Let’s test your motivation intuition. According to the research, what motivates people the most to meet their goals?

  1. Financial Rewards
  2. Compliments
  3. Progress
  4. Competition

Want your kid to clean out the garage? Offer them an allowance. Want an employee to do better? Give them a bonus. This is how most people think about incentives and motivation, but science says that financial rewards are poor motivators for success.

The real motivator: C. Progress!

In his New York Times Bestseller, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink pulls apart four decades of scientific research on human motivation. Let’s dive into what the science says about how to motivate yourself AND others.

#1: Small Wins Self-Motivate

We used to think financial incentives were the best kind of motivation. Pink argues that these are outdated. The deep human need to direct our own lives, to learn and to create new things is the secret to high performance and satisfaction. According to Pink:

“Typically, if you reward something, you get more of it. You punish something, you get less of it. And our businesses have been built for the last 150 years very much on that kind of motivational scheme.” – Daniel Pink

Harness the power of small wins by being a hero of progress. Whether you are talking to your colleague, your spouse or trying to motivate yourself, highlight progress. Here’s how:

  • When sitting down to make your to-do list, start with what you already have done up top. Make a little ceremony of checking off the progress you already have made before doing more.
  • Make scoreboards for yourself and your team so you can see how far you have come in the middle of a big project.
  • When speaking with teammates, instead of saying what they have to do next, talk about what they did already. When giving a compliment, highlight specific tasks already achieved. Don’t talk about how little they have left; talk about how far they have come!

Don’t just start celebrating small wins — stop your big losses. Here are 7 things you need to stop doing.

#2: Self-Motivating Talk

What does it sound like in your head?

Sometimes, I wish I could hop into someone’s head to hear what they really are thinking. Our thoughts are secret—and it’s a good thing too. We are far more brutal in our minds than in reality. The problem is, our thoughts matter.

“As a man thinketh, so is he.” —The Book of Proverbs (King James edition)

Here are the major questions I have for you:

  • When you talk to yourself, are you nice? Mean? Harsh? Sweet?
  • Do your thoughts match your actions?
  • Would you be okay broadcasting your thoughts?

Over the past few years running the Science of People, I have shared with you, my readers and students, that I am a ‘recovering awkward person.’ Most people immediately ask me two questions following this statement: How were you awkward? And how are you recovering?

This blog is filled with many of the practical tips I use to fight awkwardness and successfully interact with people. But I rarely get into the mindset of behavior change. This post is the first time I will go in depth into the thoughts behind behavior and motivation.

Here are some of the most common bad habits that hurt our motivation:

  • Procrastinating
  • Eating Badly
  • Smoking
  • Not Exercising
  • Working Too Much
  • Working Too Little
  • Watching Too Much TV
  • Drinking
  • Losing Things
  • Gossip
  • Being Disorganized
  • Forgetting Things
  • Lying
  • Complaining
  • Ignoring Problems
  • Starting But Never Finishing

Any of these look familiar? The first step to getting motivated is understanding how your thoughts are tied to your actions.

#3: The Brain Believes What You Tell It Most

I recently picked up the book What to Say When You Talk to Your Self by Shad Helmstetter. Dr. Helmstetter argues that we are programmed by our thoughts. His ideas are very similar to the process I use when interacting with people and overcoming social anxiety. While the neurological evidence in the book is scant, I did want to use it as a springboard for discussing mindset. In fact, this is something I run into all the time in our lab. Specifically, our self-truths:

Self-Truths: The ideas we tell ourselves. The beliefs we carry around whether they are true or not.

Sometimes, we learn self-truths from life experiences. Other times, we pick them up from those around us. And yet other times, we believe what we are told by parents, bosses and teachers.

For example, I had no chance to be good at math. From a young age, I was told ‘it wouldn’t come naturally to me’ or that ‘math will be your worst subject’ and sometimes even, ‘math is hard for girls.’ And guess what? It was! (And is). I wonder what would have happened if I had been told the opposite?

Here are some other common negative self-truths I hear people say all the time:

  • I am horrible at remembering faces.
  • I never get a break.
  • I have terrible luck.
  • I can’t remember names.
  • I’m awful with people.
  • I’m so awkward.
  • I’ll never fit in.
  • I’m not creative.
  • Mondays are always slow.
  • I’m no good at …
  • Things never work out for me.
  • I’m just not the type of person who …
  • I’m so clumsy.

