How to increase motivation

April 24, 2024
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When I started university, I found myself struggling to maintain a healthy and active lifestyle. I felt so overwhelmed with school and the pressure to get high grades that most of my time was spent sitting indoors studying. I have always been against the idea of living a sedentary lifestyle, but there I was doing exactly that. I knew I needed to be more active but for some reason I couldn’t bring myself to maintain a consistent exercise routine. Even though this goal was important to me (being physically healthy), it constantly felt so out of reach.

Often times, many of us struggle with finding the motivation to do the things we need to do in order to achieve our goals.

Goals play a central role in our behaviour and our performance. In fact, a major factor underlying motivation is goal setting. But as many of us have experienced for ourselves, simply having a goal isn’t always enough to provide the motivation needed to activate behaviour geared towards it. So, how can we go about increasing motivation to reach our goals?

Setting SMART Goals

If your goals always seem to feel out of reach, changing the way you set your goals can greatly impact your motivation towards achieving them. Many of our goals tend to be very broad, subjective, and abstract which makes them challenging to translate into actual behaviour. Research suggests that effective performance occurs when people set goals that are SMART:


What are you trying to accomplish and what are the specific actions you need to take in order to accomplish it? By breaking the larger goal down into smaller, concrete actions to carry out, it’s easier to remain consistent in working towards that goal. More importantly, completing small tasks provides us with a sense of accomplishment that increases our motivation to continue working towards our goals.  

For example: Keeping my abstract goal of being physically healthy in mind, I can set a more concrete goal like running a half marathon. To successfully accomplish this larger goal, I would need to break it down into specific daily, weekly, and monthly actions (like setting a detailed 12-week training schedule).


There should be some source of information that indicates progress and/or whether a goal has been achieved. When goals are quantifiable and we can determine how well we’re doing, we’re more likely to stay on track towards accomplishing them.

For example: By setting up a training schedule to run a half marathon, I can quantify my progress each week as I slowly increase the distance (amount of kilometers) I’m able to run for.


It is important for a goal to be attainable otherwise we’re unlikely to stay motivated. Ideally, the goal should be achievable but also challenging. If it’s too easily attained, it can undermine ambition so there is a just-right balance that needs to be established here.  

Example: Given that I am not an experienced runner, starting off with the goal to run a marathon would be too overwhelming for me and I would probably give up since it wouldn’t feel attainable. Instead, making my goal to run a half marathon is still incredibly challenging but a lot more feasible, giving me just the right balance to feel motivated.  


It’s important to set realistic goals that you are actually willing and able to work toward. It’s always good to be ambitious but within reason. Do you have the necessary skills and resources to achieve your goals?  

Example: It would probably not be realistic for me to train for a half marathon during the winter if I don’t have access to a treadmill/gym.  


Establishing a time frame for accomplishing your goal not only makes the goal more concrete but increases its motivational impact. When you give yourself a deadline to complete tasks or set up a time frame in which you want to get certain tasks done, you’re more likely to follow through and achieve your goal.

Example: Establishing a 12-week time frame to run a half marathon and breaking down smaller goals to progress towards within each week of this time frame makes it more likely that I will remain consistent and ultimately achieve the larger goal.  

Mastery vs. Performance goals

Mastery goals involve a motivation to develop one’s competence and master an activity/quality whereas performance goals involve a motivation to validate one’s competence/perform well compared to others. Research suggests that focusing on mastery goals (rather than performance goals) produces better motivation and performance.

In one study, participants performed a task with different goals. One group was told that the goal was to develop their cognitive ability through the task (mastery goal), whereas the other group was told that their goal was to demonstrate their ability relative to other participants (performance goal). Results found that performance goals were helpful for short-term learning but mastery goals were much more effective for long-term learning.

Like a muscle, motivation can be strengthened through continuous activity

Creating SMART goals allows us to transform our goals into concrete actions that we can engage in consistently. In my case, setting a structured exercise schedule that allowed me to improve my athletic ability and progress towards achieving a challenging goal gave me the opportunity to truly carry out my abstract ideal of being physically healthy. More importantly, with each minor accomplishment, I felt even more motivated to stick to my exercise schedule because I felt increasingly confident in my ability to achieve the larger, more challenging goal.  

An important factor in attaining a goal involves self-efficacy which is a type of self-confidence one has about their competence and capability in accomplishing tasks. As we continue to engage in the actions required to achieve our goals, we experience a sense of accomplishment and confidence that motivates us to progress towards our objectives. This propels us into a positive feedback cycle whereby we successfully achieve our challenging goals, which improves our sense of self-efficacy and gives us greater motivation to work towards other goals.



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