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Once you’ve set a goal or New Year’s Resolution, how do you find the motivation to achieve it?
Dr. Richard Ryan, who co-developed the Self-Determination Theory, one of the leading theories of human motivation, shares research-backed tips to do just that. Dr. Ryan is also a Professor at the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education at the Australian Catholic University and a Professor Emeritus in Psychology at the University of Rochester in New York.
Below, listen to the conversation or read the transcript, and hear Dr. Richard Ryan’s thoughts on:
- If a person can change their personality or behavior
- Questions to ask before you make a change in your life
- How you can motivate yourself to achieve your goals
- The psychology behind a lack of motivation
- How to accomplish and stick to New Year’s Resolutions
- If an accountability partner helps with motivation
- How different types of motivation in psychology impact you
Want to hear more from Dr. Richard Ryan?
Coursera: [00:00:02] From Coursera, this is Emma Fitzpatrick, and today I’m speaking with Dr. Richard Ryan, a Professor at the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education at the Australian Catholic University and a Professor Emeritus in Psychology at the University of Rochester in New York.
He’s also the co-developer of the Self-Determination Theory, one of the leading theories of human motivation.
That’s why we’re talking with him about what exactly motivates us to change and how we can use his insights to really reach those New Year’s Resolutions this year.
So, let’s go ahead and get started.
You have done a lot of research about personality development and how people change throughout their lives. So, do you think that wanting to be a better person is part of human nature?
Dr. Richard Ryan: [00:00:55]
The nature of human nature is an age-old question.
A lot of people have said well, you know, human nature is
basically something that pursues the good or trying to be better. And other
people say it’s malevolent or bad.
From birth on, you can see that it’s human nature to want to learn, to want to explore, to be curious about the environment around us.
So, it’s kind of built into us as a natural tendency to grow
and to develop. And of course, that natural tendency really becomes more robust
when you get supportive and nurturing conditions.
That’s what I think what’s most interesting is when can
people be good, not whether they’re generally good.
And so, we’ve always been trying to study what are the
nurturing conditions that really bring out that growth tendency in people–that
desire to learn and desire to take things on.
Coursera: [00:01:39] Interesting. Okay. And as people look at their life and what’s going on around them, do you believe fundamentally that people can change?
Dr. Richard Ryan: [00:01:47]
People can make a lot of changes in their life.
They can both change their behavior, and they can change the
settings in which they find themselves.
And I think a lot of what people are seeking in life are
conditions under which they can feel a lot of satisfaction. And of course,
finding those in this modern world is no easy task.
So, a lot of what we do in a motivation theory is, first ask the question, why are you trying to make a change and explore what’s underneath that.
Coursera: [00:02:09] And what is a common reason that you hear that people do want to make a change?
Dr. Richard Ryan: [00:02:14] Well, people have all different reasons for
making changes in their life.
Take something like weight loss as an example.
Some people will wake up one day, and they say, well, I’m
going to lose weight. But the reasons for doing so could vary a lot.
Some could be from social pressure that they’re feeling around them, or, you know, wanting approval from other people.
Some could be because they really want to get more vitality in their lives or feel in some ways healthier.
The different motives you have for why you want to make a
change are really going to influence whether that change is going to be
successful over time.
Coursera: [00:02:41] So do you think that having that purpose be top-of-mind needs to come first before you can start zeroing in on motivation?
Dr. Richard Ryan: [00:02:49] We really look at two kinds of classes of why people are motivated to do what they do.
And sometimes we call it controlled motivation, when you’re
making a change because you’re feeling pressure from other people or pressure
from, you know, internal standards and criticisms that you have of yourself.
So, this kind of pressured change typically doesn’t lead to anything sustained over time.
Kind of more important is finding out if the change is
something that really is congruent with your values and your interests, and
really kind of focusing on that.
And that helps people, I think, sustain the effort it takes
to make real change over time.
Coursera: [00:03:22] So if someone is interested in changing their life, what do you recommend that they do to get started?
Dr. Richard Ryan: [00:03:28]
There’s a series of questions I’d ask.
The first one is, you know, why am I making this
change? And if it’s really something
that truly is my personal value and something that’s going to be fitting with
I think the answer to that is, yeah, let’s pursue that.
And then if you’ve got a goal like that, that you really can
stand behind, I think the next question is how do you strategize reaching it?
And a lot of what motivation research today shows is that,
you know, you’ve got to be concrete about implementing that goal. You’ve got to
think about, well, how am I going to make that change?
And this is where other questions come in. Where am I going to do that? How am I going
to do that, and when am I going to do that?
These are called implementation plans.
Once you’re committed to a change, you’ve got to be concrete
in saying, “Here’s how I’m going to accomplish that.”
And then the final thing is your goals should be ones that
you can reach.
