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Motivation, Flow, and Goal-Setting

Psych Major - Purdue University Global. Writer. Philosopher.


Creatures of Action & Abstraction

It would be strange to think about life like a story without a beginning, middle or end. It would be even stranger to consider what life would be like if we were static poles in the ground among many. But even seemingly static life forms like trees can be described under a properly constructed narrative. Time lapse visualization shows us an epic journey from germination to bursting through the ground and reaching for the sky. Without the sun as an ultimate focal point for growth, trees would have no obvious purpose.

Every life form has some bottom line to reach. Some are clearer to us than others. For human beings, we have to justify our actions beyond the basic biological imperatives of survival. We rely on meaning and fond memories; bonding, personal development, and a secure future for our children.

How is it that we keep ourselves from succumbing to existential dread? How is it that we are able to make choices when the choices are infinite? And the most fundamental philosophical question there is: why should we do this instead of that?

Perhaps there is no single answer, but we can try to understand how our values and capacity for imagination map onto the evolved machinery that we inhabit. We possess inborn tools that are always at work; the same tools that are keeping you engaged here with me in this moment. You can think of it like a flailing fire hose that - if we are so lucky - manage to aim at an intended target. The more we understand about the hose, the more we can put it to good use and make the best of our time.



Basic Motivation & Needs

Let's start out with some obvious motivators that govern the outcome of our behavior:

  • Food/Water consumption for nourishment & energy
  • Sex for reproduction & selection
  • Sleep for healing & rejuvenation
  • Shelter for protection from the elements
  • Fight, Flight or Flee for encountering predators & danger

In short, you can use the term basic motivations interchangeably with "needs". Beyond these biological imperatives, we discover that information about where to find food or shelter becomes more value saturated than the food and shelter alone. (More on that to come, stay tuned.)

Fortunately, we've been able to utilize information to develop stable methods of satisfying these needs abundantly. Once all our basic needs are met we can then busy ourselves with generating more imaginative desires. Perhaps when elephants or chimpanzees learn how to farm or build vehicles will they starting asking about iPhones for Christmas.

Intrinsic Motivation

You can think about intrinsic motivation as an internal desire for exploration of novelty and challenge.

Examples include:

  • Knowledge - Acquisition of information
  • Creativity - Expressing thoughts & emotions
  • Recognition - Respect & affection from loved ones or peers
  • Accomplishment - Overcoming challenges and skill mastery

Often these are characteristic of those who seek to improve themselves. The deeper we delve into the realm of abstract value, the more we begin to design more robust systems of motivation.

Extrinsic Motivation

Here we enter the world of behavior that is influenced by rewards outside of ourselves:

  • Money
  • Status
  • Trophies
  • 4.0 GPA
  • Credit Score
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There's no rule that says extrinsic motivations cannot be part and parcel of some intrinsic motivations. One of the main distinctions between the two is the locality of influence. Extrinsic motivations, at the most basic level, can simply be the pursuit of a reward or the avoidance of punishment from the outside world.

Practical Exercise

Think of something you've committed to over a long period of time. Maybe a habit, hobby or career. Then systematically peel away the layers of your reasoning to find the principle value of your motivation.

To do this, imagine that you're having a dialogue with a child who's vocabulary is limited to "why". (You may have met one or two in your life). Begin by stating your chosen endeavor. Then elaborate following each "why" until you've reached rock bottom. If you do this enough, you can determine if you are intrinsically or extrinsically motivated.

You'll discover that most everything you do is rooted in some form of reward, pleasure or defense against discontentment but the values can vary greatly from person to person.

Quick Poll

Building Blocks of Motivation

We've established that objects/subjects of our motivations are tagged with a particular assigned value and the outcome of those motivations is punctuated by reward. Here we will take a look at mechanisms of reward and why it is that we sometimes "lose motivation" even if nothing has changed while our values remain the same.

First, a cursory lesson in dopamine in the video below.


Building Blocks of Motivation Cont.

Now we understand that dopamine provides a chemical substrate for pleasure itself but how do we cultivate this through our behavior? To conceptualize this, let's think back to a basic motivation such as food. You feel the pangs of hunger and begin to organize your behavior toward the pursuit of sustenance. During this process, dopamine is released prior to the acquisition of food to motivate behavior and released upon consumption for satiety.