Do any of these sound familiar? I want to take a moment and have you think about some of your self-truths. What are some limiting beliefs you say to yourself?

  • I’m not good at _______________________________________.
  • I always _______________________________________.
  • I never_______________________________________.
  • I’m just not the type of person who ________________________________.
  • I’m not very _______________________________________.

These kinds of thoughts KILL motivation before you even can get started. If you are warming up your brain with these kinds of thoughts, there is no way you can work or be productive as your best self.

If nothing comes to mind with these, DON’T fill them in! But if one instantly pops into your head, you might just have learned something interesting about yourself. Read on…

#4: Motivation Buzzkills

The other kind of self-talk can come up around certain people or in specific situations. I call these motivation buzzkills. We have no chance of motivating ourselves if we constantly are putting ourselves down. For example, I feel very out of place in nightclubs and loud bars. My self-talk sounds something like, “I am so uncool!” or “I don’t belong here.” This is probably a learned self-truth. I had a few bad experiences early on and now I can’t shake them.

A friend of mine tends to chastise herself whenever she is around her mother. Before driving over to her parents’ house for dinner, she will sit in the car and agonize, “I’m always so late… I never have my life together.” And the sad thing is her mom says the same thing the moment she walks in the door. “Honey, you’re always late—you have to be more organized!” This is a taught self-truth that has turned into a motivation buzzkill. Every time she goes over to see her mom, she constantly is self-doubting, which makes her more disorganized and late. Her mom reaffirmed the behavior at a young age, and she held onto it.

Where do you put yourself down?

  • At Work
  • With Your Boss
  • Around Your Parents
  • With Your Friends
  • With Your Productivity
  • At School
  • With Technology
  • With Your Health

Do you struggle with procrastination? Read our guide to beating procrastination here.

#5: Limiting Wishes

Sometimes, self-truths come in the form of limiting wishes.

Limiting Wishes: A future state that we hope will solve all of the problems from our current lacking self.

For example, one woman came into our lab and told us that the reason she can’t make friends is because of her horrible nose. “I look like a toucan,” she said. “When I’m talking to people, I know all they are thinking about is my nose. As soon as I get it fixed, it will be so much easier to meet people.”

Let me ask you a question. Have you EVER not been able to talk to someone because you didn’t like their nose? No. Absolutely not. We tried explaining this to her in every way possible. We even had people watch videos of her and rate her on a variety of personality traits. Not one single person mentioned her nose in the comments, in the post-interview, nothing. However, she was convinced of this limiting wish. Her limiting wish was, “If only my nose was smaller, I would be able to make friends.”

Here are common limiting wishes:

  • If only I was thinner
  • If only I was taller
  • If only I was richer
  • If only I was funnier
  • If only I was smarter
  • If only I got that promotion
  • If only I could move to that city
  • If only I could find a significant other
  • If only I was older
  • If only I was younger

Do you have any limiting wishes? Any desires that are holding you hostage?

  • If only I was _______________________________________.
  • I wish I _______________________________________.
  • Everything would be better if I_______________________________________.

Limiting wishes make motivation incredibly difficult because they are barriers to productivity.

Bottom Line: If you think you need to change something, do something or have something before you can get motivated, then it will be almost impossible for you to be productive.

Want to change your limiting beliefs? Read our science based goal setting guide.

#6: Changing Self-Talk

Dr. Helmstetter breaks down being able to change your self-talk into five levels, which I found interesting:

Level 1: The Level of Negative Acceptance

“I can’t _____ .”

The fill-in-the-blank statements you put in for your self-truths and limiting wishes are the current negative ideas you have accepted about yourself.

Level 2: The Level of Recognition and Need to Change

“I need to …” , “I should …”

*Hopefully* this is where you are now. The first half of this post was getting you to think about changing some of your negative self-truths and limiting wishes.

Level 3: The Level of Decision to Change

“I no longer …”

When you’re here, you have decided to change some of the limiting beliefs you have (see Step #5).

Level 4: The Level of the Better You

“I am …”

Once you have retired a limiting belief or changed it, you then have a new self-vision and concept.

