Unlock Your Motivational Potential: Science-Backed Strategies to Enhance Motivation and Productivity

Do you set world class goals, but rarely see them through?

Have you ever promised yourself that you would complete a goal (e.g., write a book, run a marathon, or deep clean your house every month) and then struggled to follow through?

Consider Tanya, who has been trying to work on the following goals:

  • Pursuing a promotion at her job
  • Building an exercise routine
  • Playing guitar more consistently
  • Learning how to paint for fun
Man writing now with red marker and crossing out the word later

Despite her best intentions, Tanya has not been able to make significant progress on these goals for many years. She works on them for a few days or weeks when feeling especially energetic and motivated, but her excitement eventually tapers off and her goals get pushed to the side. Tanya tries to will herself to keep going on days she feels tired or unmotivated, but these efforts often end in feelings of frustration and hopelessness. If you are like most people, you can probably relate to these struggles and may have learned first-hand that relying solely on willpower when setting goals rarely leads to success in the long term. A major problem with over-relying on sheer determination is that we have a limited capacity for self-control, and our willpower and can become depleted over time, leading to wavering commitment when engaging in unfamiliar and challenging activities. 1

Below is a list of the common pitfalls Tanya is likely encountering when pursuing her goals:

  • Being unclear about why these specific goals are being pursued (i.e., What is important and meaningful about these goals to Tanya?
    How/why will achieving them benefit her?)
  • Setting vague goals lacking a clear direction (i.e., How will the goal be accomplished? When/where/how long will she engage in them?)
  • A lack of clear strategies to stay on track with goals through periods of low excitement and busyness
  • A lack of environmental supports that trigger action and promote accountability

Understanding the science of motivation can be the key to avoiding these pitfalls and making more realistic and sustainable progress toward your goals. Using the following actionable tips, backed by scientific study, you can enhance your motivation and accomplish your goals with greater ease, consistency and success.

Here are 5 strategies to enhance motivation and turn your goals into reality:

1. Cultivate Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation refers to engaging in an activity or behavior for the inherent satisfaction, enjoyment, or personal interest it provides, rather than solely for external rewards or incentives.  For example, studying for the love of learning rather than doing so just to achieve a certain grade or fulfill an obligation. The book “Drive” by Daniel Pink 3 highlights the importance of each of the following in developing and nurturing intrinsic motivation:

  • Autonomy: The ability to make choices based on personal preferences as you pursue goals
  • Mastery: A sense of ongoing progress in your skill, efficiency, or expertise that comes from regular practice
  • Purpose: Connecting your goal to higher values that are significant & meaningful to you (e.g., improving your health, helping others, etc.)

According to the research highlighted in Pink’s book, this form of motivation is more effective than extrinsic motivation (i.e., that which is driven by external factors such as prizes, recognition, social approval and financial rewards) at helping us to withstand hardship and persist in the face of adversity when pursuing goals. 

Woman doing yoga at mountain cliff

2. Set Clear, Specific Goals

Setting clear and specific goals that are aligned with your personal core values provides direction and purpose, which are essential for maintaining high levels of motivation. Furthermore, clear, specific goals enable you to:

  • Measure your progress
  • Limit your reliance on willpower (by reducing efforts needed to plan and problem-solve around goal-directed activities)
  • Track achievements and milestones and celebrate your successes, providing positive emotional reinforcement that is crucial for developing healthy habits 4
  • Identify areas for improvement and make necessary adjustments. For example, a vague goal such as: “I want to get fit and start running more”, can be restated with greater clarity and specificity as:
    “I will complete a half-marathon within the next six months by following a structured training plan, running at least four times a week before work, gradually increasing my mileage, and participating in a local 10K race in September.” This statement has a plan of action, clearly outlining the steps that need to be taken for goal completion.

Following these steps, you will have continuous feedback about your progress, thereby promoting a sense of accomplishment, helping to maintain focus, and ensuring course corrections are made when needed.


