done when they ought to be done and not procrastinate. From my interactions with people, I find I’m not the only one who has the problem. I could also reel out stats to prove that many other people in the world also face this problem everyday but hey, I won’t. Because it doesn’t matter. If you, like me, struggle with this problem of a lack of self motivation then let’s go on this journey together.

Of recent, i have been thinking a lot about what the psychology behind self motivation is. Because, I believe that if we can understand how the brain works in relation to self motivation, we will be able to do more of the things we should do while spending less time on unproductive ventures.

Your ability to motivate yourself is what determines whether you will opt to play Candy Crush when you are supposed to be working on your chm 101 or EMV511 Assignment, or whether you will face the assignment and play Candy Crush later. Self motivation also determines whether you will spend all your time on Twitter, doing almost nothing profitable, or you will decide to read two chapters of that books you’ve always wanted to finish. Whichever way, self motivation determines your choices. And your choices determine the direction of your life.

To understand the psychology behind self motivation, I believe it’s important to first find out what causes us to procrastinate. Because procrastination is sometimes the main proof of a lack of self motivation.

Why Do We Procrastinate?

Have you ever asked yourself this question before? I have. Maybe not as often as I’d like. But I ask myself “why do I procrastinate?” a lot.

While snooping around the internet yesterday, I came across this TEDx video titled ‘Why We Procrastinate’. The speaker, Vik Nithy, was a founder of 3 companies and he was only just 20 at the time (2012). In the video, he illustrates procrastination as a result of a fight in someone’s head. One part wants to play Angry Birds while the other part wants to do an assignment. The part that wants to play Angry Birds wins the fight with the logic that ‘Well, I can always do the assignment later.” So Vik, who was a Psychology student, sought to find out why this happens. Why does the Angry Birds brain part win the fight?

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He revealed that the arguments in our heads are between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the decision-making part of the brain that says “you should be working.” The limbic system, a more primitive part of the brain, just wants to watch “one more episode of How to Get Away with Murder” before you start reading.

Why, then, does the limbic system seem to win the fight most of the time? The answer lies in the amygdala: it controls fear and anxiety, and is responsible for our fight or flight response to threatening stimulus. When you encounter a situation that causes fear or anxiety (like remembering that you have an assignment to complete and dreading it), you freeze and your prefrontal cortex shuts down temporarily. Your response becomes more ‘primitive’; primitive here simply refers to man’s natural hedonistic tendencies.

We respond to hard tasks in three basic ways:

1. If it is overwhelming and you don’t know where to start - confusion and uncertainty
2. If it is an unpleasant task (like doing the dishes) - you dread the displeasure of doing the task.
3. If it is a more complex task (like starting a business) - the fear of failure

There’s a lot more to the psychological process than I can write about (or that I even understand) but this is the part most relevant to this topic.

So, with all that has been said, how does one overcome procrastination?

First, you have to get out of yourself. Understand that you are naturally a pleasure seeking being. By nature, you would rather lie on the couch and watch TV all day than get up to do serious work. When you realize that self motivation requires you to “not be yourself”, then you’re on the right path.

Next, you need to learn how to break down all your tasks into micro-steps. For example, if you are given a project at work, you need to break it down into the smallest action steps possible. If you can’t do this alone ask a colleague to help you out. Or offer for both of you to break down both your projects together. Once you have broken it into simple steps, organize the steps in order of difficulty. Like this: “Step 1: call the client’s office”... “Step 10: Design presentation on PowerPoint”... “Step 15: Submit presentation for first review,” etc. The number of steps will vary, but at least you’ll know you have started from somewhere. And the way the mind works is, once you complete one task, your brain will be lit up and motivated to face the next one. So the first few steps should be simple enough to encourage you go on to the next one.

How to Stay Motivated

It’s not enough to find self motivation, one must also preserve it. In a TEDx video, Scott Geller, the director of the Centre for Applied Behavior Systems at Virginia Tech, discusses the topic, “The Psychology of Self Motivation.”
He highlights some vital points which I believe are important for preserving self motivation:

1. Consequences

Consider the consequences of your action/inaction. Of course, it won’t be something you are used to. Neither will it be an act that comes naturally to you. But it must be done. You have to consciously consider the consequences of your actions. As you do it more often, you’ll find that it will become part of you.

2. Competence

Scott’s presentation was partly aimed at teachers and coaches, asking them to inspire confidence in their students. The more confident a student feels in his ability, the more competent they can become.

But I believe this can work in the context of this article. Deep down, you feel inadequate to face a task, so you avoid it or procrastinate. But as soon as you can realize that you are competent, you will be motivated to face the task you're avoiding. Maybe you will have to look elsewhere to understand how competent you can be. Look at other things you have achieved. What did you do right? How can you adapt that to the task you have to face?

3. Choice

You have to get to the point where you do things because you want to, not because you have to. Take full responsibility of your choices and do not leave your life to chance, do not leave your fate in the hands of others.

4. Communicate

Talk to yourself. It’s not only mad people that do it. Ask yourself pertinent questions like “What’s stopping me from doing this?, “Why am I always playing Candy Crush when I should be working?”, “Na only me waka come?” When you ask yourself some of these questions you provide a platform for answers to turn up. Duh!

Also, talk to people. Ask for help. Don’t struggle alone. There are many people like you in the world who want to break the chain of ‘no motivation’. There are also those who have broken the chain. Talk to the latter group of people and ask them smart questions, to help yourself.

5. Community

The people you surround yourself with matters a lot in determining how motivated you will be. I don’t think you need much explanation on this now, do you? You’ve heard it time and time again: the quality of your life can’t be better than the quality of people you surround yourself with all the time.

So there you have it. I tried to make it as simple as possible. I hope I didn’t fail. You should watch the two videos to help you understand this topic better:

Why We Procrastinate
The Psychology of Self Motivation

What are the issues you have had trying to motivated yourself in the past? How did you work around those issues? Please share your thoughts in the comments below :)

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