How To Design Behavior: Motivation - Article Header

If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

He who has the right why can bear almost any how.

Just do it.

I’m sure you have heard some of these motivational quotes. If you live in any western society, probably to the point of nausea. The question is: How often are you making lemonade?

If you are like Chloe, the result of your attempts at making changes by using motivation have more often than not gone pretty sour. She has heard it all and does her best to get pumped up for every new day. Her alarm clock sings “Don’t Stop Believing,” her apartment walls are covered with motivational quotes and so is her Instagram feed.

She desperately wants to eat healthier and exercise more, but she just never seems to be motivated enough. Even screaming “I am a champion!” for 10 minutes every morning has somehow not changed her life.

How To Design Behavior: Motivation - Chloe

So what are we to make of motivation? It is a topic well covered in best-selling self-help books as well as our favorite magazines, yet we don’t seem to make use of it very well. What is the problem? Is motivation overrated or are we just using it wrong?

Probably both.

This is the second part in a series of articles on how to design behavior. See the previous part on Ability here and join my newsletter to be notified of next part on Triggers here.

Re-Learning Motivation

Most of us know that we need to have some degree of motivation to successfully take action. In fact, we are often told that motivation is all that we need to complete exercise programs, get slim on diets and become rich and successful. So, let’s see what role motivation actually plays in the formula of behavior design success.

How To Design Behavior: Motivation - Motivational stickers

Motivation can be hard to define, but I like to see it as the internal process which directs our behavior. It determines why we feel like doing something and what we want to do. In this way, it is clear that motivation plays an important part in what behaviors we take part in or avoid.

To illustrate, let’s consider the simple act of answering the phone. We might sit with the phone in our hand (able to answer) and hear the signal ring (triggered to answer), but if the person calling is someone we don’t want to speak with, say our annoying cousin Gary, then we’ll still not answer. Sadly for cousin Gary, we are here simply not motivated to pick up the phone.

So let’s now dig a bit deeper into motivation and see why it matters in behavior change.

Core Motivators

Stanford professor BJ Fogg and founder of the Persuasive Technology Lab will be of great help to us in all four parts of this series. Here, his work will help us break down the most important components of motivation.

According to his Behavior Model, there are three Core Motivators, each with a positive and negative form of motivation [1]. We can increase or decrease motivation by manipulating one or more of these three core motivators.

How To Design Behavior: Motivation - The Core Motivators

1. Sensation

  • Pleasure: We seek what is pleasurable; what makes us feel good. This could be any action that causes some form of enjoyment when performed.
  • Pain: We avoid what is painful; anything that makes us feel bad. This could be something physical like pain or some form of negative emotion.
  • Takeaway: If you want to increase motivation then you should make the action feel more enjoyable or less painful. The reverse is true if you want to decrease motivation for undesirable behaviors.
  • Caution: One person’s pain can be another person’s pleasure, and what can evoke pain in one scenario might evoke pleasure in another. Remember that book “Fifty Shades of Gray”?

2. Anticipation

  • Hope: We can see this as the anticipation of pleasure. Hope motivates us to complete an action because of the pleasure we think it will bring us in the future.
  • Fear: Conversely, fear is the anticipation of pain. Fear motivates us to act if we are afraid that not doing the action will have a painful consequence.
  • Takeaway: If you want to boost motivation then you should increase your positive anticipation and decrease the negative anticipation of the action. The reverse is true if you want to decrease motivation for undesirable behaviors.

How To Design Behavior: Motivation - Fear

3. Belonging

  • Social acceptance: We are social creatures, and we are motivated by a need for belonging. We therefore complete actions that will cause us to receive a greater social acceptance and recognition.
  • Social rejection: In reverse, the risk of social rejection motivates us to take actions that don’t lead us to social alienation.
  • Takeaway: If you want to boost motivation, your action should have some social consequence. It could do so by either increasing your social status or by risking you losing some of your social reputation.

As you can see, we now have a lot to work with if we want to make changes to our motivation. We will look into how Chloe can use this in a practical scenario, but first, let’s make sure we cover another important part of motivation: Internal vs. External motivation.

Internal vs. External

Research in the last decades has taught us that the promise of the stick and carrot has not been fully realized. In his book Drive, Daniel Pink shows us that external motivation can be successful when used to increase simple and temporary behaviors but that it also can have little or negative effect when it comes to more complex or long-term behavior [2].

One of the problems with rewards in behavior design is that people start doing the behavior just for the reward. This leads to the behavior being less enjoyable and they might completely stop if the reward is taken away.

They start asking themselves; “where is the money?”

How To Design Behavior: Motivation - External Motivation (Money)

Consider giving students monetary rewards for studying. This innocent incentive could have a dangerous consequence. It could completely remove any enjoyment the students previously received from learning and instead, they will only study should they be paid to do so. Not ideal right?

A more reliable and longer lasting form of motivation can come from our identity and values—our internal motivations. People who see themselves as healthy people and value food of high quality naturally eat healthily. Eating healthy becomes less of a choice since it is something they value and prioritize.

