Are you falling prey to motivation myths that might be sabotaging your chances of achieving your goals? We all like to think that we have a pretty solid understanding of what makes us tick. The reality is that we are often surprisingly blind to psychological factors that contribute to our success and failure. Research has shown that not only are people sometimes quite poor at knowing what will make them happy, they also underestimate what it really takes to achieve their goals.1

Top Myths About Motivation

Let’s take a closer look at some of the top myths that may be standing in the way of your motivation.

Money Is the Ultimate Motivator

Money certainly can be a great motivational tool, but some people mistakenly place too much importance on financial rewards and overlook other factors that might ultimately play a greater role in their motivation and happiness.

If you take a job because it pays well, but neglect the fact that it is in an undesirable location, has terrible hours, and leaves you with no free time for family, will the monetary rewards really make up for all those downsides? It might for a while, but chances are that you will eventually start to feel stressed and unmotivated to go to work.

Research has suggested that people who are primarily motivated by financial concerns tend to suffer from worse mental health on a variety of psychological measures.2

If You Are Smart, You Don’t Need to Be Motivated

People often believe that being smart is a way to guarantee success, but researchers have repeatedly found that intelligence is certainly not always a predictor of achievement. In the famous longitudinal study of gifted kids by Lewis Terman, some of the most intelligent individuals later went on to lead very average lives unmarked by great accomplishments.3 You might be smart, but that doesn’t mean that motivation won’t play a role in your success.

Visualizing Success Will Make Dreams a Reality

Self-help gurus often tout the power of visualization. Just imagining yourself reaching your goals, they suggest, will help you achieve them.

Psychological research, on the other hand, suggests that these visualization activities can sometimes be counterproductive.4 If you imagine yourself instantly successful, it actually saps your motivation to go out and achieve those goals. A better strategy—visualize yourself completing the steps it will take to reach your goals.

If you are trying to lose weight, envision yourself eating healthy and working out rather than just imagining yourself instantly skinny.

Greater Rewards Will Lead to Greater Motivation

If you want someone to do something, offering them a big reward seems like a sure-fire way to inspire motivation, right? The problem is that researchers have discovered that sometimes these rewards can backfire.5

When you give someone a reward for something that they are already intrinsically motivated to do, the result is often a decrease in motivation, something that psychologists refer to as the overjustification effect. Rewards can inspire action when a person really does need some sort of incentive to engage in a task, but reinforcements should be used carefully and sparingly.

Fear Is a Great Way to Inspire Motivation

The threat of punishment or penalty can definitely inspire action, but often for just a brief period of time. Rewards can be tricky, but research has shown that reinforcement is usually a more effective strategy than punishments when it comes to boosting motivation.6 If you are relying on fear to drive yourself or others, try switching tactics to focus on bonuses for good performance.

Just Trying Is Enough

Think about the last time you tried something difficult. Before you walked out onto the field, onto the stage, or into the boardroom, someone might have leaned in and encouraged you to “just do your best.” These four words are often thought to be a great motivator, but research has actually shown that it might actually be a recipe for mediocrity. Researchers have actually found that setting high specific and difficult goals are more likely to inspire motivation, performance, and achievement.7

The next time you are making a goal, choose something specific and set the bar high.

You Should Praise Talent Instead of Efforts

Psychologist Carol Dweck suggests that focusing on innate talents rather than efforts can stunt motivation. If you believe that talents are inborn (an approach that’s known as a fixed mindset), it leads to the belief that no amount of effort can change the results.

Cultivating a growth mindset, or the belief that people can change and develop abilities through effort and dedication can be a much more motivating approach. One way to develop this mindset is to praise efforts rather than talents.

Willpower Is All It Takes to Reach Your Goals

People tend to believe that willpower is the deciding factor when it comes to goal attainment. In the American Psychology Association’s annual Stress in America survey, respondents listed a lack of willpower as the single biggest factor holding them back from reaching their goals.8 Willpower is certainly an important piece of the motivational puzzle, but it certainly isn’t the be-all-end-all.

The strength of your commitment, your desire to reach your goals, the types of incentives you’ll gain, and the obstacles you’ll face also play critical roles. When you are trying to get motivated, make a plan that takes these factors into account rather than just relying on willpower alone.

You Have to Wait for the Right Motivation to Strike

Sometimes you get lucky and inspiration strikes you at the right moment. It seems to just lift you up in a wave of motivation that keeps you directed toward accomplishing your goals. These moments are great, but waiting for them to come along is a mistake. Sometimes it takes work to create the motivation to reach your goals.

You might have to sit down and make a list of your goals and develop a step-by-step plan for reaching them. You might have to join a club or enlist the help of friends to stay motivated. Sometimes you might even need to inspire yourself with the promise of a reward.

Writing Your Goals Down Is the Key to Success

Journaling can be a highly effective motivation tool, but just writing down your goals without backing up those missives with action won’t produce results. Motivational speakers and self-help gurus often like to suggest that merely writing down your goals is some sort of motivational panacea, but there is no research to back up these kinds of claims.

Rather than just writing down your goals, focus on journaling the actual efforts you make each day toward reaching your goals.

Tactics That Can Improve Motivation

So which tactics really help people feel more motivated? In his TED Talk “What Makes Us Feel Good About Our Work?” behavioral economist Dan Ariely cited a few studies that reveal some effective motivational tactics.

  1. Meaningful work can improve motivation. Seeing the results of your efforts can motivate and lead to better performance.
  2. Appreciation. People who feel that their efforts are acknowledged tend to work harder and longer, while those who feel neglected require greater incentives to keep going.
  3. Difficult work can be motivating. Think back on some of your greatest accomplishments. The ones you are the proudest of were likely the most difficult to achieve. The more difficult something is, the more motivating and rewarding it might be.
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