When you need people to do things for you, I’m sure you hope they are motivated. If you’re a manager, you’ll want your team to be motivated. If you’re hiring a freelancer, you’ll want them to be motivated. And if you’re about to go under for surgery, then you’ll sure as hell hope your surgeon is motivated!

But of course, people aren’t always motivated, as I’m sure you have learnt from experience. People procrastinate, they take shortcuts, or just simply don’t care. And let’s be honest, we’ve all procrastinated, taken shortcuts and not cared about things before.

There’s a lot of information out there about motivation, and a lot of different ways of looking at motivation, which can be quite confusing and overwhelming. But recently, I’ve been focussing on 3 particular principles of motivation in my work, with excellent results.

I have been using these 3 principles for performance consulting, coaching, my own personal goal setting, and for helping managers motivate their teams. By using these 3 principles, I’ve been able to uncover the root causes of performance issues fast, help people set goals they can actually achieve, find more purpose and joy in what I do and help managers get their teams to do more stuff. What’s more, it’s all extremely simple, so simple I’ve summarised it into a tool I call MAD Goals.

First, a bit about the brain science behind MAD Goals. And if you prefer to just start using the MAD Goals approach then jump to the bottom of this article.

3 Essential Principles of Motivation

1. Motivating Towards an Abstraction Doesn’t Yield Results – BJ Fogg

Recently BJ Fogg released his Tiny Habits book. I have been a massive, massive fan of BJ Fogg’s work since 2011. I haven’t seen any other behaviour design methodology that captures the essentials in such a simple and usable format.

In his chapter on motivation he describes one of the most common problems with goals that people set is that they are too abstract.

Eat healthy. Workout more. Feel less stressed. Be in the moment.

Whilst these are all positive things, and we may very well feel motivated to achieve them, they don’t really mean anything. They’re simple abstractions, and abstractions confuse people.

The opposite of abstract is concrete. 

Our minds use what they know to represent meaning to us. And our minds know very well the five senses (seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, tasting), because any information the mind receives from the outside world will have come from our sensory receptors. And to understand words people say to us, our minds need to be able to represent them in a sensory format. Usually in a visual, auditory or kinaesthetic format.

The words “Be in the moment” are difficult for us to process because we can’t really associate them with any visual, auditory or kinaesthetic information, hence why they are abstract. But if we changed those to “Pay attention to all the sounds around you right now” it is a lot easier for us to understand. We can imagine closing our eyes, and noticing the sounds of people around us, the sounds of air conditioning, the wind outside, footsteps and so on. 

The more vivid language we use to describe what we want people to do, the more easily they’ll be able to understand it. And the easier they understand it, the more likely they’ll be able to do it.

For example, if you tell your team member to “act more professional when around customers”, that’s not going be very helpful because it’s too abstract.

If instead you told them to “ask the customer at least 5 questions about their needs before you start talking about our product” then they’re much more likely to follow that advice!

In short, if we want to be motivated to do things, we need to make sure these things are measurable.

2. Pre-Goal Attainment Positive Affect

Jonathan Haidt refers to this as the Progress Principle in his book The Happiness Hypothesis.

Put simply, many people assume that getting things or achieving things will make them happy. And they’re partially right. When we get something we’ve wanted for a long time (like when I bought my shiny new Apple Watch the other week) or when we achieve a goal (like when I sign a contract with a new customer) we do feel happy. But this happiness tends to be short lived because it’s actually relief. 

As we pursue a goal, we focus hard by activating our pre-frontal cortex, and when we finally achieve the goal we can stop focussing so hard and de-activate our pre-frontal cortex, giving us a short-lived feeling of relief. A lot like if you were to carry a heavy rock up a hill and then finally put it down.

Obviously, this kind of happiness is short lived. But what’s more sustainable is the happiness we get from making progress towards a goal. Every time we realise we’ve made progress, be it in the form of ticking off a box on a list, levelling up in a video game, or getting praise or recognition from others, we get a burst of dopamine and feel pleasure.

This is also referred to as Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

We reach a state of flow when the task we are engaged in has a challenge level that is perfectly matched with our confidence levels. If the challenge is higher than our confidence levels then we get frustrated. If our confidence is higher than the challenge level then we get bored. 

I talked about this in my video “What Managers Can Learn From Video Games”.

Perhaps you have delegated the task of arranging your next conference to one of your team members. The conference will have important keynote speakers, product demonstrations, and over 100 customers coming to visit. It’s a big responsibility!

So big a responsibility that it could quite easily become overwhelming and move them into the frustration zone and spark high levels of anxiety! But if you simply spent 30 minutes sitting down with them and brainstorming all of the different forms of support available to them for all the different steps involved, then it would boost their confidence massively.

