- Motivation means drive and interest toward or away from something, but activation is what gets you there.
- Strong emotions energize your ability to activate to tasks.
- Boring or difficult tasks take more mental effort, so activating to them is harder to do.
Cassie, a young adult I knew many years ago, was excited about starting a fabulous new job at a sought-after design firm. She was highly motivated to do well. She had always been a high achiever and was driven to do the hard work to shine in her new position.
Unfortunately, over the course of the next several months, she developed crushing anxiety that became so severe she was missing work and falling behind on her projects. Even though she remained highly motivated, she was struggling to activate to tasks that she used to do with ease. Once her anxiety disorder was treated with therapy and medication, she was able to get back on track—her activation once again matched her motivation.
The concept of motivation in psychology broadly refers to the combination of energy, drive, and interest that pushes us toward a positive outcome that we need or want, or that pushes us away from something potentially dangerous or undesired. It can be as basic as motivation toward food when we are hungry or motivation away from sickness, leading us to sniff the milk before we put it in our coffee. And it can be as complex as motivation toward a planned academic or career path or motivation away from a person who has hurt us.
Activating to a task is starting the work that you need to do to achieve what motivates you. I may be motivated to write this article because I want to share this information and get people thinking about it. But if I don’t activate to the tasks of turning off a "Gilmore Girls" rerun, opening my computer, pulling up a document, and starting to type, I won’t achieve the goal I am motivated toward. Motivation is necessary but insufficient—activation is the secret sauce.
Emotions Can Energize or Drain Activation Energy
Activation and motivation zig-zag through numerous brain and body functions, such as thinking, feeling, moving, and socializing. Strong emotions—positive and negative—can drive motivation and activation.
If you are wildly excited about seeing Beyonce or Taylor Swift in concert, it's likely to be relatively easy for you to activate to the tasks of setting your alarm and waking up at midnight to sit at the computer for tickets, for example. Alternatively, if you have to set your alarm to wake up in the middle of the night to finish writing your English essay, that likely feels a lot harder. Negative emotions can drive motivation and activation as well, such as when fear motivates you to avoid a stretch of road where your car recently spun out in the rain, and it activates you to drive an extra half an hour to make that happen.
Boring or difficult tasks that our brain isn’t excited about take much more mental and physical effort to start and complete, even if we are motivated to complete them. You might be motivated to eat the spaghetti carbonara that you saw on an Instagram cooking video, but if cooking isn’t a highly desired and/or interesting task for you, the steps of shopping, preparing, and cleaning up may well feel like too much work. On the other hand, for someone who loves to cook, these tasks may feel exciting and fun, and therefore activating to them feels less painful.
Long-Term Motivations Need Short-Term Activation
Our motivations occur along a continuum of long-term and short-term time frames. If we are motivated toward something further into the future, such as going to college or getting a particular job, we will need to activate to many short-term tasks along the way, many of which will be less exciting than our long-term goals. Often, they are difficult, so activating to them may be a heavy lift.
One common strategy is to build in more immediate motivators to help us activate to those less desired tasks. For me, it was M&Ms.
I was motivated to do well in medical school so I could graduate and become a doctor. I had strong motivation to study for exams, but activating to that task was painful for me and required short-term motivators, including M&M breaks at certain time intervals during my library sessions. It wasn't my only hack for short-term motivation and activation, but it worked.
Most of us use strategies to motivate and activate to boring or difficult things—and we teach our children and students to use them as well. Clearly, candy should not be the only motivator to use, but I stand by my strategy at the time.
Motivation and Activation Are Unique and Evolving
Every person’s motivation and activation profiles develop uniquely, from childhood into adulthood and they continue to fluctuate and change over the years. Factors such as ADHD, learning patterns, physical illness, fatigue, hunger, trauma, depression, anxiety, temperament (personality traits), social drive, and many other brain and body patterns, play vital roles in motivation and activation.
ADHD, for example, adds neurologic barriers to task activation—regardless of motivation. A child with ADHD may be highly motivated to do their homework, but activating to the task may be so challenging that they continue to struggle to even start their assignments, let alone finish them.
Energy and mood factors significantly affect motivation and activation. Say I am looking forward to seeing a friend because I anticipated a positive, happy experience. Usually, it doesn’t feel like a heavy mental effort to activate to the tasks to make it happen—such as reaching out, scheduling, and planning.
But if my neighbor has taken up nighttime drum practice and I’m exhausted, then no matter how motivated I am, activating to the tasks will be much more difficult. And at the next level, if I am struggling with depression, my motivation to see my friend may be lower than usual and my energy to activate to make it happen may be near zero.
When you (or your child or your student) struggle with doing tasks, a helpful approach is to be curious—with yourself or that child. Try not to assume that it’s a problem of low motivation but rather consider what might be getting in the way of activating to something, even if you (or they) are motivated. Exploring motivation is vital to achieving our goals, but unless we dig deeper into activation factors, it will be much harder to get there.