Where did my motivation go?

May 28, 2018

Thirteen weeks. That is how long one semester is. That’s it. When I started this year (as a first year once again) I was so motivated and ready to go. I wanted to get in there and absolutely smash it. As the weeks went by, the pile of assessments increased and the stakes got higher. Something had happened to my little sparkle. I began resenting studying and going to bed at night all wired struggling to sleep. It wasn’t fun anymore.


I wasn’t surprised that this happened because, I’ll be honest, it happens every single semester I am at uni. Something is different this year though, I don’t think it was motivation that I lost, I forgot my ‘why’.


As many of you may know, last year I completed my Bachelor of Law and Arts. Law wasn’t something I was extremely passionate about. I don’t regret doing the degree but I can tell it you it would have been a whole lot easier and fulfilling if I knew in my heart I wanted a career in the area. If I think back to this time last year, I was an absolute mess. I was doing three law subjects, a demanding journalism subject, was facing some of my toughest mental battles and was studying from 7am to 9pm every day.  Not good. When I look at where I am now there is no comparison.


Now before I reveal the changes I have made for sustained motivation we need some facts (the inner law student demands them). I stumbled across a TED Talk during the week by bestselling author on the areas of work, management and behavioural science, Dan Pink. He introduced me to the concept of “The Candle Problem.” This was an experiment that was created in 1945 by a psychologist named Karl Dunker. Basically a group of people were given some matches, some thumbtacks and a candle. They were then asked to attach the candle to the wall in a way that the wax would not drip onto the table. Take a moment to think of how you would do it….. I won’t lie I was stumped. Hint – the box isn’t just something to hold the matches, it has a secondary function.


Okay to put you out of your misery, put the candle inside the box, thumbtack the box to the wall and light the candle. Dan then shared with the audience another instance where this experiment was used. Sam Glucksberg is a Canadian professor who works in the Psychology Department at Princeton University in New Jersey. He put together a group of people and divided them in half. One group was given “The Candle Problem” and told they were being timed to establish the average time it takes to complete it. Another group was given “The Candle Problem” and told that the top 25% of the group would be given five dollars and the person with the fastest time would be given twenty dollars. The remarkable thing was that it took the rewards group three and a half minutes longer to complete the task. How could that be right, they were being given a reward?!


To prove that the result was not just a mistake or a one off it has been completed over and over again for the last 40 years. Most of the time rewards don’t work and they often do harm. Further research by economist Dan Ariely has actually indicated that if a task just involves mechanical skill then rewards will work. However, if a task requires cognitive thought (reasoning, understanding, problem solving) then all of a sudden a reward is not a good enough incentive.


Now you are probably sitting there thinking, “that is all good and well but what on earth has it got to do with motivation?” WELL have I got something to share with you.


Consider the last time your motivation plummeted and procrastination commenced (it might be the very reason you’re reading this). What task were you doing? Why were you doing it? How long do you have to complete it? What is your reward when you finish it?


I am infamous for giving myself rewards. When I was doing my law degree I would reward myself with a new nail polish every time I submitted an assignment. When I finished writing a paragraph I would get a coffee. When I finished my lecture I got to watch a movie. The ‘reward’ was giving me a narrow focus, “finish x and you will get y.” When you are thinking that way the creative part of your mind is disengaged because you are so focused on the reward. The greater purpose is lost.


Scientists that have been studying motivation have made it blatantly obvious that for sustained motivation we need something greater than a reward. In the mind of Dan Pink (the TED Talk speaker) there are three elements to motivation:

  1. Autonomy: The ability to forge our own paths.

  2. Mastery: Our desire to want to continue improving on something that we love to do.

  3. Purpose: The drive to do what we do for something greater than just ourselves.

All three elements lead to something intrinsic, something bigger than a simple reward.



Now let’s take a moment to break that down and reflect. If we are just doing something for a simple reward, then is it really worth it? Wouldn’t it be better to have a continued drive to do something?


I had a meeting with my boss the other week about finding your purpose and your drive. She asked me a simple question, “’what is your why?’, if you know that then everything that you do will make sense.” For me the reason that I am studying nutrition, the reason I have this blog, the reason I try and post something motivational every day is to help others along their journey of self-love and self-acceptance. This concept extends further than just career. Consider the reason you spend time with your family and your partner, the reason you cook dinner each night, the reason you go to the gym, the reason you rest. It is for something greater.


On Sunday I had a Chemistry assignment to do. I put it off. I didn’t want to deal with it. But then I thought about ‘why’ I was doing it. I wasn’t doing it for a nail polish this time. I was doing it because it was a step that needed to be taken to get closer to my dream and bigger vision. When I switched my thinking the task wasn’t so bad. I would be lying if I said I didn’t semi enjoy it in the end. I think of the amazing time I spend with my boyfriend and the life we are building together. The meaningful time I have with my family to be able to share special occasions and hold each other in tough times. The hours spent in the kitchen and the gym to keep my body healthy and fit so I can continue living my life. All the little ‘whys’ add up. We don’t need temporary rewards, what we need is inspiration and vision. Sure from time to time you are going to have to do some pretty annoying and time consuming tasks, but stop and think of the ‘why’ and believe me a wave of motivation will come over you and take you one step closer to your dream.


“The secret to high performance isn't rewards and punishments, but that unseen intrinsic drive- the drive to do things for their own sake. The drive to do things because they matter.” – Dan Pink


Check out Dan’s TED Talk here: https://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation/







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