You may have noticed your dog pacing while dinner is being cooked. He's sensed the food being prepared and thus aroused into an exploratory state; sniffing fervently across the floor. After a while, your dog might lose interest and come to terms with the fact that he may not be so lucky. If you generously throw him a scrap, there will be an additional, albeit smaller spike in dopamine upon reward.

It is important to understand the difference between satiety and arousal. Remember that the anticipation of a reward activates higher levels of dopamine than the active consumption of a reward 1. This is the canonical process of seeking/expectancy that propels us toward a perceived goal.

Believe it or not, rats can emit laughs or chirps of excitement at ultrasonic levels. Interestingly, this only happens when they are engaged in play or in search of an incentive reward 2.

Monkey Business - Habituation

When a monkey learns that he can pull a lever X amount of times to receive a treat, there is a distinct, measurable level of dopamine that is released from start to finish. If he pulls the lever the same amount of times and receives 2 treats, then there is an additional spike in dopamine. But if he repeats this lever action after so much time has passed and the number of treats remains the same, his dopamine levels will return to the original product of having only received a single treat 3. This phenomenon is referred to as habituation.

Variable Ratio Schedule of Reinforcement

If we alter the experiment and adjust the output whereby treats are dispensed at random, the system of arousal has no way of habituating to the emergence of rewards. This can be seen in people gambling or using slot machines 4. For each pull of the lever, arousal is heightened in anticipation even if the odds of a payout are uncertain.

Categorical Perception

The human brain has evolved to recognize external phenomena through a lightning fast process of calculating the relevance of objects but more specifically, the function or potential utility of the objects. This means we are constantly filtering out superficial details and unconsciously lumping objects into larger perceptual categories based on their utility in relationship to motor function 5,6.

To put in plainly, we don't initially see objects as inert, meaningless compounds of molecules. We see the world as potential tools or problems. When you look at a knife, what you actually see is something like "that which you can cut with".

How does this relate to motivation?

Earlier in the segment, I mentioned hunger and organizing one's behavior in the pursuit of food. This happens as a consequence of your world suddenly becoming a landscape of potential for foraging. Everything is suddenly categorized as either "food", "not food", "something that might get me closer to food" or "something that might get in the way of food". Later we will discuss goal setting to make use of this sorcery of the mind.

Arousal Theory of Motivation & Yerkes-Dodson Law

By now we begin to see how changing environmental factors influence states of arousal and motivation. We can engage and manipulate certain factors in the world in order to modulate levels of excitement. If we feel bored, our exploratory systems come online in search of something novel or challenging. This might involve reading a book or fixing the radiator in your car. We will sometimes partake in watching horror movies or skydiving to induce extreme states of arousal. Conversely, we might feel overstimulated and begin to seek more relaxing activities or behaviors like a hot bath or meditation. In summary, motivation and arousal develops the framework for how any given task is carried out.


This law suggests that particular levels of arousal influence performance on tasks. Moreover, the performance of tasks is thought to be dependent on the inherent level of difficulty.

The problem here is that easy tasks are carried out more effectively if individuals can sustain a certain level of arousal while performance on difficult tasks eventually decline even if states of arousal remain high. This can lead to over-stimulation and stress.

From this, we may conclude that individuals would perform best with moderate levels of arousal but the range of difficulty should be mediated and negotiated for optimal mental health7.

Flow State - "In the Zone"

The concept of flow refers to a particular state of attentiveness to one's task. It is characterized as being fully immersed, aroused and energized. But how do we do this? Take a moment to listen to Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and how he came to discover this method of intense engagement.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Flow cont.

Csikszentmihalyi describes a state of concentration that not only increases productivity but provides us with a deeper sense of purpose. However, it cannot be done without its due diligence. It takes a bit of work to orient ourselves accordingly. The chart below illustrates a range of states that correlate with competence and difficulty. This can help you decide whether you are in the right place.



It's important to also consider all of the possible distractions that tug and pull at our attention. We can systematically "weed out" or at least temporarily disable distractions that would otherwise keep us from becoming fully engaged.