3. Break Tasks into Smaller Steps

For many people, large, daunting tasks can dampen motivation due to feelings of overwhelm, a decreased sense of autonomy and control, reduced perception of progress, and increased likelihood of setbacks and obstacles. This is why conventional wisdom suggests we should break large tasks down into smaller, more manageable steps, to make them easier to carry out. In his best-selling book “Atomic Habits,” 5 James Clear explains the science behind this wisdom and emphasizes the power of incremental progress. By focusing on small victories, celebrating your successes and using the associated emotional drive to set new, slightly bigger goals, you create momentum leading to sustained effort and success.

For example, to work on getting a promotion at your job, steps could involve:

1) Research the criteria for promotion
2) Assess your current skills and areas for improvement
3) Set a plan for skill development
4) Work on skill development and seek feedback
5) Review and adjust plan as needed
6) Accept opportunities to expand your responsibilities
7) Create new network connections
8) Document progress and achievements
9) Communicate your aspirations
10) Prepare for promotional opportunities

This strategy can also be employed on a smaller scale using the “five minute rule” in which you commit to carrying out a task for just five minutes. Once your timer goes off after five minutes, you will have overcome any initial resistance to doing the task and may feel it is easier to continue on with the task. If even 5 minutes seems too daunting, using a “can do” mindset involves breaking down any task that seems too difficult to do (e.g., going for a 5K run) into the smallest step needed to simply get started (e.g., getting out of bed and putting on running shoes), and then using the ensuing motivation to add the next incremental step, and so on, until some progress is achieved.

4. Establish Consistent Routines by Designing Habit Cues

Tanya, from our example above, often laments the fact that she simply “forgets” to practice guitar or paint because the items are stored away in her basement. One way Tanya could increase her chances of engaging in these activities more regularly is by setting up environmental cues. Charles Duhigg “The Power of Habit” 6 delves into the science behind habits and emphasizes the significance of identifying and leveraging cues as a crucial element in building healthy routines. According to Duhigg, cues serve as triggers that prompt our brains to automatically initiate a habit loop. By understanding and harnessing the power of cues, we can effectively shape our behaviors. To establish a healthy routine, it’s essential to identify the specific cues associated with the desired habit.

These cues can be anything from:

  • Specific time of day
  • A location
  • An emotional state
  • Presence of certain people

Once Tanya identifies the cues related to playing guitar or painting, she can intentionally link them with the actions she wants to execute. For example, she could find an empty corner in her room and set up her painting canvas and items, or create a “mini music studio” with her guitar, chair, and handbook for learning guitar in a spot that she is likely to see during the part of the day when she would like to practice.

By deliberately using cues in this way, we can train our brains to automatically initiate the goal-directed target behavior, making it easier to stick to the routine and achieve our goals over time.

5. Create a Supportive Environment

Accountability plays a crucial role in enhancing motivation and driving progress toward our goals. Gretchen Rubin’s “Better Than Before” 6 emphasizes the importance of accountability and offers strategies for creating external accountability. Sharing your goals with trusted friends or family members can provide a support system that holds you accountable. Additionally, joining a supportive community or finding an accountability partner can provide encouragement, build social connections, and help you stay committed. Utilizing apps or tools that track your progress, such as habit trackers or goal-setting apps, can further enhance accountability by providing a visual representation of your progress. Below is a list of apps and websites designed to help with habit tracking:

HabitShare           Loop Habit Tracker          Fabolous Daily Routine Planner

Finding motivation can be tricky at times, and digging deep to find it rarely works. Enhancing motivation is a journey that requires conscious effort and understanding. By applying the science-backed strategies
outlined above, you can unlock your motivational potential and achieve greater success in various aspects of life.

Remember, motivation is not an inexhaustible resource but a skill that can be nurtured and developed!

Thumbnail headshot of Abid Azam

Dr. Abid Azam

Clinical Psychologist

Please note: this article is for informational purposes only, and is not intended as a substitute for therapy or advice from a qualified professional.