This article was published on June 7, 2015

Motivation’s secret sauce

Motivation’s secret sauce
Tom Meitner
Story by

Tom Meitner

Tom Meitner is the editor of CuffLinked Magazine, a free publication that helps new grads and new dads take control over their uncertain fut Tom Meitner is the editor of CuffLinked Magazine, a free publication that helps new grads and new dads take control over their uncertain futures. To regain control over your life, become a free subscriber today.

Unless you’re a really lousy employee, you don’t have to “motivate” yourself to get out of bed and go to work, right? You just do it. You have to, so you don’t even entertain the option of not getting up.

If you’re a dad like me, you don’t weigh the alternatives to changing a poop-filled diaper. It has to be done, so you do it.

When you’re lying on the couch almost asleep, and it occurs to you the rent check needs to be put in the mailbox tonight at the latest, there is no pep-talk needed – you just do it.

But contrast those activities with cleaning the house, going for a run, or writing a blog post: these are things that also have to be done, but we push it off, we think of alternatives, or we just plain don’t do it because we don’t feel like it.

Motivation is a funny thing. There are, like, a thousand things we have to do, but only a handful of them we do without question.

Believe me, I’m familiar with the motivation struggle

As I write this, the clock says “4:47PM”. This article was supposed to be finished and published by now today. I was going to write it this morning. But now I’m not even 200 words in and the day is almost over.

I know I have to write this. I need to provide quality content for my readers. I need to keep a consistent publishing schedule to create loyalty and build a base of content that will attract new readers as they pass on through.


But like so many of you, I found ways to waste time today: reading other people’s content for most of the day, doing odd jobs around the house, sticking with my lunch break a little too long. Right when I was finishing everything up and getting ready to go pound out the next Great American Blog Post, the UPS guy dropped off a large box on my doorstep. In it was a frame for the Swanson Pyramid of Greatness poster I wanted to put up in my office.

I dropped everything to unpack the frame, clean it up, install the hardware, put the poster in it, center it on the wall, and hang it. Then I had to break down the boxes and take everything else out to the garbage.

And boom – there goes another half hour.

Next thing you know, the day is almost over and I’ve barely accomplished anything. So if you feel like you’re the only one who has a problem with self-motivation, relax – we’re all in this together.

But of course, that on its own does nothing for us. So we all are dealing with this, now what? How do we crack the code of self-motivation? Where do we get it and how do we instil it in us to accomplish greater things than the piddly little crap we focus on now?

The lone secret to unlocking motivation

I pored through a lot of different research and science-backed studies to find what makes motivation tick, and how we can make it a real and lasting part of our lives.

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The answers vary wildly. Some argue that punishment is the way to go – establish a penalty and use negative reinforcement to push you forward. On the surface, this is a good plan. After all, it’s why you get up for work, right? Because you don’t want to get fired?

But in my experience, the brain is great at finding loopholes, especially when you’re the one who is establishing the punishment. So that’s a no-go.

Others say rewards will train your brain to be motivated towards a task. But this only goes so far, and rewards need to get bigger and better to keep yourself motivated. That’s not what we want, either.

In all the studies I looked at and articles I read, one constant emerged. One thing seems to be universally accepted as the core factor in whether or not you will be motivated to complete a task.


If you’re not feeling like it, you won’t do it. If you have a negative mindset, you won’t see the possibilities. But if you can hone your emotions into a state of positivity towards the goal you’re going after, you’ll start checking things off the to-do list like crazy.


How to manage your emotions and accomplish anything

Psychologists Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer analyzed 12,000 diary entries of employees to determine what motivated people to work. The consensus was clear.

To achieve, you have to want to achieve:

depending on what happens with our emotions, motivation for the work can skyrocket or nosedive (or hardly shift at all).

Easier said than done, though.

Your brain is a funny beast. It’s kind of like running water: it will find the path of least resistance and head that direction every time unless told otherwise.

Getting things done means telling your brain what to do (take a minute and wrap your head around that concept!). How in the name of all that is holy are you supposed to do that?

There are three scientifically-backed ways of handling this. Use all three of them, and you’ll see a shocking uptick in your productivity and level of achievement.

First, change the language you use in your head. This not only works for productivity but also for controlling your mood.

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Here’s how it works: when you are faced with an unpleasant task at hand, your brain immediately tells you, “I have to do this thing.” But if you start actively switching that message to “I get to do this thing”, you’ll start happily getting after it.

Temper your expectations, though, guys: you’re not going to immediately start dancing the two-step and whistling while you grab the toilet brush or whatever. This is a subtle change that hits you without you even realizing it.

