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What Motivates You? Finding the Formula

Updated on January 27, 2018
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Anne has a BSc in Applied Psychology and qualifications in counselling, CBT & mindfulness. She teaches mindfulness workshops and courses.

Pulling an all nighter?
Pulling an all nighter? | Source

If someone were to ever find a sure-fired formula for Motivation, they would surely be billionaires by the end of the week.

What makes a student want to learn?

What makes an unfit person want to exercise?

What makes an overweight person want to diet?

Motivation is the answer. But it’s not always easy to find.

Finding the driving force

The educationalist Robert E. Slavin defines it as “the influence of needs and desires on the intensity and direction of behaviour “[1]

Simply put, it’s the driving force behind our actions. It’s what makes the student pull an all-nighter to finish that assignment the night before it’s due. He’s unlikely to stay up all night working on an assignment any other time. But the deadline of 9am the following day is the motivator.


Reinforcement and punishment

But what if there was a formula for Motivation? A psychologist called Albert Bandura thought he had found the formula.

He established from his research with children that behaviors that are reinforced are much more likely to be repeated than those that have been punished.[2] (Yes, I know, did he actually feel the need to carry out research in order to come to this conclusion?)

Perfect children?

Bandura and many of his followers thought that if you instil in children the motivation to adhere to your desired behaviour by using reinforcement and punishment, then you will have a population of beautifully behaved adults.

Only problem was, Bandura did not take individual personality, desires and needs into account. Nor did he allow for situational factors:

Degrees of motivation

For example, suppose you offer a ten-year-old $10 to put out the garbage. In most situations, any ten year old would find €10 good motivation.

But suppose it’s raining down really hard outside. €10 is still probably good enough motivation, but not as strong as if it weren’t raining.

Now suppose not only is it raining, but the neighbour’s dog is loose and the ten-year-old is afraid of dogs.

That €10 is rapidly losing its power as a motivator.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Another famous psychologist called Abraham Maslow proposed that humans are motivated by several basic needs which are common to all. These he divided into Deficiency Needs and Growth Needs.

Deficiency Needs

  • Food, water and warmth at the bottom.
  • Above that come Safety Needs
  • Then the need to belong and to love and be loved,
  • Lastly the need for self-esteem.

Growth Needs

  • Maslow first placed the need to learn, know and understand.
  • Above come aesthetic needs, the need for beauty in our life.
  • Lastly at the top comes what Maslow called Self Actualization. That is the motivation and desire to reach our full potential.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs are organised in a Pyramid, with the Deficiency Needs at the bottom and the Growth Needs at the top. [3]

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs | Source


But what about how we see ourselves, our self-image? If the image we have of ourselves is challenged, it makes us feel uncomfortable. So we are motivated to find relief from that discomfort somehow.

For example, I might think that I'm a great tennis player and decide to challenge a friend, whom I've never played against before. My friend beats me soundly and I’m embarrassed and disappointed in myself.

Three ways that I might deal with this

  1. I might laugh it off and challenge the friend to a rematch, motivating me to train harder in the meantime.
  2. Or I might make excuses; the grass was too hard making the ball bounce more than usual, I didn’t sleep too well the night before which affected my performance, it was too hot or I wasn’t really trying very hard. This helps to hold intact my image of myself as a great tennis player and motivates me to continue playing and trying harder.
  3. However, if I come to the belief that the reason my friend won is because I’m actually really bad at tennis, I will probably give up playing altogether, thus avoiding the risk of ever feeling so embarrassed and disappointed again.

So our style of attribution, i.e. how we interpret our successes and failures, can in turn effect our motivation.

Setting goals

One way to motivate yourself is to set a goal, make it achievable and reward yourself when you reach it.

If the project is difficult or very large, break it down into manageable chunks and set yourself a goal for each chunk.

For example, if your project is to paint the house and you try to do it all in one day, or even two, you might find it too difficult, decide you can’t do it and give up.

So instead:

  • The first goal might be to assemble all the materials and tools together. Decide on the colour, check what brushes and rollers you need, whether you need brush cleaners, a wire brush maybe or something for cleaning the walls. Do you have a suitable and safe ladder? Then go out and buy or borrow whatever you need.
  • The next goal would be to prepare the walls for the paint. If it’s a very big house, you might even need to break this down wall by wall.
  • First prepare the front wall, then the back, and so on.
  • Finally you’re ready to paint, and again, your goals should be manageable in the allotted time frame.

Be realistic and allow for interruptions and mishaps. And don’t forget those little rewards as each goal is achieved. They can be something simple, like a coffee or a beer maybe.

The larger the goal the greater the motivation

Larger goals are also great motivators.

  • For example, a high-school student who really wants to get into an Ivy League College will work much harder at their grades than a student who doesn’t mind what college they get into.
  • An athlete who wants to compete in the Olympic Games will be motivated to train harder and longer than someone who is content to compete locally.
  • And if the athlete who wants to compete in the Olympic Games believes that he or she has a good chance of qualifying, they will be motivated to keep training harder than if they believe that they don’t really have any chance.

In conclusion...

So, as we can see, motivation is a complicated subject. There really is no one formula that would work for all of us.

And even if it worked once, it might not work again as circumstances and situations change, like in the example of the ten-year-old and taking out the garbage.

But being conscious of what motivates us can be helpful in achieving our goals.

I hope this article has given you some insight into your own motivations


[1] Slavin, R.E., (2012). Educational Psychology: Theory and Practice (P.286). N J: Pearson,

[2] Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs. NJ: Prentice Hall.

[3] Maslow, A.H., (1954). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper & Row.


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