Unlocking the Secrets of Motivation

I. Overview

Last January, Tom made a New Year’s resolution to improve his physical fitness. Unlike many others who made similar resolutions, he kept his and is now reaping the benefits. His coworker and friend, Larry, would like to follow Tom’s example, but complains, “I don’t have the motivation. I don’t know how Tom does it. I suppose I lack willpower.”

Many people are like Larry. They are confused about the meaning and nature of motivation and willpower. This lack of understanding prevents them from keeping their resolutions and improving themselves. Since Tom is successful, let’s use him as an example to reveal the characteristics of motivation and willpower.

Tom joined a fitness club and has been working out four hours a week for the last year. As a result of his workouts, he’s lost some weight. No longer carrying excess baggage, he now has more stamina and energy. He has a general feeling of wellbeing. In fact, there is a glow about him that attracts the attention of others. He feels good and is self-confident. And why shouldn’t he be; after all, because of his self-discipline, he is in control of his own life. Twenty-six and single, Tom is also delighted about the single women he’s made friends with at the fitness club. Not only are they are they attractive, but they also share his interest in good health. Tom is enjoying life and because of his exercise regimen will continue to do so for a long time.

Is there anything surprising about the fact that Tom works out four times a week? Not in his mind. You see, he’s reaping so many benefits he WANTS to continue working out. He is motivated to act because he has a MOTIVE or REASON. The reasons for acting are the BENEFITS and PAYOFFS that he receives.

Now, in our minds, let’s use an illustration to diagram the dynamics of motivation. Pretend we’re in a vacant field and before us is a seesaw. On the right side of the seesaw we will place the obstacles Tom has to overcome to reach his goal of physical fitness. The obstacles include the sacrifices he has to make, the effort he has to put in, and the resistance he has to overcome. Examples of sacrifices he makes are occasionally missing a favorite TV show or turning down an invitation to join his buddies at a nightclub. Going out of his way to travel to and from the fitness club and doing grueling exercises at the club are examples of the efforts he has to make. Finally, overcoming the discomfort of acquiring new habits and fighting the inertia of habitual laziness are examples of the resistance that Tom had to struggle with.

Returning to our seesaw, we will now place the benefits or payoffs of Tom’s workouts on the left side. Let’s start piling them on the seesaw. They include more energy, a zest for life, self-confidence, a slimmer and more attractive appearance, self-mastery, greater happiness, new friends, better health, sound sleep, strengthening of the bones, a longer life, and also greater physical strength, power, endurance, flexibility, and cardiovascular fitness.

Do you see what happened? The benefits were so numerous that they outweighed the costs (obstacles). So, the left side of the seesaw tilted and reached the ground. Seen sideways, the plank of the seesaw forms a line rising upwards. If we were to put an arrowhead on the right side of the line (plank), it would be pointing upward. The arrow is pointing toward Tom’s goal (physical fitness). The line, arrow, or plank represents MOTIVATION. Motivation, then, is self-generating. It is created by the payoffs we get when we perform worthwhile actions. Because of the rewards we receive, we WANT to continue to do more of the same. When viewed in this light, we will soon realize that ‘willpower’ is nothing more than WANT-POWER.

Since pictures are powerful tools to help us understand and remember important principles, here is another image, which comes from a Russian proverb: “It is not the horse that draws the cart, but the oats.” Just to make sure we don’t miss the point, let me break down the proverb into its three components that illustrate the dynamics of motivation. They are as follows: we achieve our goal (drawing the cart) by overcoming the effort, resistance, or costs (horse), which is done by offering benefits, payoffs, or rewards (oats).

By now, the concepts of motivation and willpower may be clearer. To put our newfound understanding to good use, let’s now look at steps we can take for the cultivation of motivation. What is it that you would like to do, but haven’t because of a lack of motivation? Pick a goal and follow the steps below to become as successful as Tom.

1.Begin by analyzing the costs of acting and not acting. Many people wistfully dream about things that they would like to do without considering the obstacles involved. So, if they make an attempt, they quickly give up after striking the first few hurdles. Considering the costs involved gives you power. It prepares you and offers the opportunity to look for resources and solutions before problems arrive. Don’t forget to consider the cost of not acting. Let’s say you don’t workout because you refuse to get off your butt and put down that bag of potato chips. If so, you are giving up what you want MOST (good health) for what you want NOW (beer, potato chips, and TV). Does that make sense?

2.Analyze the rewards you will receive after achieving your goal. List everything you can think of because there will be many that you will overlook or be unaware of.

3.If the benefits outweigh the costs, make a commitment to start working toward your goal.

4.“Hey, wait a minute! I thought you said that motivation (want-power) is generated by the payoffs we get AFTER taking positive action. Since I have yet to act, I haven’t received any benefits, and therefore lack motivation. So, how do I start?” Begin by ANTICIPATING the rewards. Add power to your anticipation by visualizing the advantages of acting in clear, specific terms.

5.Looking forward to success is enough to get you started in taking your first small steps. The rewards you get after taking those initial steps will be enough to motivate you to take additional steps. After all, nothing motivates like success. Each step you take causes motivation to snowball and accelerate.

6.Repetition strengthens outcomes. For example, you feel GOOD after losing one pound, feel BETTER after losing five pounds, and feel GREAT after losing ten pounds. However, motivation won’t continue to grow unless you notice the improvements, so keep records and monitor your progress. Repetition also reinforces motivation and makes it easier to maintain because it becomes habitual.

