Motivation is all around us – but does it actually work?

It’s hard to spend more than 5 minutes on Social Media without tripping over a motivational quote designed to inspire. I find many of them enjoyable and some are genuinely challenging – but do you sometimes wonder how much actual change they cause? What is the truth about how much action they trigger?

I’m far from a cynic, but for some reason they’ve never sat perfectly with me. There’s often been a part of me responding with a ‘and …?’.

Do these attempts to motivate actually produce a desired response? Do they work partially? Could they even do more harm than good?

Being a coach has taught me to not back away from these inconsistencies. I’ve found it’s better to embrace them and see where they lead.

Perhaps that’s why I looked into a study* referenced in the book Innercise by John Assaraf.

A study into motivation and changed behaviour

This study involved a group of students who wanted to exercise at least once a week for a minimum of 20 mins. The basis of the study was to educate them on the dangers of Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) and the long-term benefits of adopting an exercise regimen.

  • Control Group 1 was asked simply to measure what exercise they did.
  • Control Group 2 was asked to measure activity and also given additional motivation (in the form of leaflets about the risks of CHD and the benefits of exercise).
  • Control Group 3 has the same 2 steps as CGs 1 & 2 and were also asked to fill out an Intention Plan of exercise.

The results should make any coach or employer sit up and take notice

38% of Control Group 1 reported completing a minimum of 1 exercise period per week. This is the group that had to simply record what they’d done.

In Control Group 3, 91% of the group completed at least 1 period of exercise per week. This is the group that had to measure activity, were sent information designed to motivate them and were asked to complete an Intention Plan. That’s a huge difference in actual output.

Where it got really interesting was Control Group 2. This group were asked to measure activity and were sent information designed to motivate them. Only 35% of participants managed that single exercise period each week.

Motivation is a two-edged sword

That’s right: the addition of external motivation had actually produced a negative impact on output.

The truth is that trying to motivate someone – or relying on someone to motivate you – is unlikely to get results.

Looking into it further, the study found that adding the motivational element did have an effect on intention across a broad range of participants. The majority of people expressed a desire to exercise more. In other words, it worked in changing the outlook of that person. It also found that this effect was long-lasting.

But there was no positive impact at all in terms of activity and results. They didn’t actually do it – and indeed did less than those left to their own devices.

The difference between motivation and volition

In short, motivation and volition are two entirely separate things.

What became clear is that volition was the key ingredient to changed behaviours rather than motivation. In other words, the motivation had to be internal – be to be internally generated – in order for it to work.

The thing that caused the big shift from motivation to volition was the plan of action that the participant was asked to create.

Engaging How and What – as well as Why

In this instance, the Intention Plan designed to create that volition was incredibly simple:

                “During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on _______ (day or days) at _______ (time of day) at / or in place _________”


No complex plans or goals here – just a clear, unarguable statement of intent.

Interestingly, a high proportion of participants reported not only exercising on the specified day and time – but also at the specified place.

So what really does cause changes to behaviour and therefore results?

In his book Innercise, John Assaraf looks at the part of the brain (the Pre Frontal Cortex) that is most involved in the process of getting stuff done.

The PFC is split into two distinct hemispheres.

The Left side of the PFC is the creative side dealing with big picture emotions. This is the side that is interested in WHY something needs doing. You can influence this by trying to motivate someone – but only in terms of their intentions.

The Right side of the PFC is the logical, process driven side and deals with the HOW and the WHAT – the planning side. The study found that engaging this side as well as the WHY side combines to throw the ‘I didn’t have time’ excuses out of the window.

When both sides are engaged in an issue together, that person is armed with a reason to do something and a clear simple plan of what steps to take. Intention becomes volition and they become internally motivated. This is when the magic happens.

Behaviours actually change, things get done and results happen.

How to use this

For coaches I believe the lesson is simple. It’s not our ‘journey’ it’s that of our clients. We can’t run the race for them nor make them want to run it of their own volition.

For employers, the lessons are similar but run deeper.

It’s not your job to motivate or inspire your team. Those of you who have tried may well have experienced that ‘banging your head against a brick wall’ feeling. Rather, it’s your job to cause them to become motivated.

You can try to motivate, but used in isolation you could end up achieving a dip in performance vs having done nothing. Motivation only makes sense in the context of helping them acquire the tools and knowledge required to do the HOW and WHAT parts.

When you do this in a team with strong culture, you have employees who want to do the right things to the right standard – of their own volition.

And then you’ll be in serious danger of getting some great results. Inspirational results. And that’s something that motivates everyone.


There are clearly 3 main elements involved in maximising the chances of stuff getting done to the standard you want. I’ll explore this in detail in a blog soon.

If you want a head start, just get in touch.


* S Milne, S Orbell & P Sheeran: ‘Combining motivational and volitional interventions to promote exercise participation.’ British Journal of Health Psychology, 2002