What Do You Do When Your Motivation Starts to Wane

Profile on Susan Fowler, author and expert on motivation.

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It’s always good to set goals for yourself, but what do you do when your motivation starts to wane? How do you keep the momentum going? That’s where Susan Fowler comes in.

In her book, Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does, Susan Fowler applies psychological discoveries to lay out a tested model and course of action that can propel you towards the kinds of motivation that gives you a profound sense of purpose.

Susan has 30 years of experience as a researcher, consultant, and coach in over 30 countries around the globe in the field of leadership. As an expert in the field of personal empowerment, she is the lead developer of The Ken Blanchard Company's Optimal Motivation product line, as well as Situational Self Leadership, their best-of-class self-leadership and personal empowerment program.

Why are external rewards--like treating yourself to a massage, treating yourself to dinner after exercising for a week, or speaking up more at meetings--ineffective when it comes to motivating yourself?

Imagine this: You buy dinner for your family at the local drive-through—burgers, fries, and shakes—with the intention of eating it at home together. The aroma of those fries is intoxicating and you end up eating the whole bag. How do you feel after downing the package of French fries? Guilty, most likely. How’s your energy?

It spikes dramatically and falls just as dramatically. A steady diet of junk food simply isn’t good for us. The same is true for what I call “suboptimal motivation,” such as doing something for a reward or doing something because you feel like you should. It can be enticing in the moment, but it will not lead to flourishing.

People with a suboptimal motivational outlook are less likely to have the energy it takes to achieve their goals. Even if they do, they’re not likely to experience the positive energy, vitality, or sense of well-being required to sustain their performance over time.

I know external rewards aren't going to keep me pushing towards a goal. So what will?

Satisfying your psychological needs. Achieving optimal motivation lies in meeting three key psychological needs that we all have—autonomy, relatedness, and competence.

Autonomy is our human need to feel that what we’re doing is of our own volition. Relatedness is our need to feel connected to others. To feel that we’re contributing to something greater than ourselves. Competence is our need to grow and feel effective at meeting everyday challenges.

Optimal motivation happens when these three needs are satisfied. When a person feels like they have a choice; they’re accomplishing something that’s tied to a great purpose; and it helps them grow. Take the goal of exercising regularly—chances are you will stick with it if you feel like you have a choice, it’s contributing to something greater—such as you being healthy enough to play with your kids—and helps you flourish so you are a happier, more energetic person.

The appeal of a massage won’t do that—it will simply wear off.

How can I tell if I'm really motivated to do something before I start?

You can uncover your motivational outlook by doing a gut check to see if your psychological needs are being met. Ask yourself whether or not you have a positive sense-of-wellbeing when it comes to working towards the goal. If you use phrases such as “I have to” versus “I get to,” that’s a clue that you don’t. Do you feel like you’re in control of your choices? Is your decision to work towards this goal based on your values? Does it connect to a higher purpose? Asking these questions will help you assess whether or not you are optimally motivated.

What if I discover that I'm "suboptimally" motivated? Can I shift my outlook?

Yes! You can shift your motivational outlook by aiming to satisfy your psychological needs. Here’s how.

  • Practice mindfulness. If you have been assigned a task you are disinterested in doing, are only doing for the money, or feel obligated to do, ask yourself why you don’t want to do it. Then with each answer, follow up with another why question. Asking why, why, why helps you peel through the layers of distractions and eventually you figure out that you have a choice (autonomy), can find some meaning or purpose (relatedness), and will learn and grow from the experience (competence).
  • Align with your developed values. Ask yourself what you value more than what you’re getting from your current suboptimal outlook. If you are about to eat a bunch of French fries, ask yourself what you value more than French fries—such as your health and well-being. If you are about to send a nasty email because someone made a bone-headed decision, ask yourself what you value more than being right—such as building, rather than destroying, the relationship.
  • Connect with a noble purpose. I was able to go from a meat-loving omnivore to a strict vegetarian overnight—and sustain the decision. How? The shift happened when I was watching a TV segment on how we treat the animals we eat. I realized that I would never eat meat again not because of guilt, shame, or my health; but because I recognized a profound sense of wanting to do my part to make the world less violent and more peaceful. There are few things in life more powerful than making decisions with a sense of purpose.

What's the biggest mistake people make when trying to motivate themselves or others?

Contests. If you’re using a contest to “motivate” people, ask yourself why. If you’re running a contest to attract attention to an important message, or encourage certain behaviors, contests are risky. They distract people from your primary message, shifting the focus to the contest or prize. Consider this: A recent study followed people who entered contests, promising a prize for losing weight. They found that indeed, many people lost weight but within 12 weeks regained the weight, and then some! Instead, take the time and energy to provide a values-based rationale for doing what you are asking of them. Consider how people’s psychological needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence will be better satisfied by doing what you’re asking them to do.