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Is motivation what you think it is?

Struggle to kick a bad habit? The skill of motivation is being able to identify, shift and reflect on the reasons for your motivation.

6 min read


fowler june 2018

Susan Fowler

You willed yourself to complete an expense report over the weekend. You disciplined yourself to work out three times this past week. You are excited about entering a sales contest. After submitting your expenses, admiring your abs and winning the sales trip, you credit your success to willpower, discipline, and enthusiasm.

But months later you are trying to summon more willpower to work on overdue expense reports, forcing yourself to get to the gym after work and seeking a fresh carrot to incentivize yourself to make another sales call. You are faced with a reality: maybe motivation isn’t what you think it is.

At the risk of challenging your basic beliefs, I hope you’ll reconsider traditional ways of acting (or stopping an action, such as a bad habit) that you might typically deem as positive. I’m asking you to consider more effective alternatives to the discipline, willpower, and externally-generated excitement that you use to motivate yourself.

Motivation is the energy to act. Outdated theories of motivation are based on how much energy you have — equating your motivation to the quantity of your energy. But, a seismic revolution in our understanding of motivation is that what matters most is the quality of your motivation.

Motivation is not about how much energy you have, but the quality of energy you have. When it comes to motivation, quality matters.

High-quality energy results in greater productivity, sustainable performance, increased creativity and innovation, enhanced sense of well-being and higher levels of engagement. Not only does low-quality energy not lead to desired results, it takes its toll emotionally and physically in the short and long term.

The quality of your energy depends on the reasons you are motivated. Some reasons behind your motivation result in high-quality energy, or optimal motivation. For example, if the reason for submitting your expense reports is based on developed and meaningful values, a noble purpose or pure intrinsic joy, you will experience high-quality energy, or optimal motivation.

However, if the reason behind completing your expense reports is going through the motions to comply, to receive an external reward or to relieve pressure, you will experience low-quality energy, or suboptimal motivation.

Samuel Clara/Unsplash

For years, I tried all kinds of tricks to lose weight, eat healthy and exercise. As popular books recommended, I disciplined myself to document my eating and workout habits. I willed myself to avoid junk food, but failed. So, to alleviate the need for willpower, I created a “supportive environment.” I threw out all the junk food and stocked my cabinets with healthy choices. I even joined a group where we tried to excite each other by awarding ourselves tokens and points to hold each other accountable for our health goals.

Despite the pressure I felt to lose weight and adopt healthy habits, I couldn’t resist fast food (especially fried chicken and biscuits). All the willpower in the world couldn’t make me get rid of that pot of pork fat on my stove because everything tasted better cooked in pork fat. Or, so I believed.

One evening, I happened to catch a TV news report about how we treat the animals we eat. Fifteen minutes later, I knew I would never eat meat again. I have not eaten meat or fish — or foods containing them — for over three decades. To outsiders it appears I have amazing willpower or enviable discipline. But, becoming a vegetarian required no willpower or discipline. I wasn’t even excited about becoming vegetarian.

Searching to understand what shifted my motivation in those 15 minutes — and sustained it for almost 40 years — led me to the science of motivation. Applying the science of motivation led me to a bold realization. Motivation isn’t what I thought. Motivation is a skill.

The skill of motivation is being able to identify, shift and reflect on the reasons for your motivation. Discipline, willpower and externally generated excitement are redundant and unnecessary when your reasons for being motivated are based on developed values, a noble purpose or inherent joy.

However, if your reasons for being motivated are based on compliance, improving your image or status, tangible or intangible rewards, fear or pressure, your motivation is not likely to yield the results you seek. Even worse, you are compromising the quality of your performance and undermining your health in ways you don’t even realize.

If you’ve relied on discipline, willpower and excitement to motivate yourself, maybe motivation isn’t what you thought. The nature of willpower, discipline (the verb, not the noun), or generating excitement through external rewards is to help force you into action to do something you feel imposed, forced or obligated to do. But, learning the skill of motivation helps you identify and shift the reasons for your motivation — and experience high-quality energy.

When you master your motivation, you might submit your expense reports on time because you are aware of how doing so aligns to your value of being a positive role model for the people you lead. You may work out regularly because doing so connects to your life purpose for being a positive role model for your children. You could put extra effort into selling because you realize that while winning the sales trip is fun, the true joy of selling is being of service to your clients.

So, if you find yourself resorting to willpower, discipline or a dose of externally-generated excitement, don’t succumb. Instead, consider these methods of motivation as red flags alerting you to apply the skill of motivation. You always have the choice to shift to high-quality motivation. And then, celebrate the high-quality energy you’ve generated to achieve your goals — and thrive.


Susan Fowler implores leaders to stop trying to motivate people. In her latest bestselling book, she explains “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing. She is the author of bylined articles, peer-reviewed research and six books, including the bestselling “Self Leadership and the “One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard. Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs, such as the Situational Self Leadership and Optimal Motivation product lines. For more information, visit

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