Home Mind & Brain How Understanding the Types of Motivation Can Enhance Your Everyday Life

How Understanding the Types of Motivation Can Enhance Your Everyday Life

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Imagine that you are having coffee with a friend, and you are talking about your weekend plans. You might describe your motivation levels in a binary way – either being motivated or not. You might say something like, “I am feeling really motivated to keep going to my Zumba class; it’s really energising” when you describe being keen on participating in an activity. On the other hand, you might also say, “I am not feeling at all motivated today; I want to veg out in bed and watch Netflix.” when describing not being engaged or motivated. Therefore, we tend to only describe motivation in terms of its presence or absence. 

But researchers break down present motivation into two types: controlled and autonomous motivation. Autonomous motivation occurs when we are in the flow state. The reasons for doing an activity are internal. For example, it is when you are going to dance class because you enjoy it deeply and it makes you feel healthy and strong. It is a condition where the activity is motivating because it aligns with our values and makes us happy. Unsurprisingly, autonomous motivation leads behaviour to last longer. If something brings us joy and makes us feel like we are learning and improving as people, of course we will keep doing it.

On the other hand, controlled motivation occurs when outside forces are at work. For example, as a child, we might have done our homework because we feared being told off by the teacher. Another external factor might be rewards such as money or praise. For instance, we might work harder to get a bonus at work. This type of motivation does not necessarily make us happy and does not lead to behaviours lasting for a long time. 

So how can we achieve the flow and improved self-concept of autonomous motivation? How can we ensure that our positive behaviours are maintained and that we focus on internal reasons for doing them?

The answer may lie in self-determination theory. This theory explains the basic needs that every person has and how to create an environment where these needs are satisfied. Basic psychological needs are autonomy, competency, and relatedness. Autonomy is when we feel like we have control over a situation. Competency is the feeling of achieving and mastering goals. Relatedness refers to feeling connected to other people. 

When our basic psychological needs are satisfied, autonomous motivation and long-term behaviours can be obtained. But when the basic psychological needs are actively frustrated due to the environment that we find ourselves in, controlled motivation or a lack of motivation (the condition of being not motivated to do anything) may occur.

To ensure that autonomous motivation takes place, needs should therefore be satisfied. This can be achieved by creating an environment where we can flourish (defined as an autonomy-supportive environment in the literature). In an autonomy-supportive environment, we feel we can achieve goals effectively, we feel in control, and we feel like we are part of a supportive community. For instance, in the medical field, GPs can help create this positive situation. The GP should ensure that the patient is given different treatment options to consider (promoting autonomy). The GP can also provide information, which helps the patient to feel competent about knowing the different treatment options and their drawbacks and strengths. Finally, by communicating in a kind manner, using the patient’s preferred communication method (for example, BSL for deaf people) and acknowledging the individual differences of the patient, the GP can help the patient to feel like they are supported (satisfaction of the relatedness need). By acting in this way, the GP is making sure to create an environment in which the basic needs of a patient are satisfied, which will lead to autonomous motivation.

Self-Determination theory interventions have been successfully used in work, education, sports and health settings to change people’s views of their motivation and to change behaviours. We can use the lessons learned from the most successful interventions and SDT ideas to improve our performance and motivation across different aspects of our lives.

How to improve your health

According to research:

  1. You should both use one-on-one (increases your feelings of competence) and group (increases feelings of belonging and connectedness) sessions or interventions. 
  2. You should use non-controlling, supportive language when trying to motivate yourself and others. 
  3. You should ask for a rationale before doing an activity (why is this important and useful to my health?) to achieve autonomous motivation for a behaviour that will support your health, such as attending to physiotherapy or taking your medicines correctly. 

How to improve the motivation to study

According to a systematic review:

  1. Try to be cooperative and agreeable during group work and when talking with your lecturer
  2. Get ready to study by preparing your materials (notepads, pens, calculators, highlighters) before studying as well as mentally getting ready.
  3. Identify reasons why you may enjoy studying and why it is important for your future goals
  4. Spend time with family
  5. Feedback by teachers should be a supportive conversation. It is important to focus on the task and not make it personal. Also, it’s important to highlight the positive aspects of homework or assignments. 
  6. The lecturers should be creating a positive environment where personal interests of students are encouraged, boring activities are changed to be more interesting, and students are encouraged to take on responsibility and be proactive.

How to motivate yourself to exercise regularly

According to a review:

  1. Think about what outcomes you want to achieve before you start exercising.
  2. Think about how does exercise makes you feel when you do it and afterwards to continue exercising long-term
  3. You will be more likely to do exercise classes if there’s a challenge, a social aspect (doing it with friends) and you feel like you are developing new skills (for example, learning new dance steps for six weeks and then finally a full dance routine).

How to improve motivation at work

  1. Workers who feel they are paid fairly and receive raises correctly and at the right time feel more motivated. Justice and fair treatment are more important than how much staff are paid. You could read reviews of the organisation to see what the company’s approaches and values are before you start. 
  2. It is important to have a supportive manager. You could ensure that you have regular one-on-ones and get the support you need. 
  3. Working too hard reduces your satisfaction with your job. Experiencing less stress results in higher job satisfaction. Therefore, it is important to look after your mental health, take holidays, take breaks in your working day and ask for help with timekeeping and stress from your line manager.
  4. More creativity, self-assessment, and an innovative, peaceful physical and mental climate will increase job satisfaction. You could think about how to be more innovative in your role by attending training, reading around a topic or working with colleagues. Also, you could try to add breaks to your day (such as going for a walk at lunch) to increase your wellbeing. Managerial involvement will be needed to ensure that the work environment is relaxing and supportive. 



Elizabeth Kaplunov, PhD is a chartered psychologist who evaluates projects about health technology for disabled and vulnerable people.

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