Four ways to motivate the unmotivated

Four ways to motivate the unmotivated

How do you motivate the unmotivated?

Say you are a financial planner trying to convince a client to change their superannuation or a physio wanting to get your patient to do their exercises. Or imagine you are a manager who wants your staff to turn up on time, or a small business owner who wants clients to pay on time.

How do you get the unmotivated to do what you want them to do?

It’s probably the question I get asked the most often when I’m training health or finance professionals about habit and behaviour change. My seminar on the How of Habits, for instance, is about how to make changes once you have decided you want to.

But how can you get yourself or someone else to that point? 

Here are four ways to approach it.


1. Make it so easy they do it without thinking


To get people to change behaviour we must first understand the relationship between motivation and ability.

Ability is our capacity and capability to do something and motivation is our desire to do so, and BJ Fogg’s Behaviour Model outlines this beautifully.

Essentially, the harder something is to do, the greater the motivation required. The easier something is to do, the less motivation required. That means if you make something easy to do you don’t need to waste energy driving up motivation.

But how do you make things easy?

Make the behaviour you are trying to change really, really small. In fact, BJ Fogg runs a Tiny Habits program based on this philosophy. Instead of launching straight into running 5kms every day for example, which requires a lot of sustained motivation and willpower, the trick is to shrink the change down into steps that are so small they seem ridiculous. For example, putting sneakers on every morning for the first week.

I recently joined an online Cooking Habits program and for the first five days the only real behaviour I had to focus on was putting my chopping board out every night after I fed the dog. No cooking. No recipes. Just putting the chopping board out. Why? Because once the board is out you can’t help wanting to chop something!

By making things easy it is hard to wriggle out of a commitment to do it.


2. Design the environment


Making changes to the environment is a way to shape behaviour without having to think about it in the moment. I removed my office chair and got a standing desk so that I don’t have to think about sitting down less – I have no choice.

But what happens if they have to be motivated to change their own environment?

Again, look for ways to make it easy. For instance, ask them to:

  • store snacks on the top shelf in the pantry so they are harder to get to.
  • hide their dessert spoons in a cupboard so they default to a sugar spoon when eating ice-cream.
  • have their phone recharger in the laundry so they don’t keep checking it
  • buy a small ‘keep cup’ so when buying coffee they default to the smaller size
  • only take cash to the shops rather than their credit card
  • arrange with their payroll office to divert a percentage of salary to a savings account
  • keep their teabags or coffee in a low cupboard so every time they want a cuppa they have to bend and stretch while the kettle boils


3. Get “Now Me” on board


Part of the issue with motivation is that it is required in the moment. In order for me to act on superannuation, which benefits my “Future Me”, I need to enlist my “Now Me” present self to the cause to stop spending money I should lock away.

The problem here is Short Term Bias, our desire for immediate gratification, so to motivate someone who is not motivated we need to get them to:

  • visualise themselves if they do make the change you are wanting them to and
  • visualise themselves if they don’t make the change

By probing them on how they will feel in the future you will bring those feelings to the present and potentially spark enough motivation to get them interested in change. Once you have that, talk with them about the smallest change possible (refer point 1).


4. The Mary Poppins Principle


As Mary Poppins sang “a spoon full of sugar makes the medicine go down” and this is what’s known as Temptation Bundling; bundling something we should do with something we want to do.

Your opportunity is to link the desirable behaviour with something they are already doing, such that they can only do the thing they love if they also do the thing they lack motivation for. For example, they can only watch their favourite TV program at the gym. Here’s more from me on the Mary Poppins Principle.

Have you ever tried to motivate the unmotivated? What strategies have you tried to motivate the unmotivated? Drop me a line and let me know.

For more:

Bri Williams runs People Patterns, a consultancy specialising in the application of behavioural economics to everyday business issues.


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