How to Get Motivated: Tips From Brain Research

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Emotional Intelligence" by Daniel Goleman. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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How do you motivate yourself better? How to you get motivated, and stay motivated? Learn these tips from scientific research on motivation.

Being able to identify and manage our emotions makes it easier to motivate ourselves to finish tasks and achieve goals. We also need to be able to delay gratification and overcome our impulses to be more productive and effective. 

Controlling Your Impulses

Goleman says this is the most fundamental psychological skill. Because emotions are impulses, being in control of your emotions is resisting the urge to fulfill impulses that are harmful or counterproductive.

The ability to delay gratification in pursuit of a goal is necessary to achieve almost anything. Very little of what we do on a moment-to-moment basis is gratifying–most of us have obligations we have to meet, big-picture goals we’re working towards, or personal improvements we’re looking to make. All of these require us to delay immediate gratification in favor of doing something that will be beneficial down the line. 

  • Think of eating a sweet versus working out. One will give us immediate gratification; the other takes time and energy but will ultimately be better for us.

The Marshmallow Experiment and Motivation

There was a famous experiment done in the 1960s with children. They were left in a room with one marshmallow. They were told that if they didn’t eat the marshmallow before the researcher came back, they could have 2 marshmallows. Or they could choose to eat the single marshmallow right away. 

The study followed the children into their adolescence, and the kids who had delayed gratification and resisted their impulses to eat the first marshmallow were:

  • Effective, assertive, confident, and self-reliant.
  • Socially competent, trustworthy, and dependable.
  • Cool under pressure, embracing of challenges, and still capable of delaying immediate gratification in pursuit of a goal.
  • More successful academically, with higher SAT scores.

On the other side, kids who ate the first marshmallow were:

  • Shy in social situations, jealous, envious, and combative.
  • Stubborn, indecisive, and easily frustrated.
  • Self-critical, prone to overreacting, and still incapable of delaying gratification.
  • Less successful academically, with lower SAT scores by an average of 210 points.

Hope as Motivation

Hope, in this context, is the belief that you have the will and the means to accomplish a goal, regardless of what it is. More hopeful people were found to have a variety of traits that made them more successful:

  • They can self-motivate.
  • They view themselves as resourceful and try different ways to accomplish their goals.
  • When times are tough, they tell themselves it will get better.
  • They’re flexible enough to try different approaches towards reaching the same goal or switch goals if one proves too difficult to achieve.
  • They break down large, scary tasks into smaller, more manageable goals.

More hopeful people generally deal with less emotional distress throughout their lives, don’t give in to overwhelming anxiety, and suffer less from depression.

Optimistic people see failure as something that can be changed so they can succeed next time they try. Pessimists believe failure is something they’re doomed to experience because of who they are or what they’re (not) capable of–the failure usually feels outside their control.

  • Talent, like IQ, is not enough to be successful–the ability to keep going when faced with defeat can make or break success. There is no success without the failures that come before it, so pushing through the failures in pursuit of the ultimate goal becomes a necessary ability.

Hope is sometimes a better indicator of academic success than IQ. One study found that a student’s hopefulness was a better predictor of how good their grades would be in the first semester of college than SAT scores were.

As a caveat, we’re talking about realistic optimism and motivation here. Naive optimism can actually undermine success. It implies a lack of self-awareness or awareness of the circumstances that are necessary for success.

People are naturally born leaning more towards an optimistic or a pessimistic view of life, but temperament can be cultivated with experience and nurturing. Hope and optimism can be taught and learned.

How to Get Motivated: Tips From Brain Research

———End of Preview———

Here's what you'll find in our full Emotional Intelligence summary:

  • What are emotions? Why do we have them?
  • What is emotional intelligence? Why is it important?
  • How do you manage your own emotions? Anger, anxiety, and sadness?
  • How can you approach your relationships with more emotional intelligence?
  • How can you teach your children emotional intelligence?
  • How can emotional intelligence boost your career?

Allen Cheng

Allen Cheng is the founder of Shortform. He has a passion for non-fiction books (having read 200+ and counting) and is on a mission to make the world's best ideas more accessible to everyone. He reads broadly, covering a wide range of subjects including finance, management, health, and society. Allen graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude and attended medical training at the MD/PhD program at Harvard and MIT. Before Shortform, he co-founded PrepScholar, an online education company.

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