Not Necessary: The Myth About Motivation

Sep 19, 2017

By Shannon Thompson

“I want to want to run,” he told me, dark eyes hard like the internal wall he felt he was up against. “Sometimes I drive to the track, and then I sit in the car, and I just don’t want to do it. I turn around and drive home again.” This is a familiar pattern for many of us. You might recognize it when you linger around the house before leaving for a jog, or in the sudden need to organize the kitchen cupboards before you can sit down to work. It’s in the best of our human nature to want to want to do many things that are good for us. However, often when our motivation is lacking these well-intended tasks do not occur. This article discusses the subject of motivation – the desire to act – and how to grow motivation even when you’re sure its seeds are irretrievable within the winds of your whims. I’m going to explain the key to breaking this pattern, which is simply that you don’t need motivation in order to begin. For more details, whether you feel motivated to continue or not, read on.

The struggle to act in areas of our lives can be a minor irritation or a major problem. For some of us, avoiding a run simply means we’ll miss out on bragging rights at the water cooler. For my friend referenced above, missing workouts risks his livelihood. This person runs professionally, and maintaining a high level of performance is critical to being successful at his job. Regardless of the consequences we face should our motivation fail, the reality of being a human is that our motivation fluctuates. We all know it’s easier to carry out a task when one feels motivated to do so. Often, the quality of our performance (or even our ability to begin) feels dependent on our level of motivation. Motivation does positively impact performance. High levels of motivation are frequently related to high achievement. The myth I wish to destroy with this article is the belief that we must feel motivated in order to do great work. There are actions you can carry out to grow your motivation when it’s weak, and they might be different than you expect. Here is some science to lay a foundation for my suggestions.

The emotion of motivation – that effortless desire to work and create, is the product of the brain chemical, dopamine. Dopamine is produced in response to feelings of accomplishment or reward. You do not have to achieve something monumental to receive a shot of dopamine. One small task done well will cause dopamine to be released. So, if you want to feel more motivated toward a task pick one small action related to that task and do it well.

“What is something small and related to your running that you feel confident you can do really well today?” I asked my runner. He thought for a moment.

“I could make sure my recovery run is truly easy,” he told me. “I could wear a heart rate monitor to ensure that it is.”

I know, making sure we don’t run too fast is a concept very foreign to the majority of us! However, if an elite runner works too hard on days that are intended for recovery, he’ll still be too tired to run as fast as necessary for the next workout where his maximum effort is critical. By paying attention to the quality of his recovery, this runner is attending to the details required in order to perform his job well. When we perform any part of our job well we feel satisfied with the quality of the work, which in turn prompts dopamine to be released in our brains.

The concept of effort producing motivation has been thoroughly researched. Michael Geilnik and his colleagues at the National University of Singapore found that among the entrepreneurs they studied, the passion felt toward work was a result of the amount of effort the entrepreneurs had exerted. Additionally, actions chosen freely (as opposed to those required by superiors), and those that resulted in clear progress toward a goal enhanced the motivational benefits of the entrepreneurs’ efforts.

So, the next time your motivation wanes for a task before you, ask yourself, what small thing can you do with excellence that is related to that task? And, is it possible to choose a task that gives you a sense of progress?

The runner in this story decided to place greater attention on the quality of his recovery days. These little refinements to his craft (and to ours) communicate to him (and to us) that we are worth refining. Additionally, the dopamine which flows in our systems following small acts of excellence re-lights the flame of motivation, making further excellent work easier to perform.

I don’t work with the runner in this story on a regular basis anymore. He’s thriving in his running, and we are friends. This week I encountered him on the trail, bounding along with his jubilant dog. “I’m so tired from my workout this morning!” he smiled. “But this guy (gesturing to his dog) was begging for a run, and I just couldn’t say no, it’s so fun to run with him.”  I watched the two of them disappear down the trail, fall sunshine silhouetting their bodies, joy in motion disappearing into the evening light.

 About the Author

Shannon Thompson is a mental performance consultant who specializes in high performance sport. Shannon holds a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology degree from the University of Pennsylvania.  


Geilnik, M.M., Spitzmuller, M., Schmitt, A., Klemann, D.K. Frese, M. (2015). “I put in effort, therefore I am passionate”: investigating the path from effort to passion in entrepreneurship. Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 58, (4), 1012 – 1031.

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