So, we always think about setting what’s called proximal goals or more immediate goals. You know, accomplish the first step along the way up the mountain rather than thinking about the mountain itself.
Coursera: [00:04:20] That sounds like great advice. People so often think I want to make a change. I want to do something different. And for so many people it seems like that’s as far as they get.
Dr. Richard Ryan: [00:04:30] Yeah. I’ve read reports that 80% of New Year’s Resolutions, for instance, don’t actually get achieved, which just backs up your point, Emma, that most of the time when we make such resolutions, they don’t succeed. But part of that’s for the reasons we’ve been talking about here.
Personally, I’m suspicious about, you know, goal setting in
the strong sense of like, “Oh, I’m going to set a real resolution
Coursera: [00:04:51] It sounds like you’re skeptical of New Year’s Resolutions?
Dr. Richard Ryan: [00:04:54]
Well, I have no problem with people picking a day and setting resolutions for
it. But again, what the data shows is 80% of the time people don’t follow
through with their New Year’s Resolutions.
And a lot of the ones that come up on New Year’s tend to be
the big five. I’m going to lose weight. I’m going to exercise more.
And a lot of those to me are really kind of external
pressure kinds of things.
They’re also resolutions that can often come about because of what we call introjection. You’re doing it because you think you should. You know, that’s a kind of motivation that hardly ever sustains long-term behavior.
You know, a lot of times we really haven’t thought through
what is our goal and why are we pursuing that and making sure it’s something
that we’re really truly behind versus it’s just something that we’re telling
ourselves we should do or others are pressuring us to do.
But there are people who do succeed at them. And again, those are the people who have those goals really autonomously motivated. You know, they’re doing it out of interest, or they’re doing it really cause they value it, and they’ll be the ones who persist. And I think, they can be set on any day of the year.
Coursera: [00:05:53] Right. So once you’ve asked yourself those questions that you mentioned earlier about why you want to do this and really looking deeply at the reason behind that, should you have those steps of how you’re going to achieve it baked into the goal itself?
Dr. Richard Ryan: [00:06:07]
Let’s imagine that you decide that you want to get in better shape and exercise
more. One of the things I’d want to do
is make sure you find an exercise that’s interesting.
One of the things that our data shows is that, you know, there are many ways to exercise, but you’ve got to find one where you find it pretty engaging
So, finding the right exercise is the first step.
Another thing is to make it fun for yourself, you know? That could include maybe bringing a friend into it so that it’s something you do together–in some way setting up little games and challenges within something. The more fun you can make the activity, the more likely you are to sustain it.
And short-term goals, you know, if you’re gonna learn to
exercise, don’t go out and try and run the half marathon within the next month.
You know, start small. Set challenges that you can really
make cause that feeling of competence that grows with really meeting those
small goals will help you stay in the game.
Coursera: [00:06:52] And in this scenario, what’s an example of a small goal? Is it something like running three times a week? Should it be even smaller?
Dr. Richard Ryan: [00:07:01]
The thing about motivation and goals is they’re going to be individual.
So, for some people that running three times a week might
not be very much increase for them. For other people, that might be an
insurmountable goal to reach.
So they really want to start by assessing where you’re at
now and setting some goals that are getting you just beyond that level of where
you are right now so that you can keep moving up and feeling that sense of
growth and competence and doing it in a way that also feels entertaining and
fun along the way.
Coursera: [00:07:28] And when you’re looking at goals like this, is it better to look at it by time spent, by achievement goals, like run three miles or spend two hours a week running?
Dr. Richard Ryan: [00:07:41]
I think it’s going to be highly individualized, and whenever people say, well,
I’m going to do, you know, X hours a week.
Well, sure, it’s nice to start with a concrete goal like
that but be flexible about it. See how realistic it is. Experiment, you know, and then find the right
levels that you can do.
Let’s say that you want to read more, or you want to have
more interactions. When you set any kind of goal like that, you want to make
sure it actually fits within your life.
Coursera: [00:08:04] Yeah, and I think that’s a great point. If someone knows they want to change their life. They have a goal in mind. How do they actually find the motivation?
Dr. Richard Ryan: [00:08:14]
You don’t have to find the motivation. The motivation is already in you. It’s
more about finding the conditions under which that’s going to be able to be
I think we have most of that motivation to grow–most of that motivation to, you know, develop new skills, to meet new people, to connect with things.
It’s about unleashing that, finding the conditions under which you’re going to feel free to pursue those things
Find out what it is that we’re really interested in and what
we really value as a personal change.
And then in getting behind those things, make sure we set up
the circumstances. We’re going to feel
that social support. We’re gonna feel that ability to grow and feel competent,
and not going to feel pushed around and controlled.
Coursera: [00:08:49] And when you’re looking at it like that, do you see that an accountability partner or having someone there who you can go to and say, “Hey, I want to do this. I want you to help me.” is a big piece of the puzzle?
