How to Motivate Yourself to Achieve Your Goals, According to Science

Entrepreneurship is a marathon, not a sprint, and your motivation is what pushes you to keep putting one foot in front of the other. But as any startup founder knows, staying motivated, especially during the bad days and low periods, isn’t a given. Luckily, there’s plenty of research you can lean on to guide you on how to choose the motivation that will lead you to succeed, stick with them, and lean on them when things get difficult.

What motivates you?

In order to understand how to stay motivated, you need to define your motivations. What drives entrepreneurs tends to be different than what drives people who are satisfied with more traditional jobs. And research backs that up.

Noam Wasserman, PhD, is the dean of Yeshiva University’s Sy Syms School of Business and author of the best-sellling book, The Founder’s Dilemma. He’s an expert on what motivates founders and the effect those motivations can have on their success. Working with psychologist Tim Butler, Wasserman combed through a large data set from the CareerBuilder assessment test and analyzed the motives that drive people’s careers. “We sliced it by entrepreneur versus non entrepreneur, by gender, and by decade of life and how motives change over time,” Wasserman says. They found that a sense of control or autonomy over their lives and a desire for financial gain (with a good dose of do-gooding in the mix) are the most common motivations for entrepreneurs. Control was at the top of the list followed by financial gain, though it ranked higher for men than for women, who tended to place a bit more value on altruism than money. And those motivations tended to hold steady across age. “For entrepreneurs, it was rock solid, across all decades of life, that control and finances were consistently the highest ranked motivations,” Wasserman says.

There can only be one primary motivation

It seems logical to assume that the more motivations you have driving your entrepreneurship, the better. But research actually shows that the opposite is true. “Serving multiple masters when it comes to your motives will almost certainly make you less likely to stick it out and succeed,” says Barry Schwartz, PhD, professor of psychology and social theory at Swarthmore College.

Along with several colleagues, Schwartz examined 11 years worth of data on students entering West Point, the elite U.S. military academy. (The study was published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.) The team looked at two things: the motivations students expressed on entrance questionnaires about why they came to West Point and their later success within the military.

There are two key types of motivation: Intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivations are all about internal rewards, like doing something because you find it enjoyable or because it helps people and you feel good when you give back. Extrinsic motivations are about external rewards, like money or status. Schwartz and his colleagues made a few key discoveries in their study. First, cadets who were intrinsically motivated tended to “do better at West Point, get promoted earlier, and were more likely to stay in the Army,” than extrinsically motivated cadets. Second, and most surprisingly, they found that cadets who expressed both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations “did worse than students who only had internal motives,” Schwartz says. In other words, rather one one motivation plus one motivation equaling two, “it equals less than one,” Schwartz says.

“The lesson that we draw from this is that motives matter, and the kinds of motives you want to try to nurture or to find are ones that have an intimate relation to the tasks that you're going to engage in,” Schwartz says. “So starting a company because you want to sell shares and get a Ferrari is going to produce worse performance than starting a company because you think what you have in mind will serve human beings or change the world in some way.”

Choose your motivation and align your decisions with it

“If you want to stay motivated, you need to fit your decisions to your primary motivation,” Wasserman says. “A lot of times what happens is there’s a real tension between your highest ranked motivations. For example, there’s tension between keeping control and attracting the resources you need to build a highly valuable company. At almost every step of the way, when you’re reaching for one of those motivations, you’re going to have to sacrifice the other.” Essentially, total control and financial windfalls don’t go hand in hand in the startup world. You’ll be hard pressed to regain total control over your startup—approving every decision, not taking any outside money, tackling every challenging task yourself—and also build it into a unicorn that’s going to give you a huge payday in the future. You need to be aware of whether the decisions that you’re making align with what you’ve identified as your core motivation.

“Ask yourself, what am I going to celebrate at the end of the day?” Wasserman says. “If you’re more motivated by control, you’re going to celebrate even if you have a smaller venture but you’re seeing the vision and impact and you were able to control all of the decisions. If you’re more motivated by financial gain, you’re going to be happy if you get rich from it and care less if the product is exactly how you envisioned it being or if you’re no longer controlling a bunch of pieces of the company.” Staying motivated can come down to making choices that keep you moving in the direction of your ultimate goal. Because if things start to go off course, your drive to keep going can fade away. The challenge often comes in deciding what your key motivator is and prioritizing it, because “people who reach for both control and financial gain tend to end up with neither,” Wasserman says.

When your core motivation starts to fade

Even if you settle on your core motivation and tailor your decisions around it, you’ll probably still have times when your drive to keep going falters. When that happens, remind yourself why you wanted to start your company in the first place.

Schwartz points to research conducted by Wharton professor and best-selling author Adam Grant to show how this works. Grant conducted a study in 2007 in which he tried to motivate college students working at their school’s call center, dialing up alumni and asking them to donate money to the school. As you can imagine, these students, who weren’t being paid much, were faced with a whole lot of no’s and rudeness during each shift as a result, morale was low and turnover in the roles was high. So Grant brought in a scholarship student who’d been helped tremendously by the kind of money these students were working to bring in. It was just a 5-minute meeting but it did the trick. A month later, the students who’d interacted with the scholarship student spent almost twice as much time on the phone during their shifts and increased their average weekly donations from $185.94 to $503.22. Simply put, meeting someone who’d benefitted from their efforts increased their desire to continue on and do a better job.

“You have to make your motivation salient,” Schwartz says. If your motivation is all about improving people’s lives with your product or service, doing seemingly little things like reading customer testimonials or keeping data that shows your impact handy can make a huge difference when you’re feeling unmotivated. “ We often take for granted that we have a noble purpose but we don't articulate it very well,” Schwartz says. “Giving yourself these little booster shots that remind you of why you're doing this may work powerfully to get you over the humps and the hard spots.”

Learn more about entrepreneurship and personal development.