Motivation is the difference between setting your alarm, grabbing breakfast and powering through a strong day of studying… and setting your alarm and spending the rest of the day making excuses for why you shouldn’t hit the books. Why is it, though, that some people seem so easily able to motivate themselves, while others appear to be born procrastinators? An understanding of the psychology behind motivation – and its close ties to self-esteem – can help explain the mystery, say experts.
‘In order to get to grips with motivation it is essential to first understand the link between self-esteem and motivation per se,’ says social worker Lisa Marcow, who conducts both the Self Esteem and Motivation module that forms part of SACAP’s Bachelor of Applied Social Science Degree. ‘If we hold a positive belief that we are able to create our own reality and have a strong self-concept and healthy self-esteem then, it follows, we will be motivated to shape a positive reality. When we really want something we are often highly motivated to go after it and when we succeed at it, our self-esteem is further reinforced.’
However, says Marcow, the reverse is also true: ‘If you have a low self-esteem and believe that you are not worthy nor deserving of the reality you strive for then you will be motivated to avoid situations that test your abilities. Then, if you really want something but never achieve it, this results in a further lowering of your self-esteem.’
According to Marcow, this ‘feedback loop’ suggests then that when we act on our feelings and beliefs about ourselves and achieve the results we are striving for, we are reinforcing the motivation to keep on acting in the same or similar ways. ‘The image we hold of ourselves and the feelings we attach to that image (in other words, our self-esteem) directly influences our motivation,’ she says, ‘Motivation therefore supports and reinforces self-esteem.’
With this in mind, then, it is imperative to work on self-esteem in order to know how to get motivated. ‘Parents and teachers can play a role in helping students see themselves in healthy ways, equipping them with the tools and skills needed to silence their inner critics and the negative thought processes that are damaging to self-esteem, assisting them to identify their strengths and weaknesses and helping them manage their areas of vulnerability. Finally, they can also help them to develop the self-compassion necessary to forgive themselves for their mistakes.’
Does this mean, then, that dangling a so-called carrot in front of one’s teenager in the hope of motivating them to study is a purely futile exercise? ‘Not necessarily,’ says Marcow. ‘Theories of motivation suggest that people are either intrinsically or extrinsically motivated, or can be a combination of both. Where they are intrinsically motivated, they are incentivised by the sheer joy of fulfilling a task and enjoy doing things for the inner rewards they derive from them. We often see this with our hobbies, for instance. These individuals are generally confident in their abilities and have a healthy self-esteem.
‘However, where tangible rewards or incentives are the motivating factors, this is what is referred to as extrinsic motivation and these individuals are often more dependent on their environment for the positive feelings that come with rewards. It is not a simple matter of one being wrong and one being right but rather that we understand that some students will need incentives to motivate them and this then needs to be built into their motivational plan.’
Marcow adds that goals are central on how to get motivated as they allow us to set a plan in action and then follow a path to effectively ‘push through the pain’ and, ultimately, make things happen: ‘Goals are action statements implying movement and in this way are different to just dreaming or wishing for something.’
When setting goals, she emphasises that it is important to consider the following:
- Goals must be clearly defined and specific so one knows exactly what, how, when, with whom, etc, things needs to be done;
- Goals should be realistic and achievable ensuring that tasks set are not too easy (so boredom sets in), nor so difficult that one becomes frustrated, loses motivation and gives up;
- Goals must be ‘owned’ by the individual and should not be imposed by other people. In other words, they need to be self-determined and one must have personal control over one’s goals to keep oneself motivated.
Finally, says Marcow, ‘Motivation comes from within and, like goals, should not be imposed. Parents and teachers can facilitate and support the goal-setting process but, ultimately, if the desire does not belong to the individual then it is unlikely the goals will ever be achieved. Building and developing a supportive environment is valuable, showing support and belief in one’s child can have a positive impact but, again, when push comes to shove, the individual must believe in his/her own capability. This then brings us back to the fundamental need for one’s teenager to have a healthy self-esteem.’