Bad news, kids (and academics): the magical motivation fairy doesn’t exist

Motivation for tricky tasks doesn’t just appear magically, but with these psychological tricks you can get yourself and your career moving, says Hugh Kearns

Hugh Kearns's avatar
Flinders University
3 Oct 2022
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The magic motivation fairy does not exist for academics

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When my boys were younger, they believed in the tooth fairy. Whenever they lost a tooth, they carefully placed it under their pillow, and overnight the tooth fairy magically found out where they lived, took the tooth and left some money. However, as adults, many of us seem to believe in the tooth fairy’s cousin: the motivation fairy. When we say to ourselves: “I’m not in the mood today”, “I don’t feel like writing”, “I don’t feel ready”, what we seem to hope is that when we go home in the evening, the motivation fairy will fly by our house and sprinkle its magical motivation dust. Then, when we wake up in the morning, we’ll really want to work on writing that difficult section of our paper. Or make a start on that ethics application. Or make those changes suggested by reviewer two.

Well, my boys finally worked out that the tooth fairy doesn’t exist. And the bad news for all of us is that the motivation fairy doesn’t exist either. Shock, horror. It turns out that if you don’t want to start on that ethics application today, then you’re unlikely to want to start on it tomorrow either. In fact, the only time you’re likely to feel like starting on it is when the deadline is that day at 5.00pm. And that’s not motivation. That’s fear.

So, without the motivation fairy, what are we supposed to do? Well, that’s where some psychology can help. There is a branch of psychology called behavioural activation, based on the principle that if you change your behaviours, you can change your mood. Behavioural activation suggests we often have it the wrong way round. We think motivation leads to action – when I feel like writing, then I’ll do it. That might work for pleasant jobs such as watching your favourite movie or having a nice meal. But it doesn’t work with difficult jobs like the ethics application.

In behavioural activation it’s the other way round. You have to take action first, and then the motivation will follow. What this means in practice is that you have to start before you feel ready. You’ve probably experienced it yourself. Let’s say you’ve been putting off some difficult task for weeks – writing a difficult section of a paper, perhaps. You’ve been avoiding it as creatively as possible: your house is as tidy as it can be; you’ve caught up with all your acquaintances; you’ve even finished your tax return. Finally, you decide you’d better open the document and make a start. And when you do, you realise it’s not actually as bad as you’d imagined. You wonder why you hadn’t started it weeks ago. Well, that’s because you were waiting for the motivation fairy.

Of course, starting before you feel ready sounds great – but it’s difficult in practice. After all: you’re not ready. So, here are a few psychological tricks to get you started.

First, you have to set a specific time. There’s no point in saying: “I’ll get round to that later this week.” That’s like when you meet someone and as you’re walking away you say: “We must catch up some time.” Everyone knows that’s not going to happen. When you really want to meet someone, you set a time: let’s meet for lunch; how about we meet at 2.00pm tomorrow? So, you must set a time for that unpleasant job – say, 10.00am tomorrow morning. Ideally write it in your diary. Maybe tell people about it. Make a commitment. Make it as real as you can.

The second trick is to break the big job down into little bits, in particular the first bit that you need to make a start. Because if you tell yourself that at 10.00am tomorrow morning you’re going to attend to all of the reviewer’s changes, or complete the whole ethics application, your brain is going to say: “I don’t think that’s going to happen.” So, what you should tell yourself is that tomorrow morning you’re going to make the first of the reviewer’s changes or download the ethics application.

Now, as you read this, you’re probably thinking: “But that’s not enough. I need to do much more.” However, such a thought is a good way to kill the motivation. By thinking about how much you have to do, you get overwhelmed and the motivation seeps away. The small step is what gets you started. Once you’ve done it, hopefully the motivation kicks in and you do the next small step and then keep going.

Our final little psychological trick is a reward. To help get yourself started, build in some reward. For example, if you do start work on that ethics application then after x minutes you can have a cup of coffee or a short walk in the garden. However, the crucial thing about rewards in psychology is that they must come after the behaviour. A surprising number of people forget this and think: “Well, I’ll quickly have a coffee first and then start on the ethics application.” But it doesn’t work that way. You need to start, and then you have the reward. In many cases, once people start, they find the task isn’t so bad and they want to keep going. In fact, in my experience, it’s often hard to get high achievers to stop. Once they’ve started, they like to keep going; they like crossing things off the list.

This action–motivation–action model applies to many areas of life. Academic writing is just one of them.

So, sadly, the motivation fairy doesn’t exist. But the good news is you don’t need to wait for it. You just need to make a start and then the motivation arrives. When you hear yourself saying: “I don’t feel like doing that”, “I’m not in the mood”, “I’m not ready”, maybe you should just make a start. A small start, at a specific time, with a reward built in afterwards. Then watch the motivation fairy coming along to join you.

Hugh Kearns works with researchers and research groups around the world to improve their productivity and well-being. He is based in Adelaide, Australia, and lectures and researches at Flinders University and runs ThinkWell.

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