Counseling and Neurofeedback
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Board-Certifed in Neurofeedback

The science of personal motivation (and a simple self-assessment)

If you’re like most people, you want to feel motivated to take care of yourself.

But sometimes you’d rather not do it – run 2 miles in the rain, finish your Spanish homework, track your The science of personal motivationexpenses. When you’re in a certain mental space, those things seem boring.

Naturally, you’d rather do something interesting, like check your email or watch a YouTube ski-jump-bloopers video. But you should follow through on your commitments, you tell yourself.

But how do you develop personal motivation when you feel tired…or bored?

Why we get bored

We get bored when we see the problem as something outside of ourselves. It looks like this:

  • The homework assignment is boring
  • This project is unimaginative
  • This meeting is droning on forever
  • Keeping track of my expenses is tedious

You feel like you have no choice, so you disengage.

It might surprise you that you don’t have to stay in the land of boring. The mysterious spark of motivation isn’t something that appears out of nowhere. Personal motivation is something you can create. And once you have it, the going is easy.

So what can you do to move out of the land of boring into a more motivated headspace?

The language of desire

When my daughter was about 10 years old, she came across a family of feral kittens. Cats, as we all know, don’t listen to “shoulds”. If you try to pull them out of their hiding places, they just burrow in farther.

My daughter, though, had another idea. She found a bit of food, and over the course of several hours she coaxed them out.

In this way she discovered a simple truth: the easiest way to make something happen is to encourage desire. She got the kittens to want to come out.The same is true for us and our personal motivation. It needs to be coaxed out of us.

A theory of motivation

Let’s step back for a moment to take a look at the science of motivation.

Motivation, and the ability to follow through on a commitment, comes from a combination of factors. There are several published “formulas” used to assess motivation, but my favorite is the one developed by Ellyn Bader and Pete Pearson at The Couples Institute in Mill Valley CA. It looks like this:






In this model, there are four parts to personal motivation. Change any of these, and you’ll feel more motivated.

Assess your personal motivation

Pull out a sheet of paper and try this yourself.

Choose something you’d like to be motivated to do. My client John, for example, wanted to get on top of his budget. He was spending more than he was earning, and dipping into his savings to make up the difference. His goal: create and stick to a budget.

I asked Jeff to rate himself on each of the 4 parts of the formula on a 0 to 10 scale.

° Desire: 5 (he kind of wanted to do it, but kind of didn’t)

° Likelihood of success: 7 (he figured creating a budget couldn’t be too hard)

° Perceived effort: 5 (he’d need to spend time every week looking at his expenses)

° Emotional risk: 8 (he felt bad that he’d let his expenses get so out of hand)

Here is Jeff’s “before” formula for personal motivation:





His score is just below “1”, suggesting that there’s a good chance that he’ll procrastinate. In fact, that’s what he’s been doing for more than three years.

How to change the numbers

But here’s the cool part: you can change any number in the equation.

In the last article in this series, we looked at reducing the perceived effort of a task by pre-making decisions. That is one way to increase personal motivation. In this article, we’ll take a look at another factor: increasing desire.

Usually the problem isn’t the task itself. For some people, putting together a budget is interesting. For others it’s stressful or boring. How you feel about it has a lot to do with how engaged you are.

The key to increasing desire was for Jeff to see the budget not as something that he “should” do, but as a tool that would help him reach his heartfelt goals of paying for his next vacation to New Zealand, putting some money down on a property in southern Oregon, and paying off his credit card debt.

5 ways to increase desire

1. First, understand the bigger purpose, the WHY of your goal. This alone is often enough to significantly increase motivation.

2. Connect the task to your most exciting long term goals. What will you accomplish in a year or two if you keep this up?

3. Celebrate each success along the way. For example, Jeff and I created a list of small rewards for each week that he met his savings goal.

4. Write a story as if you were in the future, with your goal already accomplished. What does that look like and sound like? How does it feel? Jeff wrote about the sense of security he derived from knowing exactly what his numbers looked like, and the house he hoped to build in southern Oregon.

5. Make a clear, realistic plan, so you can see exactly how to reach your goal.

By using these strategies, Jeff’s desire went from a “5” to an “8” — enough to tip the balance of his motivation from procrastination to action:





The end of boring

With the big picture in mind, Jeff’s started to see how a budget could be a tool to help him do more of the things that really mattered to him. He learned that the easiest way to tackle his budget was to tap into his desire. The budget then became a lense to help him better choose his path. And the clear, on-paper knowledge that he was moving toward his dreams was anything but boring.

You can do this too. Think about one area of your life where you feel less than motivated.

Rate yourself on each of these.


Likelihood of success:

Perceived effort:

Emotional risk:





The next step in personal motivation

If your “desire” number isn’t at least an “8”, what can you do to increase your desire? Try asking yourself these questions:

  • Why are you pursuing this goal?
  • Where will you be in a year if you continue?
  • How will you celebrate your daily progress?
  • Looking back from a future where you have successfully accomplished your goal, what insights do you have for yourself?
  • What is your next step?

If you need some help with this increasing desire (or any of the other aspect of personal motivation), let’s talk and see if there’s a way I can help.


This is the second article in a series of 3 on motivation. In the first article on motivation, “Why Forcing Yourself Doesn’t Work”, we looked at an alternative to willpower. In our next article we’ll talk about managing the emotional risk that comes with trying anything new, daring, or outside your comfort zone.