Monk Skill: Understanding Motivation


Getting into the weeds a bit and understanding how motivation works is important to all of us in our roles as leaders and mentors, and as friends and family members.  Motivation is critical to our health and fitness, our financial and educational goals, and to over overall well being.  In this article I break down my perspective on the sources of motivation and how those sources drive action and enable us to grow.

Motivation is simply the internal and external factors which stimulate us to take action.  Having motivation to accomplish a goal is critical.  If you find yourself failing to meet you goals or accomplish your objectives, the root cause of the failure is likely a motivational issue.  If you aren’t motivated to get something done… it is not going to happen.  In my mind motivation is fuel that sustains our drive to action.

As the fuel source for action motivation supplies us with the power to get things done, to advance on our objectives and goals, and to take or avoid risks.  I think we all have a lot of dreams and hopes for the future.  These are happy places we like to go in our minds when we have a few minutes to wander around mentally.  One of these things for me is the guitar that sits right by my desk.  This guitar is a constant reminder to me that motivation is required to take action.  But Jon… you don’t play the guitar… EXACTLY!  I love the idea of being able to play the guitar, but I have never been motivated enough to put in the work required to learn anything other than an E chord. There are areas where I simply haven’t built the motivation required to take action.

There are other places where I have put in the work.  My diet and fitness, my education, taking care of my team, and taking care of my family are a couple of areas that I am very proud of. One of my favorite personal examples of being motivated is yoga. I am highly motivated, by persistent lower back and neck pain, to follow a fitness routine that includes daily yoga.  The results motivate me further, reduction in pain, better workouts… being able to do a full wheel backbend!

I think you may be starting to get a feel for and see where motivation comes from, but it is important to dive a little deeper.  There are two broad sources of motivation External and Internal.  I think it can be hard to separate external sources of motivation from internal sources  because our internal mental “wiring” is so deeply affected by external sources… but there are differences, and those differences are important to taking control of building your own motivation.

External Motivation

External motivation is driven by others and the effect they have on us.  This pressure can be positive or negative, and surprise, the same source of motivation can fluctuate between being positive or being negative.  We also have to cross the mental hurdle that a negative source of pressure can (and often does) have a positive effect on our actions.   The converse is also true, positive pressure can have a negative effect on our actions.  The focus needs to be on the effect of the stimulus.  What is the result?

Positive external pressure exist when an outside force encourages us through some type of reward stimulus.  Chemically, this is a dopamine hit to our brain which encourages the behavior.  Conversely, negative pressure is derived from an outside force which discourages us. This invokes a stress response or a cortisol stimulus to the brain.

To break this down a little further we can put positive and negative pressure into two bins: Rewards and Consequences.  This is fairly self explanatory but there are potential dark sides worth talking about.

The pursuit of rewards at the expense of others or the exclusion of other pursuits is one way positive external pressure can start to have negative effects.  While on the other hand, and speaking from personal experience, an angry military training instructor screaming at you in the middle of the night about the exact spacing requirements of the beds in the bay… as a direct consequence to my inability to properly align the beds… will have a positive effect on your motivation to pay attention to detail.

Internal Motivation

Internal motivation is driven by us, our internal wiring, and effect those internal systems have on our thoughts, feelings, and physiology.  There are positive internal pressures and negative internal pressures, which can have either positive or negative effects on our motivation.   This internal system is developed overtime and is often referred to with terms like belief system, world view, self image, or value system. Giving it a little more attention is warranted, I think the internal motivation system is the culmination of life experience which effect (positive or negative) our perception of how you see the world, yourself, and your self in the world.

Positive internal pressure exists when your thoughts and feelings encourage actions.  Negative internal pressure exist when you when your thoughts and feelings discourage actions.  Again the actions can have inherently positive or negative results regardless of the type of pressure.  You may feel positive pressure to slander someone at work behind their back… but the results of that action might have some pretty negative unintended consequences.  Did that doughnut really make you feel better in the long run?  Looking in the mirror may be discouraging when you have a few extra pounds… but if it pushes you to the gym the result of that negative pressure is positive.