I used this trick very early on in my life as a father, actually. If you aren’t careful, transitioning to fatherhood will leave you grieving over the loss of control in your life. On the one day of the week where I take care of my son all day, I started getting frustrated with my inability to do anything I wanted to because I “had to” hold him and take care of him all the time.

But once I started reminding myself of how I “get to” take care of him, my mood drastically changed. My brain started focusing on how lucky I am to be a father and how not every man gets to experience this. Or how these moments won’t last forever and I should enjoy the baby times while they’re here.

This simple trick transformed my mood, but it also holds the power to kickstart your motivation because it shifts the job from something that controls you to something that you are choosing to do.

From Scientific American:

In 2006 Deci and Ryan, with psychologist Arlen C. Moller, designed several experiments to evaluate the effects of feeling controlled versus self-directed. They found that subjects given the opportunity to select a course of action based on their own opinions (for example, giving a speech for or against teaching psychology in high school) persisted longer in a subsequent puzzle-solving activity than participants who were either given no choice or pressured to select one side over another. Deci and Ryan posit that acting under duress is taxing, whereas pursuing a task you endorse is energizing.

The next time you find yourself dreading a task, stop. Pause. Take a breath. Listen to your brain and the message it is sending you. Then change that message and run with it for a few minutes.

Your brain will find all sorts of reasons why you want to do this task, and it’ll light a fire under your butt to get going.

Next, change your goal to a question. Let’s look at losing a few pounds as a fairly universal example.

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Let’s say your goal is to lose 15 pounds. So you say, “I want to lose 15 pounds.” That’s your goal. Many people will tell you that this is a great goal: it’s simple, it’s specific, and it’s achievable.

Yet you still struggle to get anything to happen. You carry the extra poundage without making any kind of progress, and you continue to lose motivation to even bother.

A very thorough research study found that one very effective method of sparking motivation is to use “the interrogative form of simple future tense in your introspective self-talk“.

In English, that means “ask yourself a question.”

Instead of “I want to lose 15 pounds”, ask yourself “How can I lose 15 pounds?” Then listen to how your brain answers you.

You’ll get a host of answers, like different simple exercises and nutrition tips that you have locked away in your brain. Just having the empowering feeling of knowing how to accomplish the task gives you a solid framework for progress.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because a variation of this is the basis for The Compass Pack, which is free to all CuffLinked subscribers. Wait, you haven’t subscribed yet? What are you waiting around for?

Anyway, by breaking your goal down into manageable chunks, you might find yourself much more motivated to get after it. It’s that whole, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time” thing.

Finally, get yourself some peers with similar goals. This is about the most basic tip ever, and I know you’ve heard it before.


But you are the sum of who you surround yourself with. If you hang out with turds on the couch drinking cheap beer and eating pizza, you’re going to be fat and unhealthy forever. If you spend your time with guys who complain about rich people, you’ll probably never get your hands on much money in your life. And so on.

A study by Brandon Irwin and colleagues from Michigan State University in 2012 discovered a really cool little loophole in your search for peers with similar goals: you don’t even have to be physically around your peers:

Overall, exercising with a virtually present partner improved performance on the cycling task: Participants cycled for longer when working alongside a more capable partner than when exercising alone. Across sessions, those women who exercised as part of a team cycled, on average, two minutes longer than those who exercised independently with a partner (22 versus 20 minutes), and twice as long as those who exercised without a partner (22 versus 11 minutes).

In terms of motivation, there was a marked decline in intent to exercise among those who cycled on their own. In contrast, those who cycled with a virtual partner reported no decline in motivation to exercise.

You might not think this is a big deal, but it puts an incredible opportunity in front of you.

Depending on where you live and the circles you travel in, it can be difficult to find people that are on the same track as you, goals-wise. Also, you might be a little more introverted and aren’t looking to meet new people just to accomplish a task.

From Fitocracy to, there are plenty of community-based options for those who need a little motivation for fitness or any other goals. Being able to check-in and motivate yourself and others can go a long way in keeping you on the straight and narrow. You could even build a private Facebook group if you know a few people who might want to jump in with you.

Coach in locker room, standing in front of chalkboard

Because thanks to Irwin’s study, we know that we don’t need to necessarily be around these people all day to keep ourselves motivated. As long as we can check in and communicate remotely, we can see spikes in our productivity.

Putting it all together

Emotion is an amazingly powerful factor in your life. If you can control your mindset, you can control your output.

And once you control your output, you can see massive results.

Take a few steps back and really study your emotions and how they affect your behavior. True change, true motivation, and true productivity can be unlocked if you can figure out how to keep your emotions in check.

These three tips will give you a great start.

What do you feel is the most powerful way you can manage your emotions in terms of productivity? Share in the comments!


Image credit: Shutterstock

This piece originally appeared on Cufflinkedmag.