The Science of Motivation–And How to Master it!

Imagine that you arrive at the office tomorrow stressed and tired. 

You're worried about the responsibilities of the upcoming week, and the New Year is looking like it's going to be hectic. 

Then your boss comes into your office and offers you a promotion. The promotion will come with a $5,000 increase in salary, but it will also require even more work and responsibility.

Given that your current position is already a lot to handle, you are unsure of whether you want to take the position. You know it will mean a lot of late nights at the office and you might be fired if you don’t meet certain performance targets.

But to try to convince you to take the promotion, your boss says 1 of 3 things:

  1. “Imagine what that $5,000 means: a down payment on a new car or that new home improvement you’ve been wanting to make.”
  2. “Think of the message you're sending if you turn the promotion down. You're telling the company's board that you don't really want to be here. They might not take that well....”
  3. “Think about what this promotion really means. The company recognizes how important you are to its overall performance. It has faith in you.”

Which of these messages would be the most convincing for you?

This scenario was part of a study conducted with a group of professionals.

When polled, almost all participants said that message #3 was most likely to convince them to take the promotion. Even though no money is mentioned, it’s a great boost to self-esteem and shows that your hard work is starting to pay off.

However, when asked what message they would use if they were the boss, participants thought that message #1 would be the most effective, and message #3 would be the least effective!

In other words, when we come up with a plan to motivate someone else, we usually think in terms of "carrots and sticks". We think someone will be motivated by the reward of money, or the fear of upsetting the company's board, rather than the intrinsic value of being a great employee.

Even though we know that the intrinsic value is what would motivate us!

More Than Carrots and Sticks

Unfortunately, we do not just try to motivate others through carrots and sticks, we try to motivate ourselves through them as well. Rather than finding a deeper purpose to drive our intrinsic motivation, we tell ourselves:

If I go to the gym today, I will reward myself with dessert.

If I study for 1 hour, I will reward myself with 1 hour of TV. 

If I stay late working, I will reward myself by taking a trip to the mall. 

Some experts even advocate for these types of rewards as well. In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg suggests that you set these types of incentives up in order to establish the habits that you really want.

He uses examples like rewarding yourself with a smoothie if you complete a long run, or 15 minutes of browsing the internet if you stay focused on a task for an hour. [2]

But these incentives are not necessary or even that motivational!

As you saw from the message study, the most motivating reason to take the promotion was the one that didn't mention the $5,000 reward at all! It was the one that showed you that you were doing a great job and the company recognizes your value.

When you are working toward your goals or resolutions in 2016, remember that the human brain is much more complicated than a dog's. You shouldn't program your own behavior through simple treats and punishments.

How to Actually Motivate Yourself

Because you do have a much more complicated brain than a simple reward and punishment system, there is no simple answer to what will actually motivate you. 

Everyone is different, and will be motivated by different things. 

However, there are some general, scientifically proven guidelines that you can follow to find motivation when you really need it.


This should come as no surprise to you, but the best and most motivating thing you will ever have is an inspiring purpose to work toward your goals. 

If you do not genuinely care about getting into good shape, then you might be able to force yourself to go to the gym for the first 2 weeks of January, but eventually you will hit that day when your alarm goes off and the last thing you want to do is exercise. 

So you will skip it once....then twice...then by February you will join the 92% of others who fail their New Year's Resolutions in 2016. [3]

Instead of doing things that you feel like you "should" in 2016, work towards the resolutions that you genuinely care about. When you do this, you tap into a different part of the brain that uses less willpower to take action and make progress. [4]

Now, an inspiring purpose does not need to be an over-the-top goal of curing cancer, solving world hunger, or becoming the CEO of your company. In fact, it can be as simple as changing your perspective.

Going back to the gym example, you may not care about going to the gym to get fit, but you may care about setting a good example for your kids.

There is a lot more purpose and meaning behind working to be a healthy, proactive, and disciplined person for your family. Rather than just getting into shape because you "feel like you should", or because you want to look good in a swimsuit.

That simple change in perspective may make all the difference!


Let's assume that your goals for 2016 will require an entire year's worth of work to complete (they are New Year resolutions after all). If that's the case, then you will probably follow the typical script.

  1. On January 1st, you come up with your goal and get a spark of energy and excitement as you begin to think about the positive changes that are coming!
  2. So you get up early, eat healthy, resist temptations, and are a productive machine for the first week.
  3. Then you burn yourself out, feel exhausted, and get depressed by just how far you are from completing your goal.
  4. Then each trip to the gym, healthy meal, and hour of productivity seem insignificant compared to the huge goal you have for the year, so you take a break for a day.
  5. Finally, one break leads to another break....then you're right back to your old habits.

The human brain gets overwhelmed easily. When it doesn't see an easy path from point A to point B, it will motivate you to procrastinate. [5]

You can overcome this by forgetting about a huge goal for 2016, and instead focusing on achieving small wins. By focusing on small wins, your brain can see a much clearer path to achieving your goal. [6

So don't focus on learning a new language, just study for 1 hour. 

Don't focus on going on a 90-day diet, focus on eating healthy today.

Don't focus on getting a promotion, just show up early to the office this week.

With each hour, day, or week that you achieve your small wins, your confidence will continue to grow. Then you will be even more motivated to achieve the next small win, and the next one after that. 

Eventually, you will be 3, 6, 9 months in and more confident than ever that you can do this. 


You cannot control the questions that will be on an exam.

You cannot control how your body will respond to diet and exercise.

And you cannot control whether the boss will give you a promotion.

Yet, every year people measure the success of their goals based on these types of metrics. They resolve to get great grades, lose 20lbs, and get a promotion - despite the fact that they cannot control the ultimate outcome of any of these!

We spend so much time trying to figure out ways to motivate ourselves, that sometimes we forget how important it is to find ways to not demotivate ourselves.

And nothing demotivates quite like putting in a lot of effort toward something and not getting the results you hoped for. The fact is that the end result is usually out of your control. So it is really just a guess of what you hope will happen. 

So instead of focusing on achieving results, focus on the things you can control.

You can control what you eat, how much you exercise, how long you study, and how much focus you put into your daily work. 

And the effort you put into working towards eating a little better, exercising a little longer, and studying a little more often is what should truly mark your success in 2016.


Motivating a horse is simple. You reward good behavior with a carrot, and punish bad behavior with a stick. Unfortunately, the human brain is much more complicated than this. We are motivated by purpose, meaning, and small wins that show that our daily efforts are working.

So don't motivate yourself with carrots and sticks to reach your goals in 2016. Find the goals that are the most important to you, achieve small wins that prove you can reach them, and focus on your effort, not the ultimate result!