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Don’t Feel Like Working Out Today? 11 Proven Motivation Hacks From Behavioral Scientists

 Written by 

Julien Raby

 Last updated on 

Feeling unmotivated? Behavioral science offers techniques that can help get you back on track. 

Big Think recently spoke with Katy Milkman, a behavioral scientist and author, about what drives our motivation and how we can harness it to steer our behavior. Let’s explore these insights and practical strategies to enhance your motivation.

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The Basis of Human Motivation

In the 18th century, Jeremy Bentham proposed that humans are motivated by two sovereign masters: pain and pleasure. 

This idea remains fundamental in social sciences today. Our actions are often driven by the desire to seek pleasure and avoid pain, making us a hedonistic species at heart.

Understanding “Skinner’s Law”

“Skinner’s Law,” named after American behaviorist B.F. Skinner, suggests that we can manipulate our motivation by making the pain of not doing a task greater than the pain of doing it, or by making the pleasure of doing it greater than the pleasure of not doing it. 

Skinner’s experiments with operant conditioning demonstrated that both animals and humans could be conditioned to behave in certain ways when given the right incentives.

Commitment Devices

Commitment devices are tools for self-motivation that involve setting up rewards or punishments for completing or not completing a task. 

Milkman explains these techniques are effective in creating an extrinsic reward system to boost motivation. 

For instance, a study involving smokers showed that those who faced the loss of money if they failed a nicotine test had a 30% higher quit rate.

Practical Tips for Using Commitment Devices

Make a Wager

Bet with a friend or family member to add stakes. For example, wager a sum of money or a valued item on completing a task.

Social Accountability

Share your goals with others for support and pressure. Telling others about your targets and deadlines can provide encouragement and prevent embarrassment from failing.

Avoid Boredom

Stay busy to prevent demotivation from boredom. Engaging in various activities can help maintain interest and motivation.

Pain vs. Pleasure as Motivators

According to Daniel Kahneman’s Prospect Theory, pain is a more powerful motivator than pleasure. People find the pain of losing $20 more significant than the pleasure of gaining $20. 

Understanding this can help us set up more effective commitment devices by emphasizing potential losses.

Additional Evidence-Based Tips to Boost Motivation

Set Specific and Challenging Goals

Research shows that clear, challenging goals lead to higher performance levels. Specific goals provide direction and a sense of accomplishment when achieved.

Break Down Tasks into Smaller Steps

Breaking tasks into smaller, manageable steps can reduce feelings of overwhelm and make tasks seem more achievable, enhancing productivity and motivation.

Visualize Success

Visualization techniques can improve performance and motivation. Visualizing success creates a positive mindset and increases commitment to goals.

Implement a Reward System

Using rewards can boost motivation. Rewarding yourself for completing tasks, even with small incentives, can increase the likelihood of maintaining motivation.

Find Your “Why”

Understanding the deeper reasons behind your goals can boost intrinsic motivation. Connecting tasks to personal values and long-term goals increases motivation and persistence.

Use Positive Self-Talk

Positive self-talk and affirmations can significantly impact motivation and performance. Maintaining a positive internal dialogue can improve self-efficacy and reduce stress.

Create a Positive Environment

A clean, organized, and aesthetically pleasing workspace can improve focus and motivation. Your environment plays a crucial role in how motivated you feel.

Engage in Regular Physical Activity

Exercise is linked to improved mood and energy levels, which can boost motivation. Physical activity releases endorphins and improves overall mental health.

Monitor Progress

Keeping track of your progress provides a sense of accomplishment. Self-monitoring through journals or apps helps maintain focus and motivation.

Seek Social Support

A support network can enhance motivation. Social support from friends, family, or peers provides encouragement, accountability, and a sense of belonging.


Using “Skinner’s Law,” commitment devices, and other evidence-based tips can significantly boost your motivation. 

By understanding the psychology behind motivation and applying these practical strategies, you can stay on track and achieve your goals.

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