Crush Your Goals: How to Harness Motivation Like a Creative Person


With New Year’s resolutions likely floating about your brain, it’s important to recognize the forces that will drive your motivation forward to actually make 2018 your best year yet. 

This past semester I took a class in Thinking and Reasoning, taught by one of University of Toronto’s best, Dr. John Vervaeke. We tried to arrive at the core of human thinking, and in so doing we talked about theories of motivation and creativity.

These were life-changing lectures for me, and I want to share with you the most influential theory of motivation we talked about: Apter’s reversal theory.

Is it enough to simply enjoy what you do?

You might’ve heard of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. This is a notion that goes back to the 60s, when lots of work was being done on creativity and motivation to try to find the “secret” behind creative people.

It was believed that creative people could harness a specific kind of motivation, and that this is what allowed them to come up with insightful works.

The research was finding that creative people were more likely to be intrinsically motivated, meaning that they were pursuing a task simply because they enjoyed the task itself, rather than pursuing some external goal (like money, or winning a competition of some sort — this would be extrinsic motivation).

At first glance this makes sense. The most successful creators I know pursue their passion precisely because it is their passion; they see their work as “play”, as a rewarding endeavour in and of itself.

However, there was quite a bit of lashback to the work on intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation.

Surely there were instances of the creative work that were tedious rather than rewarding, but that were completed for the sake of the greater project. In that specific instance, the motivation would’ve been extrinsic and creative.

So, what gives?


You want to be able to match the right kind of motivation to the specific phase of the work you’re in.

Master the art of harnessing the right kind of motivation at the right time

Apter’s reversal theory works under the idea that you can alter how you view the task at hand to harness the right kind of motivation, at the right time, to make work enjoyable and more productive.

Behold, a confusing graph:

(Source: )

We’re going to replace the words “telic” and “paratelic” with “goal-oriented” and “task-oriented”.


Picture this:

You’re at your job working hard for your paycheque everyday. 

You’ve got a particularly difficult project that you’re working on, and no matter what you do you just can’t seem to crack it. 

Your boss needs this stat, so obviously you can’t give up. So you work harder and harder, becoming more and more anxious. 

You’re smart, though, and eventually you’re able to finish it and, phew! Finally no one’s breathing down your neck anymore. You relax.

This is captured by the goal-oriented (telic) curve.

Now picture this:

You love coding. Or painting. Or designing. 

You do it at work and then you go home and you do it some more, not necessarily because you have to, but because you want to. 

You’re given a task that at first seems too easy, so you’re bored. However, once you realize the complexity of the task, and you see that it looks like an interesting challenge, it’s something that you’re excited to tackle. 

You dive head first into it and feel a sense of enjoyment.

This is captured by the task-oriented (paratelic) curve.

Of course, we all do both. Work, school, and hobbies often require us to be goal-oriented or task-oriented at different times.

The trick with creative people is that they seem to be better able to switch between the two modes at times when it’s most appropriate. 

They spend a big chunk of their “high arousal” (read: potentially stressful) time in the task-oriented mode, feeling excited rather than anxious about the task at hand.

In fact, creative people are so good at this that they’re able to turn the “paratelic” (task-oriented) mode into “autotelic” mode; they experience flow. But that’s a post for another day.

But Andrea, you ask, I wouldn’t consider myself a creative person. Am I screwed?

No, friend!!!

Simply being able to recognize what mode you’re in is a big first step toward facilitating the task-oriented mode. The brain is awesome in the sense that the more times you do something, the better and more quickly it’s able to do it in the future (kinda like training your muscles).

NOW. This is not to say you shouldn’t have great big goals, like being a millionaire, or acing that class. The key is in harnessing the right kind of motivation at the right time to keep you happily productive.

But Andrea!!! I don’t like my job, and I hate my classes. How will I be able to switch into task-oriented mode to feel excitement and not anxiety?

My friend, that is precisely the challenge: finding a way to make it enjoyable for yourself, so that you do in fact find pleasure in the job or class that you hate, rather than focusing on the bad.

Learning about this skill has been incredibly useful to me, and I hope you’ll find it as useful in your planning for 2018 as I have.

So I’ll leave you with this:

As you pursue your goals and resolutions for the coming year, how will you try to harness the right kind of motivation?
Andrea Diaz