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Where Does Motivation Come From?

Motivation is a complex hybrid of cognition and emotion. Tinkering with it is the best we can do.

Pamela J. Hobart
Pamela J. Hobart
6 min read
Where Does Motivation Come From?

Many of my clients have had the experience of not feeling motivated to do things that they think they want to do.

"Not feeling motivated to do the things you want to do" can almost be interpreted as straightforwardly contradictory, like "not wanting to do the things you want to do."

Wtf?

This frustrating lack of motivation creates huge cognitive dissonance. Do you not want the thing after all? Or where did its commensurate motivation go, and how can you get it back?

I've been down this road many times, including in my own life. The truth about motivation and where it comes from is messy, but the truth will set you free.

What is motivation?

In order to figure out where motivation comes from, we have to figure out what motivation even is. Though I am reluctant to commit to a formal definition of "motivation," this much is certainly true: Motivation is a mixed cognitive-emotional state. The cognitive component involves an appraisal of the desirability of doing or having something. The affective component is felt viscerally, from mere inclination to burning pressing desire.

Indeed, the dictionary definition for "motivation" clearly encompasses both the cognitive and emotional aspects of the phenomenon:

  1. "willingness to do something, or something that causes such willingness"
  2. "enthusiasm for doing something"
  3. "the need or reason for doing something"

"Enthusiasm" is affective; "need" and "reason" are cognitive, "willingness" can be read as either or both.

Bottom line: motivation is sometimes affective, sometimes cognitive, sometimes both. Don't forget!

Where motivation comes from

That's enough background to tackle the motivating (har har) question today: Where does motivation come from?

Since motivation is a mixed cognitive-emotional attitude towards some object, it comes from the places that other cognitions and emotions come from. What are those?

Motivation sometimes comes straightforwardly from the body, as a kind of somatic driver of survival- and reproduction-relevant behaviors. The most appropriate way to explain this kind of motivation is in terms of neurotransmitters and such. The clear cases of somatic-effective motivation are towards things like palatable food and attractive mates.

Now, the mind and body are not totally separable. Yet it also seems that, in some meaningful sense, motivation can be born of the mind. For instance, someone thinks, remembers, or learns something and catches a wind of motivation.

You might hear about an opportunity, like a job, and decide to apply for it. Or you might see something for sale and decide to buy it. These are emotional processes too, but they have clear rational, "system 2" components.

But motivation's mixed character makes things really messy. You might learn a new terrifying statistic about the health effects of smoking and feel newly motivated to quit. But that won't make the deep-seated, chemically-mediated motivation to light up disappear immediately.

EMOTIONAL MOTIVATION WITHOUT COGNITIVE MOTIVATION CAN ACT POORLY. BUT COGNITIVE MOTIVATION WITHOUT EMOTIONAL MOTIVATION DOESN'T ACT AT ALL.

Motivational technologies

It makes sense that: the more abstract, long-term, and removed from everyday life a desire might be, the flakier your motivation becomes. Although it is deeply human to care about the lofty stuff cognitively, this is less straightforward (and physiologically-supported) in emotional terms.

That's why humans have developed technologies to motivate themselves towards the abstract things. For instance, norms create an environment of social rewards (and punishments) that help to muster group cohesion in the pursuit of lofty projects. Social feedback in the here and now brings forward the project in time, rendering the affective component of motivation stronger.

If you live in the realm of "knowledge work," for fun or profit, you are hanging your motivational hat primarily on the cognitive elements of motivation. How can you turn cognitive motivation into felt, affective motivation? How can you power through, when necessary? Try anything, try everything.

Are there people who claim to be constantly motivated emotionallytowards their abstract, creative, knowledgey goals? Yes. So what's going on there?

Well, probably a lot of things. In the first place, I strongly suspect that some personalities are more taken towards consistent, single-minded motivation than others.

Also, we have faced environments of differential reward for following through on our motivations in the past.

Person A sticks to his weird intellectual interests and, for whatever reason, ends up landing jobs and friends. Person B toils in impoverished isolation.

Of course these two face different internal motivational landscapes moving forward! Person A should get out of his own way and not stress too much when motivational issues crop up. Person B needs to engineer frequent rewards.

