My project, The LD Podcast, is all about learning, and how we can help kids learn better and more effectively. This has meant I’ve done a lot of reading and research on subjects like attention and motivation- because if you can’t capture a kid’s attention, or help them become motivated to learn, everything else you try is just window dressing. It turns out this paradigm is equally important in marketing. You need to capture the potential customer’s attention, and then motivate them, if possible, to listen to your idea, buy your product, or whatever your particular conversion goal might be.

I’m going to do a series of posts here about Motivation, and we’ll start with a brief introduction.

Here’s a brief overview of Motivation theory for beginners:

Abraham Maslow, in 1943, postulated a hierarchy of human motivation. (link to the original paper) At its heart, people are induced to take action based on a hierarchical list of needs, with various degrees of importance. All of us, for example, are motivated by the need for food, clothing and shelter first and other needs secondarily, such as feeling a part of a group, farther down the list in importance or degree.

Before getting into the motivational ladder in detail in the next blog post, let’s start out with the three fundamental parts of motivation, sometimes called the “Three legged stool”. If one or more of these three legs or pieces of the motivational pie is missing, it’s unlikely someone will be driven towards the goal.

Motivation Needs Three Things- An Attractive Goal, Realistically Achievable, and Confidence in Your Ability to Achieve the Goal

Motivation has three basic parts. In order to get someone to do something, the following three conditions must be met:

1. The Goal must be attractive.

It is really hard to get someone to do something they don’t want to do. In order motivate someone to act, the goal must be worthwhile. For example, many adults struggle with losing weight. The goal, better health and a slimmer figure, are certainly attractive, and the attractiveness of this goal motivates people to join Jenny Craig or go to the gym. We can easily lose motivation for this goal, not because it isn’t attractive, but because the pathway to that goal is not always clear. Should I exercise? Aerobic or anaerobic? Which one is best? What diet is best? In the forest of all these decisions, it’s easy to just give up and go home. In contrast, the goal of winning the lottery is also attractive, and the step you need to take for implementation is easy and immediate- go buy a ticket. Even if the success ratio is small to non-existent, the attractiveness of the goal suckers people into ‘get rich quick” schemes of all shapes and sizes all the time. Just look at Bernie Madoff.

2. The goal must take a realistic amount of effort to achieve. This is a more difficult stage. In order to maintain motivation, you have to estimate that the amount of work something will take is reasonable  for the outcome.  This is classic cost/benefit analysis.  If something seems like a great goal, like world peace, but what it would cost you personally and professionally to achieve it makes it seem impossible, then you probably won’t even try to achieve that goal.

For example, becoming a millionaire by saving your money, investing wisely over years, building your businesses, etc. can seem like it takes too long, and is too hard, so we settle for something less.   We either give up on the big dream, or fall for people promising us short cuts, which often fail to deliver.

This is the “small changes lead to large changes” part of motivation. If we look at the end goal, the path to get there can seem impossibly difficult, and we may give up before we even try. If we make the steps along the way smaller and easier to achieve, (mini-goals or chunking of the larger task/project) we can reach our bigger end goal over time. This requires patience and perseverance to maintain motivation over a longer period. If we lack this perseverance, we can hire others to have it for us, like stock brokers, personal trainers- you name it- to help us stay motivated during the inevitable plateaus and keep our eye on the prize.

Most 401K’s and the whole idea of social security works on this principal. Most people don’t have the ability to sustain their attention and patience long enough to consistently save for retirement- a distant goal- so industries have developed around the need to make us do what’s good for us now- like direct paycheck deduction of 401K contributions. Small investments consistently over time will get us to our long term goal, but you kind of have to hide the money from us, so we won’t be overcome by the temptation to spend our retirement money on that big screen TV or luxury vacation today.

3. The person must be confident they can attain the goal. This means you have to be confident that you can make it to the end and achieve the goal set. Again, for the weight loss example, if you want to lose 20 lbs, it is easier to set small, achievable goals you know you can obtain, such as losing a pound a week, rather than deciding to lose the whole 20lbs in a short period of time. Likewise, if a goal keeps slipping out of reach, and a person never feels the joy of success of attaining the desired results, they will quit trying altogether. If you never seem to be making any progress towards your goal, people simply give up- whether it’s saving money, reaching a weight loss plateau, or any other (even temporary) success deprivation. Without experiencing small successes along a path to a larger goal, we lose our motivation to reach our endpoint and as a result, we’ll have no chance to reach those goals.

These three parts of motivation make it easier to understand why we make certain decision in our everyday lives.  The  short-term delay in reaching a target builds excitement and makes the reward even sweeter.  Think about all the training someone does to run a marathon- the day they finally do, or run in the NYC or Boston Marathon can be a life-changing experience- in part because it proves to themselves that they can persevere through all sorts of problems, setbacks, delays, injuries, and other problems to meet the goal they set for themselves.

Watching people achieve grueling goals and maintaining motivation during arduous and often demeaning tasks is what 90% of reality TV thrives on- Losing weight competitively with the Biggest Loser; going for a million dollars by eating bugs on Survivor, or even having your creativity ridiculed by your heroes on Top Chef or Project Runway.  We all see the risk and reward scenario, and it all builds to a frenzy until we see who wins the final prize, leaving the rest of the contenders at the sidelines.

And if you ever have to justify why the shows are so compelling, it’s all about watching others maintain motivation and hoping we can capture some of that for ourselves.