Level 5: The Level of Universal Affirmation

“It is …”

Finally, you see the world differently. You have changed your own belief and the world around you.

What level are you at? If you have issues with procrastination, motivation or productivity you are probably stuck at level 2 or 3. You know you want to change and know what you have to do, but actually committing to the change is the hardest part. Here’s how to commit to change:

#7: Change Your Internal Voice

What does your internal voice sound like? For just a moment, think about the voice in your head. You know, the one that comments on your actions or makes little observations about the world around you. Does that voice sound like the voice you use in real life? Over the last few years, I have talked to people about their own ‘self-talk’ and, more often than not, I hear them mention ‘how mean’ the voice in their head is. “But that’s you!?” I would say. “That voice is you!” But they would explain that sometimes the way they talk to themselves is much harsher than the way they would speak to anyone else.

Would you speak to someone else the same way you speak to yourself? Take a look at this spectrum. When you talk to yourself, where do you fall:

talking to yourself

I am extremely critical of myself. When I don’t get something right, I internally berate myself and my abilities. If I mess up playing soccer or have a bad workout day, I internally chastise my laziness and lack of willpower. I had no idea I was doing this until I began to write down my internal thoughts.

Action Step: For the next seven days, carry around a journal and write down every internal thought that goes through your mind about your tasks. In other words, you do not have to write down all of your thoughts about work or driving. But you want to write down what you think about how you do those tasks or activities. I recommend remembering your thoughts while on the drive to work, or how you feel while reading your emails in the morning at work.

Are you in a funk? Use these 5 steps to snap out of your funk.

#8: Re-Examine

Examine the kinds of thoughts you have on a daily basis. See any patterns? I want you to take out a sheet of paper and draw three columns. In the first one, write down all of your limiting belief patterns. These are your motivation killers. What thoughts are counter-productive to you being your best self or working at optimal levels? It might look like this:

Self-Truth

It seems silly, but sometimes we have been thinking something for so long that we have forgotten what made us believe it in the first place. And we certainly no longer challenge it. I want you to go through your self-truth list and write down its opposite in a column called ‘Opposite.’ It should look like this:

Opposite of self-thruth

This is the hard part. I want you to write down all of the reasons why the opposite is true. Sometimes this means finding learning experiences from hard memories—that’s okay.

Evidence of self-truth

#9: Your Choice to Self-Motivate

Now you have a choice. You can live automatically by default. Or you can live purposefully, with challenges and hard truths. I do not believe ignorance is bliss. I think truly living is embracing truth—about yourself, about the people around you, about how we work. But only you can decide to do this. If you want to try purposeful self-talk, all you have to do is complete the three steps above when you begin to be self-critical. I can’t do this all the time, but it is what I try most of the time. This is how I have overcome a lot of my social anxiety. When I find myself in a bar for a friend’s bachelorette party, I go through these three steps:

  • I don’t belong.
  • I belong.
  • My best friends are here. I love celebrating people, especially the bachelorette. I love the song they are playing.

And so it goes. It’s not easy. It doesn’t happen all the time. But it’s exactly what it sounds like in my head.

What does it sound like in yours? You have a choice to begin to slowly changing your self-talk and removing those motivation buzzkills.

#10: Motivate Yourself By Pumping Up

We all need rituals, routines and habits to get ourselves psyched up for something big. This could be what you do before a meeting, date or event. Here are a few ideas for you:

Bonus: Be More Productive

Productivity and motivation go hand in hand. While you are tackling your limiting self-talk, it’s also time to use my favorite productivity hacks.

14 Unique Productivity Tips: How to Be More Productive with Less Effort

Double Bonus: Get More Willpower

Need a little more oomph to your motivation? You might need to supercharge your willpower muscles. Yes! Willpower is like a muscle that you have to exercise and strengthen. Check out my strategies:

10 Scientific Strategies Proven To Increase Your Willpower

About Vanessa Van Edwards

About Vanessa Van Edwards

Lead Investigator, Science of People

I'm the author of the national bestselling book Captivate, creator of People School, and behavioral investigator.

I’ve always wanted to know how people work, and that’s what Science of People is about. What drives our behavior? Why do people act the way they do? And most importantly, can you predict and change behavior to be more successful? I think the answer is yes. More about Vanessa.

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