(Last but not least, the simplest explanation can't be ignored. I think some of these always-motivated people are just lying and/or self-deceiving. If the triumphant productivity narrative serves an individual's needs, then cool. But this choice does inflict negative externalities when it hits the ears of less-consistently-motivated, less sanguine, relevantly-different others).

What to do when motivation fails

There's an upside to the inherent messiness of motivation: if you can find a way to make at least provisional peace with things as they are, then many paths can lead out of your motivational morass.

When people complain about a lack of "motivation," they are usually talking about the emotional component of motivation and not the cognitive one. (That is, unless you are clinically depressed, there are some things that you "want." But just wanting them isn't enough to get yourself to do them.)

In attempting to resuscitate motivational affect, first check the lowest-hanging fruit: the state of your meaty body. Are you sick? Fatigued? Eating poorly? At the risk of sounding like yet another "self-care" automaton, you can't expect to reliably take responsibility of anything else if you're failing at responding to yourself. Though we've all heard alluring anecdotes of people "changing the world" running on uppers, no sleep, and a dream, these are interesting exceptions - not the rule.

Ok, so your body is stable, reasonably-good working order (relative to you). But you tried to work on your Thing, and you still felt like procrastinating. Now what?

You have essentially two choices: you can try to power through the lack of felt motivation, or you can try to architect felt motivation.

Powering through lack of felt motivation encompasses strategies like:

  • short timed work sessions with frequent, controlled breaks (i.e. pomodoro )
  • bribing yourself with food, etc. to complete a discrete unit of work output
  • using software to block social media so there's nothing much left to do

At the end of the day, "powering through" is kind of like reflectively exerting willpower. In general, does willpower "work"? I mean, no but yes. As an single overarching strategy, willpower is unlikely to get you exactly where you want or need to go. Experience and some evidence suggests that you can "run out" of willpower via a phenomenon called "ego depletion" (though ego depletion may actually be in the eye of the beholder.

If you can't power through, then you need to figure out a way not to have to power through - by architecting felt motivation on demand. This could include strategies like:

  • behaviorally training oneself that certain times & places are for work (dedicated work space, dedicated work music)
  • further ritualizing the work process through routines and process, possibly with opening and closing elements.
  • judicious substance use - caffeine, nicotine, prescription stimulants as indicated.
  • explicitly bringing goals to mind
  • applying social accountability from a friend, colleague, or coach

Notice that the "powering through" strategy can often turn into architecting felt motivation, if the friction involved in starting work is the motivational bottleneck. Once you get going in these cases, you'll tend to keep going.

My beloved "structured procrastination" strategy combines the best of both worlds. The structured procrastinator does feel some motivation, though it's not towards the optimal top-of-list tasks. She manages to power through this productivity malaise by directing her attention to less-important or less-urgent tasks.

Working on the middle of your to-do list first is not as good as experiencing felt motivation towards all and only the right things. Yet, structured procrastination is vastly better than wasting what motivation is indeed there.

Inference to the best explanation

If you think you want something, but you literally never feel the emotionally drawn towards it in practice, then the best explanation may be that you don't really want it. Instead, perhaps you've been telling yourself (and/or others) that you want it, for status-boosting reasons for example. Update your priors accordingly

But if you are somewhere in the thick middle of the motivational distribution, the overall motivational task at hand is less like transforming yourself or your goals and more like garden-variety tinkering.

Do you have any reason at all to think that, with the right goal or information, you could vanquish your motivational issues forever and leap right into the motivational 1%?

(Any reason at all other than that someone selling something wrote that they did that on their blog?)

Your time and energy are limited. Does it make any sense to repeatedly splash them out on establishing conditions of "effortless productivity" that may very well never obtain?

Motivational tinkering is the gift that keeps on giving: a suite of repeatable processes that can goad your stubborn emotional mule in the right direction.

Budging your motivational state in fits and starts is not a failure mode. Given the complex origins of motivation and the heterogeneity of things we want and do, tinkering is actually motivational success.

Pamela J. Hobart

Philosophical Life Coaching in Austin, TX. Also mother of 3, Miata driver, and DIY manicure aficionado.