How To Stay Motivated Longer, With A Little Help From Science

We have more motivation available to us than we think, suggests a new study, but finding it requires challenging a few assumptions and rethinking how we organize our time.

The study kept daily tabs on about 16,000 volunteers who completed a series of tasks over several months using an online learning platform. Observing how the volunteers engaged the tasks throughout the day challenged assumptions about motivation and led to some important takeaways.

The most critical assumption that failed to meet the challenge: Self-control is a limited resource. The prevailing theory about self-control is that it’s like a muscle — the more it’s exerted, the more tired it becomes until it’s spent and has to recover. If that’s true, then motivation is just as limited because it both relies on and supports self-control. Motivating oneself is largely about using self-control to harness attention and energy toward an objective.

Lately, though, the theory that self-control runs down like an over-exercised muscle has been criticized because it doesn’t hold up well in real-world conditions. The latest study found that rather than self-control just generally running low during the course of a day, the effect was task-specific. People seem to only wear out their self-control — and consequently their motivation — if they’re grinding away at one task for too long. But when they can switch between tasks, they find motivation again.

“Our results are consistent with theories showing that people lose motivation within a specific task, but at odds with theories that argue self-control is a general resource that can be exhausted,” says Dan Randles, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto and study co-author.

Consider this finding in light of what we know about multitasking. When you try to do multiple tasks at once, attention is divided, focus is lost and things go wrong. The answer is task shifting. Allocate attention and energy to only one task at a time, but shift between tasks as needed.

The latest research hints at a similar solution to preserve motivation. We can’t really keep one big motivation fire burning all day. That’s a prescription for burnout. It’s more effective to light individual fires for individual tasks and switch between them as the hours roll along.

The findings are directly applicable to how we structure our day. Motivation stays strongest when we can “chunk” our time in one or two-hour blocks for any given task. Shifting from one chunk to the next preserves self-control and motivation; resources aren’t expended on any one chunk long enough to burn them out (and, not incidentally, we’re also a lot less bored).

That method runs counter to the “stick to it and grind it out” way of thinking, but like so many of our assumed standards, that one came about without the benefit of knowing how our brains actually work.

The takeaway: Organize your time around your objectives by allocating your hours in motivation-preserving chunks. While trying to stay on any one thing for too long will put out your fire, shifting between a few things will keep your individual fires burning.


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