They’d realise there’s a colleague who has connections with all of the keynote speakers. There’s a venue they’ve used before and they already know the venue’s contact details. They could get their marketing colleague to setup an automatic email-invitation system. And so on.

Once you break a huge goal down into little chunks, and identify all of the actions you can take immediately to get those chunks in motion, the huge goal will suddenly become a lot more motivating.

In short, if we want to be motivated to do things, we need to make sure these things are actually achievable.

3. Approach and Avoid

One thing we share with all other creatures on this planet is the need to approach things that fulfil our needs whilst avoiding things that threaten our needs. John Whitmore summarises this quite simply in his book Coaching for Performance: “People will seek to engage in those activities that help them to meet their needs”

I need food, I’ll approach the kitchen. I see an old colleague I don’t like on the subway, I’ll move carriages to avoid them.

I have encountered so many motivation problems that were a result of overlooking this most basic principle.

One company wanted one of their senior leader’s to transfer to a different region so that they could promote new talent to take over this person’s position. This Senior Leader was nearing retirement, and had been living in this particular city for well over a decade, with an established social network, a happy wife and happy children who were settled in school. Moving to this new region would involve a lot of hassle, a lot of upheaval, building new social networks, helping an unhappy and reluctant family settle in, and then only do this for a short period of time until they finally retire. 

This Senior Leader had everything to avoid and nothing to approach. Naturally their response was “F*ck off”. Well, they didn’t exactly say those words, but that’s probably what they were thinking.

This aspect of motivation is not rocket science, but what people are seeking to approach and avoid is not always clear, even to themselves. A great question to ask people, and ourselves, is “What for?”. What are you avoiding that for? What are you doing that for? 

In fact, probably the one simplest act you could do to analyse motivation issues is simply ask: “What for?”.

Sometimes this question can literally require a lot of psychological work to answer. Sometimes we engage in activities that hurt us because they help us. 

An obese man who has been told he needs to lose weight or risk having a heart attack and dying within the next few months, on the surface has every reason to start eating more healthily. But if he continues to eat unhealthily, it’s not because he’s stupid, it’s because there is some benefit he is gaining from eating unhealthily that has not been addressed. Maybe he grew up in extreme poverty and when he finally got some money he could eat whatever he wanted to. The thought of restricting his diet reminded him of living in poverty, something he wanted to escape from so much that he would rather die than go back to that feeling.

In short, if we want to be motivated to do things, we need to make sure these things are actually desirable.

Gold trophy with the name plate of the winner of the competition.

MAD Goals

The above 3 combined are some of the most powerful principles I have come across to explain human motivation. And to put them into action I created a tool called MAD Goals. It stands for Measurable, Achievable and Desirable.

I use this for performance consulting, for coaching and goal setting, and any manager can also benefit greatly from using it when delegating. So how do we use it?

Step 1. Measurable

When we want to go on a journey, we start with the destination. So let’s clarify what that is.

Ask questions like:

  • What’s the ideal outcome here?
  • How will we know when we’ve achieved it?
  • When, where, how and with whom will we have it?

And so on. The key here is to get the description of the outcome so vivid that everyone involved in pursuing it has a crystal clear picture in their minds.

Step 2. Achievable

To reach the destination of our journey, we need a mean’s of getting there.

At this stage, ask questions like:

  • Has this, or anything similar, been achieved before? If so, then by whom and how?
  • What needs to happen in order for us to achieve this goal?
  • What resources do we need to achieve this goal and how can we get them?

And so on. The key here is to get a list of all the steps and milestones required to achieve the goal.

I normally find during this step that we can easily uncover the barriers to achieving the goal, and start to brainstorm ways of overcoming them. Another thing that normally happens is we realise the goal needs to be smaller to be achievable, and that’s a great thing (we can shelf the bigger goal and come back to it later). A big goal that’s unachievable doesn’t get achieved. A smaller goal that is achievable does get achieved. Let’s get stuff done.

Step 3. Desirable

To reach our destination, we need to be able to pay our chauffeur.

Even if the chauffeur is ourselves, we need to ensure there is motivation. There is a difference between intending to run a marathon, and actually running a marathon. Our narrating self will think of all the great things we could do out of hope and fear, but our experiencing self is the one that feels the pain and pleasure of those things in the moment of action.

At this stage, ask questions like:

  • Who, besides yourself, will need to take action?
  • For everyone involved, what will they gain from doing this? What will they lose from not doing this?
  • In order to do this, what sacrifices must be made? Is everyone willing to make those sacrifices?

Get the Tool

I hope you found that useful! If you’d like to download the tool, as well as read my top 10 tips on how to use this tool in your work, then click here to get free access to my library of tools.