Motivation and resilience

How your mind makes motivation judgments and strategies to help you keep up.

MIT Open Learning
MIT Open Learning
5 min readJun 10, 2024

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A person holds a sign that says, “You got this.” A notebook, iphone, and ipad are nearby on a gray desk.
Photo: iStock

By MIT Horizon

Think back to a time when you set out to tackle a new challenge — a skill you wanted to learn, a fitness goal to achieve, or a project to complete. The excitement and anticipation may have fueled you at first, giving you a jolt of energy to get started. But then, as time went on and you encountered inevitable obstacles, setbacks, and distractions, that energy may have dwindled, leaving you feeling stuck and defeated.

‍Many people might look at this sequence and think that your motivation ran out, like it is a resource you used up. It’s worth pausing and examining this framing, however, and considering what research in psychology tells us about how to keep ourselves going and to be resilient.‍

To think about whether or not motivation can be used up, consider what you do when you feel unmotivated. Do you actually turn off, like a robot out of batteries, inert, staring at a wall? Most people probably feel compelled to do something else, whether a different project, errands, or something else more enjoyable, such as playing a game or watching a video. Really, motivation is like a judgment your mind makes about what direction to aim your energy and how much to commit to it.

How do we make that judgment? The underlying idea among various psychological theories is that your mind makes a calculation as it tries to answer some fundamental questions about your options. For example, according to expectancy-value theory, we try to gauge our expectations of success (e.g., “Is this easy or hard? Have I done things like it before? How likely am I to be able to do it?”) and how valuable we’ll find the task and its outcome (e.g., “What will I get out of it? How important is it for my goals? Is it related to things I’m interested in? Will I enjoy doing it?”). By weighing those factors, we can start to understand how options might compare. Playing video games might be easy and enjoyable, so it may win out over a task like starting a new online course, which might have greater rewards but lower likelihood of success. Other theories emphasize other factors. Self-determination theory, for example, focuses on autonomy (“Does this help me feel in control?”), competence (“Does this help me see that I can do it or develop my skills so that I’ll be able to?”), and relatedness (“Does this help me connect with others?”). The key idea is the same: We try to address these internal questions in determining whether to pursue and how much energy to put toward one activity compared to the alternatives.‍

This research has implications for strategies you can use to help yourself keep up your motivation. First, to help fuel feelings of competence and expectations of success, find ways to make the activity seem easier to accomplish. One simple approach is to mindfully break bigger tasks up into smaller, more concrete and manageable ones. Consider whether you have any examples of success you can learn from, such as from friends, family members, or colleagues. In addition to providing you tips that can help, they can provide you with reassurance that you are on the right track.‍

While things may seem quite valuable right when you get started, that perception can wane over time. Particularly when starting a new learning journey, make it a habit to connect what you are doing with larger interests, goals, and plans. Research has found that taking a few minutes to reflect on how learning materials connect to a person’s life outside of the learning context can improve their motivation, and ultimately, achievement.‍

Resilience

Of course, no matter the endeavor or the amount of motivation a person can sustain, difficulties are inevitable. What does a person do in the face of those setbacks? Those who are equipped to be resilient — to withstand, adapt and continue through adversity — are more likely to accomplish their goals.‍

One component of resilience is how one interprets those difficulties. People who adopt a growth mindset — a belief that their abilities are something that they can improve with practice and effort — are more likely to view challenges as exciting opportunities to continue growing and stretching their abilities. Of course, our first reaction to a setback may not be so positive; it can take practice and mindfulness to reframe difficulty as a natural and foundational part of making progress. Remember to try to normalize the struggle. Remind yourself that everyone makes mistakes as they continue to learn and stretch themselves. And take advantage of opportunities to get help.

Another aspect of resilience is being able to process emotional responses in ways that don’t overwhelm. Doing so requires a measure of emotional intelligence, which consists of skills that allow a person to recognize, understand, label, express, and regulate their emotions. Like any skill, these can be trained and developed, and new technologies are unlocking opportunities for valuable practice. For example, VR training systems that focus on preparing individuals for roles that may involve emotionally difficult conversations, such as those in hospitality and customer support, can provide a safe training space. By receiving feedback and multiple opportunities to practice in low-stakes environments, learners can hone the specific skills needed to support resilience. Similarly, generative AI systems can be used to create role plays or other kinds of practice opportunities that a person can work through at their own pace, allowing them to explore their reactions and practice finding a resilient response.‍

Empowering ourselves

Hopefully, you are feeling encouraged by this research-informed vision of motivation, which conceptualizes it as a nuanced mental calculation about where to direct your energy rather than a limited resource you may use up. Knowing this can help you keep yourself going, by using strategies that influence those judgments, such as reframing how likely you are to succeed and how valuable the outcome will be. Similar to the idea of growth mindset for learning, it can be empowering to realize that motivation can be developed through targeted strategies and activities rather than something you either have or do not.

Originally published at https://horizon.mit.edu/. Part of MIT Open Learning, MIT Horizon is comprised of a continuous learning library, events, and experiences designed to help organizations keep their workforce ahead of disruptive technologies.

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