7.To keep the momentum, don’t deviate from your plan. For as Zig Ziglar said, “People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing — that’s why we recommend it daily.” As long as you keep up the pace, motivation will remain strong. But if you let things slide, there will be fewer rewards, and, therefore, less motivation. So remain vigilant and you will be assured of success.

II. Self-Motivation

Why is self-motivation important? Two reasons immediately come to mind:

1. The above question is like asking an automobile owner, “Why is gasoline important?” A car won’t take you very far without fuel. Similarly, your dreams, goals, and plans won’t take you far without motivation, for it is the fuel that drives your actions.

2. To accomplish major achievements, we need the cooperation of others. To reach our goals, we need to persuade and motivate others to provide the help we need. But unless we ourselves are motivated, we won’t be able to motivate others. So, what are some things we can do to cultivate self-motivation?

1. Don’t be afraid to be dissatisfied or unhappy. Rather, allow yourself to deeply feel the emotions and use them to catapult you to success, for as St. Augustine taught, “What you are must always displease you, if you would attain to that which you are not.”

2. Whether a caterpillar is aware of it or not, it will transform into a butterfly. You, however, are different. Unless you are aware that you can change, you will remain the same. Study the biographies of successful people, watch motivational videos on YouTube, observe everyone you admire, and realize that because we share the same human nature, we are equally capable of making great changes in our lives.

3. Think about the consequences of acting and not acting. How do the results differ? Which result do you want?

4. We can make big changes by beginning with small actions. Don’t let the size of your dream intimidate or overwhelm you. You can reach any goal by starting with baby steps.

5. Ask yourself whether you are living on autopilot or consciously doing what you want to do throughout the day. Take time to reflect and discover what excites you, for that which excites you, motivates you. Don’t try to push yourself to success; rather, let your passion pull you to your goals.

III. Motivating Others

We already understand that before we can motivate others, we must be motivated. Here are some additional points to consider:

1. Humans have a need for praise, recognition, and appreciation. So, when you recognize and encourage others, you are performing a great service and making them willing partners in your endeavors. Just remember that we cannot make people great by belittling them. On the contrary, “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” (Leo Buscaglia)

2. Believe in those you interact with, for people rise to our expectations of them. And “Instruction does much, but encouragement does everything.” (Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe) Also, we increase the behavior we praise.

3. People respond to challenges because their achievement make life exciting and exhilarating. Just remember to first provide the necessary environment and resources to accomplish the task.

4. Inspire a can-do attitude in others by sharing stories of great men and women. For example, when American General Chesty Puller found himself and his troops surrounded by 8 enemy divisions during WW2, he said to his men, “All right, they’re on our left, they’re on our right, they’re in front of us, they’re behind us… they can’t get away this time!”

5. Tell those you wish to motivate where what you want them to do will take them and how it will benefit them.

6. If you must criticize, do it sandwiched between two layers of praise, and remind them of the confidence you have in them.

7. As Joan Manley said, “The best direction is the least possible direction.” In other words, don’t interfere; don’t micromanage. Jack Welch adds, “Make people believe what they think and do is important, and then get out of the way while they do it.”

8. If you’re good to your friends, family, and coworkers when things are going well, they’ll support you during tough times

9. Before we can motivate others, we need to understand their needs, desires, and the position they are in.

10. Engaging in active listening allows and encourages those you interact with to fully develop and become of greater service, for as Brenda Ueland explains, “When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life.”

IV. Caveats

1. Although you will want to recognize and praise others in the workplace when warranted, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you should praise all equally. After all, if someone makes a remarkable contribution and receives no more praise or recognition than those making smaller contributions, he or she may feel slighted and grow less inclined to continue working to the same degree.

2. Be watchful how you mete out criticism. Often, the most creative and talented people are also the most sensitive. So, word your comments carefully. They are also less likely to get offended if you involve them in the solution to the problem. That is, ask for their recommendations on resolving the issue at hand.

3. Remember that we cannot make people great by belittling them. To handle yourself, use your head; to handle others, use your heart. (Donald Laird)

4. The fire of motivation needs to be regularly rekindled. Left unattended, the flames may sputter out. In a word, motivation needs to be maintained; don’t neglect it.

Much can be said about motivation. Here we have just scratched the surface, but you will be able to fill in the blanks by referring to the following references and the accompanying articles by our guest writers.



Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Usby Daniel H. Pink

Motivation in 7 Simple Steps: Get Excited, Stay Motivated, Achieve Any Goal and Create an Incredible Lifestyleby Marta Tuchowska

Motivation: Getting Motivated, Feeling Motivated, Staying Motivatedby Justin Albert

Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivationby Edward L. Deci with Richard Flaste

Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work . . . and What Does: The New Science of Leading, Energizing, and Engagingby Susan Fowler

Motivate to Win: How to Motivate Yourself and Othersby Richard Denny

100 Ways to Motivate Yourselfby Steve Chandler

100 Ways to Motivate Others

by Steve Chandler


Dan Pink: The puzzle of motivation

Scott Geller: The psychology of self-motivation

How to Motivate: The number one thing you must do to motivate people



26 Page Report on the 4 Laws of Motivation


cultivating fire: keep your motivation high


The Laws of Motivation