How to Motivate People: 23 Insights You Might Not Expect
9 min read

How to Motivate People: 23 Insights You Might Not Expect

How to Motivate People: 23 Insights You Might Not Expect

In the last six years, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about motivation. At one startup, we built a platform for personal behavior change. At another, we used interactive chatbots to help people achieve their goals. As you might guess, the underlying question at both companies was “How can we use technology to motivate people?”

I believe behavior can be designed—we can create pathways in real life or in online products that lead people to take action. But I don’t mean “behavior design” in a manipulative, coercive way. I mean that we can design experiences that help people choose, by themselves, to take action. And that’s where motivation comes in.

So here’s a motivation manifesto. It’s a list of my observations about motivation—some based on real academic research, others based on personal experience. You might not agree with everything; I’d be happy to have you comment and tell me why.

Behold, 23 simple insights about motivation:

1. Motivation comes in waves. Sometimes we effortlessly achieve amazing things, other times we watch 7 hours of Netflix during work hours of a week day. One way to help people stay motivated during the lows is to understand the principle of dynamic inconsistency. Dynamic inconsistency is the idea that my desires and preferences now may not be the same at a different point in time. I might sign up for Weight Watchers today, then change my mind about weight loss when I walk into Ruth’s Chris on Thursday. We can counteract these waves of motivation by helping people make commitments during the highs that will force them to stay active during the lows.

2. Motivation builds with momentum. If you rinse off one dinner plate, sometimes that’s enough to trigger a full-on cleaning spree and before you know it you’ve washed all of the dishes, swept the floor, taken out the trash, and started thinking about tackling the garage. That’s why small steps are key. If you can get someone to take a small step, they’re likely to build momentum to take the next step.

3. Motivation is contagious. High energy, enthusiasm, and motivation can be passed on from one person to another. One person can change the tenor of an entire room full of people, for good or bad. The simplest example of this, relatable to most people, is how mom or dad can come home from work with a negative attitude and entirely change the mood at home. If mom had a bad day at work, everybody at home knows it within just a few minutes. The good news is that an inspiring person can give us motivation to work hard. Celebrated athletes give motivation to the next generation of stars. Just watch this kid mimic Steph Curry’s warm-up routine to see what I mean.

4. Music can create AND kill motivation. I’ve listened to the Hamilton soundtrack dozens of times, and every time I finish I’m like, “LET’S START A REVOLUTION.” There’s a reason we so often see professional athletes decked out in Beats headphones before their events begin. As world-class runner Christopher Bergland writes, “The music we listen to engages a wide range of neurobiological systems that affect our psychology.” Even in online experiences music has a place, beyond the tacky auto-play blogs of the past. Strategic cues can be helpful to create emotions that help users along their paths, like we see in the audio onboarding experience of personal radio app, Anchor.

5. Urgency motivates people to act quickly. You might spend twenty minutes deciding which restaurant you want to go to, then make the decision 30 seconds after your realize you have to pee. Urgency sells online products, even if the urgency is  manufactured. ConvertKit founder Nathan Barry used urgency as part of his product launches to build a mini blogging empire. Find a way to make tasks urgent and people will be more likely to take action.

6. Anticipation is an incredible motivator. This is why we love checking our phones—we want to see what’s new. Anticipation is the backbone of Upworthy’s infamous “Wait Till You See What Happens Next” headlines. A particularly poignant aphorism in a Dove chocolate wrapper once told me, “It’s the anticipation that creates the pleasure,” and I fully endorse this dark chocolate wisdom. When you need to motivate people, don’t give them all the good stuff up front. Lead them along, give them something to look forward to.

7. Money is a mediocre motivator. It motivates people to do things, but those things don’t always contribute to their overall wellbeing. When kids are paid to do well in school, they lose their excitement for learning. What is it that we really want—good grades, or kids who love to learn? Companies use money as a primary motivator, and it certainly changes performance, but we have to be careful about the unintended side effects. I suspect that many of Uber’s recent problems are related to these side effects.

8. Competition is a strong motivator but isn’t universal. Some people have strong negative reactions to competition, other people thrive with competition. Forcing a group of people to compete often yields a few high performers and many other people who are uncomfortable with the new dynamic. Sometimes even people who perform well in competitive circumstances feel uncomfortable or uneasy about the way competition makes people act. Depending on the circumstances, the negative consequences of competition might outweigh the positive.

9. Optimism breeds motivation, pessimism kills motivation. Tim Sanders, an author and former executive at Yahoo, writes about the power of positive thinking. He argues that over the long term, our optimism builds sustained success and satisfaction. If you want some of his optimistic motivation to rub off on you, I’d suggest reading his book, Today We Are Rich. Pessimism is also contagious; don’t be someone who demotivates the people around you.

10. Social motivation is one of the most powerful forms of motivation. We will do crazy, dangerous, illogical, embarrassing, regrettable things—motivated by social influence. We will also do amazing, benevolent, selfless, meaningful things—motivated by social influence. Is it good or bad? We need to be aware of the different types of people in our lives, how they make us feel, and our personal reasons for making decisions. Very subtle instances of social influence (for example, the number of followers someone has on Twitter) can affect how people behave. When we use social motivation to influence others, it’s a powerful tool that we need to use responsibly.