It is much easier to say “I don’t” eat that, than “I can’t” eat that.

The good news is that anyone can create different values or add layers to their identity.

The best way to do that is by developing a healthy habit. We are what we do and we always need to justify our actions to ourselves. So once you find yourself in the gym most days of the week, you will inevitably start seeing yourself as someone who values their fitness.

To understand this better, let’s now look at how Chloe could make use of this in becoming more active.

How To Design Behavior: Motivation - Exercise

Example: Exercise

More pleasurable

If Chloe finds the gym boring, she could consider doing a physical activity she enjoys more. She could change the treadmill for Zumba class or start a new gym program.

She can also add something to make going to the gym more fun. When running she could add listening to her favorite podcast or instead of going alone she could bring a good friend to join her at the gym.

Less painful
Similarly here, she can replace what she is doing with a less painful activity. For example, she could go to yoga instead of Crossfit or work out alone instead of going with a friend who is always late.

Even something small as avoiding to wear uncomfortable clothing can have an effect in how she perceives exercising. She can also go full Fifty Shades of Gray and start associating the sweat and fatigue with growth and fulfillment.

How To Design Behavior: Motivation - Hope

More hope
Here Chloe can start by better defining her aspirations and what she hopes to get out of her exercise habit. She can imagine how her life will look like if she developed the habit and write out the benefits she would get from being fit. She should also write down why now is a great time to start.

Less fear
Fear often comes from uncertainty. Chloe could consider finding ways to remove uncertainty or the risk of pain. If she is afraid to get injured or embarrass herself in the gym, then she can get an experienced friend or PT to help her get started. If she is not sure where to jog, then she can use Google maps to figure out her running route beforehand

How To Design Behavior: Motivation - Fear

More social acceptance
We are social animals, and we all enjoy feeling like we belong. Chloe could see if she can find an exercise group or someone she can exercise with and support her. An example of this could be joining a running group or signing up for a group boot camp.

Less social rejection
Accountability can be a great motivator and could help Chloe overcome days when exercising feels hard. She could start exercising with a friend or someone she doesn’t want to let down. If she doesn’t show up for a session, she will risk her friendship or the loss of her friend’s respect.

External motivation
Bring out the rewards! Here Chloe must make sure that any reward she uses does not contradict with her exercise goal. It should instead be a reward that helps her achieve her goal. She could, for example, make a nutritious and yummy smoothie after she completes a run or buy a new pair of running shoes if she completes her first half-marathon.

She could also here bring out the proverbial stick. We should see this as a nuclear intervention and only done she needs to complete a very challenging and temporary goal. For example, she could sign up to donate $1,000 to an organization she does not want to support if she fails to quit smoking (see: stickK).

Internal motivation
Chloe should think about her core values. Would not taking care of her body violate any of them? Does she have anyone that looks up to her? What kind of role model does she want to be?

The great thing with exercising is that it can often feel very empowering and that is why so many people over time so strongly link it to their identity.

Note of caution: With these examples, it is important to remember that they are things that you could do, but maybe should not do. Some strategies here will work great for some but could be less effective for others.

So while the concepts covered in this article can certainly be very useful, still remember that your motivational strategies will vary in success depending on the person and situation.


How To Design Behavior: Motivation - Just Do It

I don’t want this to seem complicated because much of this becomes quite easy once you understand it. Just remember these three points below and that making life changes should always feel like a fun experiment. 

How To Design Behavior: Motivation - Takeaways

This is what Chloe did, she no longer spends mornings screaming “I am a champion” in the mirror, but focuses instead on making the things she wants to do more fun. She has replaced the motivational quotes with a wall of images representing what she hopes her current behavior goals will help her accomplish. Lastly, she has stopped trying to do it all by herself, instead, she has now joined a run club as well as a Meet-up group dedicated to healthy cooking.

Chloe’s life is starting to fall into place and she is now living healthier than ever. As a reward, she has therefore given herself an iPad in order to also “give her thumbs more exercise”. She has learned that maybe motivation can be quite useful after all… Hope you’re enjoying that lemonade, Chloe! 

How To Design Behavior: Motivation - Chloe Happy

It should be clear now that motivation can play a significant factor in determining behavior design success. I recommend you consider how each of the areas covered in this article can help you achieve your goal. To make this easier, I have created a checklist which can be downloaded for free below.

You should also probably get yourself a glass of chilled lemonade because things are heating up! Next, this series will continue by looking at Triggers, the secret force of the universe, and learn what part they play in designing behavior. Check it out here.

Until then, happy designing.
– Samuel

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  1. B. J. Fogg, B. (2009). A behavior model for persuasive design. 40. 10.1145/1541948.1541999.I recommend you also check out BJ Fogg’s behavioral model website here.
  2. Pink, Daniel, 2009. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. 1st ed. Riverhead Books.Dan has a great newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

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