Building Motivation In Yourself

So let’s bring this together a little bit.  If internal and external pressure can be positive and negative, and both have the ability to generate positive and negative outcomes…. which one is the best for building motivation to drive positive outcomes.  My opinion— it doesn’t really matter where the pressure is coming from as long as you recognize it as a call to action.  Let’s assume our intentions are pure and the outcomes we are looking for pass the “be a good person test” and jump right into this.

Action is the result of motivational pressure being released.  Biologically we are calorie storing machines… if there isn’t a compelling reason to do something, we are genetically predisposed to chilling out on the couch so we can convert our calories to energy storage (fat) and use them later when we might need them in a crisis.  As external and internal pressure builds up we are eventually either make a decision to ignore the pressure or take some action.  When we try to ignore the pressure we may start to feel distressed which results in a pile of really bad consequences for us mentally and physically.  If we follow the call and take positive actions we may still feel stress, but it will be eustress  which in general is a good thing.

While not directly tied to motivation I think this is a good time to talk about turning actions into habits in order to build momentum for positive changes.  Turning actions into habits is a great skill to have and can allow you to unlock a lot of positive growth.  Building a habit requires routine, repetition, and reward.  To start, the routine has to be action based and easily accomplished.  A good example is doing push ups and air squats as soon as I get done making coffee in the morning.  Repetition has to be consistent over time at intervals that make logical sense without overdoing it.  I do my push ups and air squats once a day… when they are done they are off the list.   The reward needs to be simple (and may be it’s own habit) I use a tracking tool in my weekly planner to check a box when my push ups and air squats are done.  Don’t underestimate the power of a simple check box… there is a dopamine hit when you check that box which makes you want do it again and again!  Before you know it you have a habit.

The final step is building momentum in your habit by growing it.  If you started with 20 push ups just add one a day and see what happens.  I would be willing to bet your habit forms faster, and your capability grows beyond what you thought you could do in a short time.

This method has worked for me on multiple fronts not just exercise.  I have used the “routine, repetition, reward” for my diet, reading, time with the kids, financial management, yoga and even flossing.  It just works.

Building Motivation In Others

Taking this all to the next step is helping others develop motivation.  First of all you have to understand that you cannot choose to motivate someone else.  You can only show them the way if they want to see it.  If you exert too much pressure on someone to try and motivate them to take specific actions, even if they start taking those actions… you might not be motivating them towards the actual result you want.  A tragic (fictional) example of this is Private Pile in Full Metal Jacket.  The drill Sergeant and Marines in this movie shovel on heaps of external negative pressure to try and get Private Pile to conform and comply to become a Marine.  It’s not all negative pressure, Private Joker develops a personal relationship with Pile and there are even a few moments of positive encouragement from the drill sergeant.  But ultimately the distress builds to the point of extremely negative and violent action.

In order to help build healthy motivation in others you need to understand how they react to different combinations of internal and external, positive and negative, pressure.  The only way you can learn this is through conversation and observation.  Short term you will probably only be able to act as an external source of pressure, but overtime your actions will likely have an effect on their internal system as well.   It is also worth noting that the motivational preference can (and will) change depending on the desired action.

Once someone is looking to you as an external source of pressure to help them build their motivation you can start to have a very positive effect on their life by showing them your own results, and teaching them how to use the routine, repetition, reward model to turn motivation into actions, and actions into habits.

The Value of Understanding Motivation

For me the ability to control my own motivation and influence others motivation is priceless.  Personally, it allows me to get more done in my day to day grind, and it helps me manage and lead my team.

Getting “stuff” done is all about understanding whether or not I am motivated to actual do the work and, if I’m not motivate, finding a way to apply some form of pressure to get it done.  This pays dividends when it comes to managing the tasks that support my work life and home life.

In my opinion being a leader is deeply tied to understanding motivation.  Leaders must inspire action and commitment to a cause… this is a result of motivating those they lead.  Think of the best and worst leaders you have ever worked with or for… what type of external pressures did they apply?  How did it work out for them?  How did it work out for you?  If a leader doesn’t have your trust and understand what you need to be motivated their efforts will have negative consequences.  On the other hand, I know great leaders who have applied some negative pressure on me to great effect because they understood what I needed to and had my trust to give it to me.  It’s our job to get it right.

What are you thoughts?  I would love to hear from you.  Come on over to our closed facebook discussion group to share your insights.  Or you can email me directly at



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