Dr. Richard Ryan: [00:09:01] Bringing partners into it can be really helpful. I kind of shy away from the idea of an accountability partner ’cause it sounds like you’re putting the sense of control in the partner in that moment. And I’d be afraid of that not only not helping your motivation, but also interfering with your relationship.
Social support, not in the sense of trying to hold me accountable, but rather be a place I can go when I’m frustrated.
Coursera: [00:09:22] That’s a unique take on it. How do you make that community and social support come to fruition?
Dr. Richard Ryan: [00:09:28]
Depending on what your goal is, you may be able to find other people who want
to pursue it with you.
If not, I think all of us need social support in the sense of friends we can go to, and discuss, you know, what’s working and not working for us in the goals we’re pursuing in life.
That could be, you know, your partner in life, or it could be a work partner, or it could be a sports mate. So, it could be, you know, any number of people.
But it’s always good to have somebody to go to, to talk out your frustrations and help reset your, goals and your tank.
Coursera: [00:09:54] And are there any other tips like that that you would suggest people keep top-of-mind to stay motivated that they often forget?
Dr. Richard Ryan: [00:10:02]
If they haven’t found themselves motivated, there’s a reason for it.
And usually, those reasons lie in one of three categories.
Either, you know, what’s motivating you is really a
controlling force. And I think, you know, that means, you know, think through
whether this is really something you want to do. Sometimes when you’re unmotivated it’s a
signal that you’re on the wrong activity or wrong task, or you’re in the wrong
Another thing I might think about is if I’m feeling unmotivated,
am I setting goals that are too high? Let me see if I can reach some more
immediate goals and proximal goals, so I can get my sense of balance back in
And a third thing, maybe I’m feeling disconnected from the people around me in whatever setting that is, and I want to explore what that’s about and see if there’s a way I can make those bridges happen.
People are really motivated when they’re in conditions where
they can feel a sense of autonomy and choice in what they’re doing, where they
can feel that sense of competence, where they could feel that connection.
So, it’s about creating those conditions in your own life and that, and the people around you. That’s how motivation happens.
Coursera: [00:10:54] And it sounds like it’s not so much overcoming a lack of motivation when you set a goal and you’re not reaching it. It sounds like it could be the goal in and of itself that’s a problem.
Dr. Richard Ryan: [00:11:06] Absolutely. I think a lot of the reason people fail at goals is they’ve chosen the wrong goal. They’ve chosen goals that they really themselves don’t stand behind, and that’s why it’s not the lack of effort. Sometimes it’s because you can’t mobilize that effort cause you’re really not behind it.
You have to find those goals that are really fitting for you, and then you can pursue them with vigor.
Coursera: [00:11:24] And what does that process look like? I know you said asking yourself if it aligns with your values. In concrete terms, what are the steps that someone could take to make that happen?
Dr. Richard Ryan: [00:11:34]
There’s a lot of talk today about the concept of mindfulness, and mindfulness
really means that you are pretty open and receptive to what’s going on.
I would want people to be mindful about the goal and think, “Hmm, I wonder why I want that goal. What’s up with this goal?” Let that goal kind of sink in and see does that really fit with me.
And I think if you’re mindful in that way and you’re
receptive to what’s going on, you’ll be able to pick better goals or ones that
are more congruent with who you are.
And we always should be open to reflecting on why we’re
doing what we’re doing.
A lot of personal change comes about because you’re feeling
pressure from other people to change, or you’re seeing some pressure from the
culture around us to be a certain kind of way.
And a lot of those things are just coming from the outside,
and they’re not really our own goals. And it’s no wonder that people don’t
persist at them.
Coursera: [00:12:16] So it sounds like if it’s motivated externally by outside signals, those goals are just never really going to work out very well.
Dr. Richard Ryan: [00:12:24]
You know, Emma, I’d even add to that, some of the goals that people have are
ones that even when they reach them, don’t make them happy.
And a lot of what we’ve been looking at is the content of people’s goals. Typically when people are pursuing things like materialism, image, or fame, whether or not they’re successful toward those goals, they don’t produce a lot of happiness.
And in contrast, when people are pursuing goals like
personal relationships or when they’re about caring for their communities or
personally growing and learning in their life, when they accomplish those
goals, it really produces happiness.
And so, some of motivation is not just, you know, why you’re
motivated, but it’s also what you’re motivated to do. And so, I think
reflecting on goals and trying to do the ones that really matter and are really
meaningful, it’s probably gonna produce the richest kind of life and an easier
one to sustain as well.
Coursera: [00:13:14] I’m so intrigued by this idea of really finding goals that speak to your motivation and your values. How do people find that?
