Achieving sustained motivation: autonomy, mastery and purpose

by Dec 21, 2021Motivation0 comments

Staying motivated day after day after day takes iron-clad discipline – heaps and heaps of the stuff. If we don’t succeed at something, it’s because we simply lack that all-important willpower. No pain, no gain – or so we’ve been told.

On some level, this idea feels logical. Because we’ve long been conditioned to believe that success comes only through ‘blood, toil, tears, and sweat’, motivation seems dependent on relentless slog and negative emotions.

Luckily, recent research suggests that’s not the end of the story – or even the beginning.

As it turns out, repeatedly forcing ourselves to do something unenjoyable in the hopes we’ll grow to like it eventually … doesn’t work.

It may work for a few people – for example, those born with cast-iron willpower (or cursed with a tyrannical mentor).

But fortunately, most of us aren’t like that.

Constantly threatening yourself with negative consequences to get motivated may work today. It may even work tomorrow, and the day after that.

But it’s virtually guaranteed to fail in the long run.

Let’s consider why this might be.

If you’re constantly threatening yourself with punishment for failing to complete an activity, you’ll become apprehensive. Reluctant. Understandably, you’ll delay beginning the grinding chore for as long as possible.

If you’re purely relying on punishment to go through with something, you’ll forever struggle to get over that ‘hump’ of apathy. You’ve convinced yourself that you don’t want to do it.

Here’s where author Dan Pink steps in.

Pink noticed how our efforts to complete long-term tasks usually end in failure, either through a sudden stop or a gradual ‘petering out’.

Wondering why, he realised that the most common techniques we use to motivate ourselves make no sense whatsoever.

Pink coined a term for the ‘old way’ of forcing ourselves to do things: extrinsic motivation, otherwise known as the ‘carrot and stick’ method. If you’re practising this, you’re forcing yourself to follow through with something.

We often do this by promising ourselves rewards (e.g. ice-cream) when we stick with a task, and punishments (e.g. self-loathing) when we finally quit.

In the end, we crumble. Nobody likes being coerced – even if it’s us doing the coercing.

This is crazy, Pink thought. What’s a better way to motivate ourselves consistently – without the tears?

He answered this question in three parts.

First, Pink argues, we need to have a sense of autonomy over our task. If we feel a sense of ownership over something we’re engaged in, rather than seeing it as a burden which has to be completed at all costs, we’re far more likely to stick with it.

Second, we must be able to develop a sense of mastery over what we’re trying to do. To achieve this state of mind, the task must be pitched at exactly the right level. If it’s far too easy, we soon lose interest. If it’s way too hard, we eventually get frustrated at repeated failure.

If we’re given a tough, rewarding challenge to dig our teeth into, though? We’re hooked.

Pink was realistic about human behaviour. He recognised that constantly butting your head up against a brick wall isn’t motivating – and nor is doing something that’s a cinch. Instead, we must feel like we’re working towards a goal which stretches our capacity right to its limits.

Finally, Pink demonstrates that the task we’re trying to achieve must have a sense of purpose.

If we can’t see the point of doing something, we won’t persist with it for long.

This is why companies’ mission statements always explain why the company is doing what they’re doing. A company with a sense of purpose will have a far wider appeal than one which just seems to be in it for the money.

As Pink’s research shows, we can only achieve sustained motivation when these three factors – autonomy, mastery and purpose – are fully present throughout the learning process.

These sound like rock-solid principles.

We’re intrinsically attracted to Pink’s idea of motivation arising organically from within, rather than being artificially imposed from without. With every single piece of learning we create, we’re encouraging learners to return again and again by fuelling their intrinsic motivation.

When learners are engaged in an activity they see as genuinely meaningful, motivation surges. Because we sincerely believe in the human-centred future of learning, we place great faith in learners’ intrinsic desire to engage, explore, and expand.

Once someone’s genuinely excited about learning, their passion will help them stay the course. That’s why creating the conditions for deep engagement with learning are vital to all of us at Thinka.