One of the biggest distractions we face is online social media interaction. These platforms are by nature designed around the attention economy. That is to say, sites like Facebook and Twitter tap into what I described earlier as the variable ratio schedule of reinforcement. Notifications, messages and other markers of activity keep us coming back.

To put things into perspective: If you spend 4 hours a day using social media, that's 28 hours a week, 112 hours a month, and roughly 52 days out of the year spent checking your phone or email.


Goal Setting

Goal setting is a crucial step in deciding what we want to accomplish over specified periods of time. You may have glossed over this in school or got the impression that goal setting is more relevant to ambitious businessmen and women.

To be frank, without any description of what we wish to aim for, we are doomed to flounder. This ties in directly to our reward systems. Pleasure and happiness are often dependent on the level at which we are hitting targets throughout our life. Our emotions can tell us a lot about how close or far we are to a desired outcome. We understand very well what it feels like when things do not turn out as we intend. It certainly works in our favor if we can break things down in our life that we know we can accomplish from day to day, month to month. The only catch is that we have to ritually remind ourselves that we are aiming for something ideal farther into the future.

Most of us DO have goals but we have yet to simply spell it out for ourselves. It might be helpful if we think about goals in terms of compound interest. If I wanted to learn algebra, I could, at the very least, commit to learning how to solve 1 equation a week. By the end of a years time I would no doubt be an aficionado of basic algebra.

But when it comes down to planning years or decades of our future, we have to be as detailed as possible.

Smart Goals


SMART Goals is a system of goal setting that allows us to be as thorough as possible when determining our future.

Specific - Your goal should be clearly defined with no room for ambiguity. Its the difference between "I want to be a high school teacher" & "I want to earn a masters degree in English"

Measurable - This involves a little bit of number crunching. Earning a degree is measurable because you can specify the number of years it's going to take then set a date.

Achievable - Take a moment to consider your circumstances, finances, and resources. If you have a full-time job and 3 children to manage, you might want to consider other options.

Relevant - Is your goal realistic? Is it complementary to other goals in your life?

Timely - Some goals take time while others can happen swiftly. Determine whether your goal is going to produce results that are proportionate in value to the amount of time you put into it.

The link below will provide you with a SMART Goals template that you can print out and work on at your own pace. TAKE YOUR TIME. Do it bad the first time but don't put it off. Go back and make corrections if you need to.

The next step in this process is figuring out what you need to do each day in order to make incremental steps toward your goal. I recommend purchasing a planner, agenda, whiteboard or online apps that can help you organize your tasks. Every time you check something off the list, you will receive a little squirt of dopamine. I promise. It's just a matter of gathering the materials you need and taking the time to really think about what it's going to take.


  1. Sapolsky, R (2017) Behave. The Biology of our Best and Borst Selves. Chapter 5. Penguin Press. New York, New York.
  2. Biven, L & Panksepp, J (2012) The Archaeology of Mind. Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions. W.W. Norton & Company. New York, NY.
  3. Schultz, W (2010) Dopamine Signals for Reward Value and Risk: Basic and Recent Data. Retrieved from
  4. CCL (2017) Schedules of Reinforcement. Retrieved from
  5. Goldstone R. & Hendrickson, A (2009) Categorical Perception. Retrieved from
  6. Peterson, J. (2015) Maps of Meaning. Retrieved from
  7. PNHQ (2017) The Arousal Theory of Motivation. Retrieved from

© 2017 Jessie Watson


Jessie Watson (author) from Wenatchee Washington on October 26, 2017:

Interesting you mention that. I've been an online student for about 3 years and I love it. Granted, I got started later in life than the average high school graduate but I had to experience what I have in order to find my current level of motivation. I work hard online. I get out of it what I put into it. Outside the classroom I still spend countless hours engaging in some sort of learning activity. My idea of a good time is watching documentaries or lectures from other Universities.

Having said all that, I still find myself at odds with what is out there to explore. One minute I want to learn advanced mathematics so I understand physics better. The next minute I might return to creative writing. I spread myself out too thin.

seeclearly on October 26, 2017:

This is an area I have trouble with- staying with a commitment, namely enrolling in and conleting an online class. In person classes are easier to commit to.

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