Want to Get Motivated? Here’s A Simple, Research-Based Hack You Can Use


Life, it often seems, is built on motivation.

The aspiring entrepreneur, who works evenings and weekends on her side project, so she can one day quit her 9 to five job; the budding actor who waits tables until his next audition; and the competitive basketball player who begins his practice schedule at 04:00 (Kobe Bryant) all have one thing in common: they are all motivated.

And, based on what we have learnt about the science of behaviour change (particularly, in this article), motivation is a prerequisite to breaking bad habits and forming good ones that stick.

Before a habit becomes automatised, however, you need to rely on motivation; without it, gym memberships aren’t used, musical instruments sell “like-new” and unfinished manuscripts collect dust in desk draws.

The problem is motivation, as we know, is unreliable. There’s an irony that’s cruel and unusual: when you need it, it’s nowhere to be seen. Gone without a trace. And when you don’t need it? No problem: it’s available at a moment’s notice.

But what if it didn’t have to be like this? What if there was a way to summon it whenever you needed it? There is, and as one recent study revealed, it’s a lot easier than you may think . . .

The Power of Autobiographical Memory

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of New Hampshire, tested the effects of “activating an autobiographical memory” on an exercise habit in students. [1]

The researchers, Biondolilloa and Pillemera, asked 150 participants to recall a positive memory of exercise, whilst others remembered a negative memory. Others, in a controlled condition, were not asked to recall a memory. [2]

The study found, those who thought about a positive exercise memory, reported higher levels of motivation to exercise, and were more likely to exercise again in the future. Standard, right? But here’s where it gets interesting.

Biondolilloa and Pillemera learnt, much to their surprise, that even those who recalled a negative memory, exercised more than those under controlled conditions.

The authors explained:

Without explicit direction or encouragement, our sample of college students, amidst the innumerable distractions afforded by life at a large, public university, increased their reported exercise activities from their habitual levels. [3]

The question is, if this can be applied to exercise, can it be applied to others habits as well?

Autobiographical Memory – Beyond Exercise

If you have even fallen into a rut, you will know how important it is to relearn good habits; those daily and even weekly routines that once kept you on the straight and narrow, but now, have fallen by the wayside.

And you will also know that by returning to eating healthily, exercising regularly and writing daily, among other good habits, you can pull yourself out of your slump and put yourself back on solid ground.

Granted, relearning how to lean into your fear and familiarise yourself with behaviours that delay gratification can be painful. You have to resist temptation, nurse an aching body and overcome inner creative battles.

But it doesn’t have to be the challenge we perceive it to be. In fact, a simple reframe is often enough. If we return to the aforementioned study, is it possible, that participants who were motivated to exercise – despite recalling negative memories – did so because they were also reminded of how they felt after they exercised? Could it be that was what motivated them?

Given our need to return to pleasurable emotional states, it’s certainly possible.

How often have you made yourself go to the gym, kicking and screaming, only to feel grateful after you had done it? Seldom do we think about the pleasure we’ll receive from doing what we don’t want to do.

If you need to motivate yourself to study for an exam, don’t think about how boring it is. Instead, think about a previous exam and remember how you felt after you had completed it: that feeling of total freedom.

Dieting is hard, especially when reminiscing about past experiences; there’s meals you have to journal, calories you have to count and desserts you have to say no to.

But evoking memories of how you felt when you regained your ideal weight and looked in the mirror – having lost 14 pounds – can motivate you to want to return to that feeling, again and again. This could be your Tipping Point.

You don’t need to move mountains: all you need to do is run. Run for 1 mile. Run for 5 minutes. The metric is less important in the beginning, so make is small and start. If you’re still demotivated, look into yourself for the answer. Ask yourself “Why?” – Self-enquiry reveals a lot.

A Final Word

As we’ve learnt, you don’t need to do a lot to get motivated. Whether you have a positive or a negative memory of a behaviour, it will serve you, so use it well. I guess it is true: hindsight is a beautiful thing. 


[1] Biondolilloa, M.J. & Pillemera, D.B. (2014) ‘Using Memories to Motivate Future Behaviour: An Experimental Exercise Intervention’, Memory, 1(1), pp. 1-13.
[2] Dean, J. (2014) Get Motivated to Exercise: Here’s a Simple Mental Trick You Can Do Right Now (Accessed: 20th November 2014).
[3] Wright, L. (2014) UNH Research: Positive Memories of Exercise Spur Future Workouts (Accessed: 20th November 2014).


Jeremy Dean for introducing me to autobiographical memory.