11. We can learn to motivate ourselves. We know ourselves better than anyone, and over time we can learn what motivates us to action and replicate that process at times when we don’t feel motivated. Many people have adopted an attitude of helplessness when it comes to their emotions; they believe they are victims of their environments and the actions that other people take against them. Famed author, psychologist, and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl proved that isn’t true when he wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Learning to motivate yourself is a powerful advantage.

12. Every person’s motivation is unique. If you have children, you can observe this on a daily basis. Some kids are motivated by structure, rewards, and praise; other kids are motivated by attention, physical touch, and games. And (surprise!) adults are just as variable. Every person in the world has a unique set of personal factors that motivate him/her in different ways. To complicate things further, our circumstances affect our motivation as well, so one motivational strategy won’t necessarily work in other scenarios.

13. Motivation is incredibly complex and delicate. No easy answers, no blanket solutions. And if you’re trying to motivate other people, they must trust you or your efforts will be futile. Motivating others takes patience and creativity because you are working with sophisticated emotional human beings, not if-then statements.

14. High motivation doesn’t equal high happiness. The Wall Street and Hollywood stereotypes tell us that talented high performers are often very motivated but also very unhappy. There are far too many examples of this—-in pop culture, but also in my personal interactions with others—to disregard this as a baseless. We’re highly motivated by the pursuit of happiness, but we often pursue in the wrong direction.

15. The environment around us can stimulate motivation. Sunlight, a clean workspace, and peaceful sounds can help us be motivated. Noise, messy chaos, and gray skies can kill our motivation. As a research study at Princeton tells us, “Multiple stimuli present in the visual field at the same time compete for neural representation by mutually suppressing their evoked activity.” Normal human translation: “I can’t focus with this huge mess on my desk.” Not only that, but changes to our environment can help or hurt our motivation more than we might expect.

16. Motivation is affected by physical wellness. No research to cite here, but I’m sure a Google search can satisfy your demand for evidence if you don’t believe this claim. If we’re sick, exhausted, hurt, or find ourselves in any other sub-par state of physical condition, it’s very difficult to be motivated. A simple acronym, BLAST, is often used in addiction treatment to identify times when an addict may be susceptible to relapse. BLAST stands for: Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stressed, and Tired. While all five describe emotional states, “tired” can also describe our physical state. Being tired, or physically run-down in other ways, makes us more susceptible to poor decision-making. We’re less motivated. Contrast that with how you feel right after a good workout and you’ll see just how motivated we are by physical wellbeing.

17. Activity can stimulate motivation. This is, more or less, the essence of Nike’s billion-dollar marketing motto. The idea can be true of physical activity and mental activity, as both stimulate our senses and make us more engaged. If you’re trying to motivate others, sometimes simply asking them to do something can spark positive energy that  will motivate them to do other things.

18. One of the best ways to motivate people is help them uncover their intrinsic motivation. It’s much easier to help people be motivated when you know what they really want, then help them achieve that thing. This is why Google (Alphabet) is the most valuable software company in the world—people literally show up to, type out their desires (mundane or otherwise), and Google serves up ads that are relevant to those desires. When you can help others identify what they truly want, it’s much easier to motivate them to achieve that.

19. We’re more motivated by the fear of “losing” than the prospect of “gaining.” The principle of loss aversion is well-documented in behavioral economics. For example, when teachers receive bonuses at the beginning of the year that they will lose if they perform poorly, they are more motivated than teachers who start without the reward and earn it based on good performance. Loss aversion helps people stay motivated because they fear the “pain”—of losing money, opportunities, privileges, etc. It can be incredibly effective in many circumstances when other forms of motivation are not.

20. Altruism is a real form of motivation. The economic argument is that this type of behavior (altruism) is irrational. But I’m too much of an optimist to believe that every human action is driven by self interest. And millions of amazing people around the world make irrational sacrifices for the good of others. The desire to help other people can drive us to take action when we might not otherwise; we can be motivated by altruism. Want a real example of this? A research study with blood donors showed that when they didn’t expect to be paid for their donations but then received compensation afterwards, they were less likely to donate in the future. In other words, when they were unexpectedly paid for their donations, that devalued the experience for them. They wanted to do good—not be paid.

21. We can be motivated in positive and negative ways. Anger, hatred, and particularly vengeance sometimes drive people more than concern for their own success. Revenge is another all-too-common motivational motif found in the sports world; plentiful are the examples of disrespected athletes who save old newspaper clippings until the day they exact revenge on a rival. I suppose it works, especially in the sports context, but I’m generally wary of motivating one person at the expense of another.

22. People can resist your attempts to motivate them. They can choose not to be motivated. You literally cannot force someone to be motivated, if they don’t want to be. Any person intent on motivating others has to acknowledge and accept that the basic human right is choice, as mentioned in the Viktor Frankl quote above. That means that whole premise of motivating others hinges on the people being motivated; if they’re don’t want to be motivated, there’s nothing you can do.

23. Manipulation and coercion are not motivation. I started with this point, but I want to end with it as well. You can argue with me about semantics—you can say that people who are blackmailed are highly motivated—but I care about desire. What do people really want? If you’re trying to motivate someone, first try to empathize with what that person really wants. After you understand what they want, you can use different motivational strategies to align their behavior with their desires. But forcing people to do things against their will or manipulating them to achieve certain behaviors is just wrong. Don’t do it.

P.S. I’m in the process of creating The Behavior Design Mini Guide, a simple guide for designing behavior pathways. If you’d like to know when it’s available (for freeeee!) you can sign-up here.