At the beginning of 2019, I started working on a new project on motivation. That is partially the reason I haven’t been posting anything here. I really loved diving into different motivation theories and the spacemap has been quite a useful model to better understand motivational problems in teams.
But motivation isn’t just about work. It’s the reason why we do, think and believe what we do. For a long time, I have been trying to come up with a model that could help us understand the big picture of our motivation. A model that could help us understand and discuss both the work-related questions: “Why is my colleague not adopting this new way of working that we agreed on?”, but also the simple questions, like: “why am I drinking a soda now?”.
For a year I have been creating several simulations to test out certain behavior patterns that I noticed in myself, and later also in others. It was a lot of work, but I believe I have finally built an abstract model that can be used to explain various different aspects of motivation. A model that handles the core abstract concepts of motivation.
It comes down to four abstract concepts:
- Mental blockades are everything that prevents you from doing anything. It’s related to the hygiene factors from Herzberg’s two-factor theory, but it goes beyond work. A few examples are insecurity, pain, lack of time, lack of energy.
- Motivation. The mental willingness to do anything, your drive to do anything (unrelated to any task). If this is higher than your mental blockades, you will essentially become activated and pick up a task, a thought, or a belief. Whatever is closest to your mind at that moment.
- Sustainer. Every task/idea you have or are working on has a sustainer. If it is positive, your motivation level will increase over time while doing this, if it’s negative it will decrease. The internalization part of self-determination theory plays a big role in the sustainer of the task. In a perfect world, all our tasks/ideas will have positive sustainers, so you’re motivation will be endless. Unfortunately, we are living in the real world.
- Triggers. It can be anything that triggers you to think of something. This is what happens to us in life on a continuous basis. Your clock waking you up, your partner asking you to make dinner, but also personal triggers, like looking at a picture that reminds you of your last holiday. Over time these triggers have built connections with specific tasks, like the clock triggering you to wake up (instead of just turning off the clock). A trigger will increase your motivation level (and if your motivation gets higher than your mental blockades, will motivate you to perform that task), and depending on the strength and internalization, it will often decrease your sustainer.
A strong trigger (phone battery down while you’re expecting a call) has a big positive impact on your motivation level (causing you to recharge the phone) but also a big negative impact on your motivation sustainer (damn that useless battery). Your motivation will immediately spike, triggering you to recharge the phone. But the longer you spend on recharging your phone (perhaps you can’t find a cable), the more motivation you will lose. A smaller trigger (a friend asks you to play squash) will have a smaller impact on your motivation level, but also less negative impact on your sustainer, or perhaps even a positive impact.
This also explains why we suddenly start on a new task (like cleaning), right after we’ve had a very pleasant phone call. The phone call boosted our motivation and kept it high, even after the phone call ended. So we still had plenty of motivation left after the task ended. We remain motivated and our mind just looks for the next best thing to pick up.
I’ve drawn an example in the above image of my period after I’ve recovered from my burnout. I had very high mental blockades, which prevented me from getting motivated. Most of my sustainers were also very low because I’ve lose most of my internalization during my burnout period. My relatedness was impacted because I had missed out on a lot of social activities I had going before. But also my competence was down because I was doubting myself much more and I lost several of my personal skills (I was able to jog for 2 hours straight, now I have trouble with 30 minutes). So every time I tried to motivate myself with triggers, I quickly lost my motivation. This explains the strong fluctuations in the example above.
I’ve used this model to help myself understand this troublesome period and also to give myself strength and figure out what to do in certain moments. Over time I managed to decrease my mental blockades until I started seeing positive effects. For instance, I started singing along with a song on the ready. Which proved to me that I was able to get motivated with a small nudge. This meant my motivation was already higher than my mental blockades, otherwise, it would’ve required a stronger trigger to motivate myself to sing.