Dr. Richard Ryan: [00:13:23]
We don’t get a lot of time to think about that. You know, we have busy lives
and we’re pushed around by a lot of forces.
So, one of the things we’ve been looking at recently in our
research is the impact of solitude.
Solitude can help you find out what’s important to you and
how can I pursue the things that really matter.
And it does turn out when people are pursuing those things
that they think really matter, they have happier lives. And so, I think that’s why people are so
interested in finding out what those are.
Coursera: [00:13:49] That’s a great point. And I’m curious if there are any goals that you’ve been working towards recently?
Dr. Richard Ryan: [00:13:56] There are so many changes that I have been pursuing in my own life, and some of them have to do with, you know, making sure I’m focused on the most important activities.
You know, given that the number of demands that I’m facing
is doing a better job of really keeping track of what I need to be doing versus,
you know, some peripheral things and distractions. So, you know, it’s a goal I
can stand behind. It’s a goal that I’ve set some techniques in motion to do.
I haven’t been fully successful at it in the last month or
two, but I’m working on it.
Coursera: [00:14:27] So it sounds like even if you’re working on a goal and it is one that really matters to you and it’s not, you know, inherently going well right off the bat, that doesn’t mean you need to just toss it out the window. You can stick with it and make it work?
Dr. Richard Ryan: [00:14:41]
When you aren’t achieving it, you’re getting some information. So, one of the
things you learn is like, what are the obstacles?
So, you know, I’m discovering in this goal a little bit more about what’s distracting me and what’s getting in my way. And that’s helpful.
The thing I think about goal setting more generally is you
can set goals, but when you fail at them, there’s information there and it’s
not a thing to be self-critical about.
It’s a place of discovery. You can find out then how you might be more effective or what we can do differently to make that goal happen.
Coursera: [00:15:08] So what’s something that you wish more people knew or understood about how motivation works overall?
Dr. Richard Ryan: [00:15:14]
Well, I guess in the big picture of motivation, it used to be people thought
about carrots and sticks. Rewards and punishments.
So that was really about how can you motivate people from
the outside? How can you manipulate them to do X, Y, or Z?
What has come about in the field of motivation over time is
a lot less emphasis on how to control people from the outside, but rather how
can you facilitate motivation from the inside? And that means creating the
conditions under which they’re going to be most motivated.
It’s very different from trying to carrot and stick them
from the external environment.
Coursera: [00:15:44] Could you talk a little bit about what Self-Determination Theory is since I know that’s your main area of study and focus?
Dr. Richard Ryan: [00:15:52] Well, in a nutshell, the theory is a broad approach to understanding the conditions under which people are most willingly and wholeheartedly engaged and motivated.
And it’s also under what conditions they’re most likely, therefore, to flourish and feel wellbeing in contrast to when people feel unmotivated.
And kind of the key component of the theory as we’ve talked about, Emma, is that you have greater, higher-quality motivation and greater wellness when you have support for your basic psychological needs.
That means in those contexts where you feel, you know, more
autonomy, more competence, and more relatedness, you’re going to feel more
And then the final piece of that theory is also looking at
the conditions that really do, deplete people and drive down their motivation.
So, conditions where people feel overly controlled. Or feel the challenges are too great for them
or feel disconnected from others.
Coursera: [00:16:36] And could you also talk through what are some of the different types of motivation?
Dr. Richard Ryan: [00:16:40] When we think about intrinsic motivation when you’re doing something because you really have an interest in curiosity and find inherent enjoyment in the activity itself, it tends to be a very high-quality form of motivation.
So, when you can find intrinsic motivation, you’re much more
likely to sustain activity over time and to get the most out of it.
Extrinsic motivation’s when you’re doing something for some
goal that’s separate from the activity itself.
And in Self-Determination Theory, we see that as varying from very controlled, when you’re being pushed around by rewards and punishments all the way up to very autonomous when you’re doing something because you really highly value it. And so, it can vary a lot. So it can be a really sustainable motivation, but it could also be something that’s very short-lived and can’t be sustained.
We’ve only begun to touch on Self-Determination Theory,
which is a really broad theory of human motivation and development and
And we do have a Coursera course on Self-Determination Theory. It’s called “An Introduction to Self-Determination Theory,” and we cover a lot of topics in that, both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation about goals and how people can set goals, but we also look at, you know, people’s goals in domains, like in schools and classrooms and workplaces and in parenting.
And a lot of practical places where you can think about
motivation and put some of these ideas to work. So, you know, if you’ve had any
interest in some of the stuff we’ve been talking about today, the Coursera
course might be something to look into.
Coursera: [00:18:01] Go to Coursera.org today to enroll for free in Dr. Richard Ryan’s course, “Introduction to Self-Determination Theory: An Approach to Motivation, Development, and Wellness.”
And as always, thanks for listening and happy learning.