by Paul Matthews

Setting your motivational level

Motivation must be considered in terms of a specific activity or behaviour. It is always about ‘motivated to do what?’ Even if we consider someone who we would say is a motivated person and who approaches life with gusto and enthusiasm, there will be some bigger outcome they are pursuing. Of course, they may know that the ultimate outcome is happiness, in which case they are simply motivated to achieve this and realise that the best way to get lots of happiness is to approach life with gusto and enthusiasm.

As soon as you think of an activity – or the activities leading to an outcome or goal – you will attach to that activity a motivation level. You do this by weighing up all the consequences you can think of, both consciously and unconsciously, and coming up with a motivational strength. You could even put a figure on it: between zero to 100, where zero means no desire at all and 100 means totally committed to doing it. In fact, your level might even go negative if you really don’t want to do something.

How you hold it in your mind

We have this internal calibration of motivation. We can instantly know how motivated we are. How do we do that? How do we set the level of motivation in our mind?

And more importantly, perhaps, can we change it at will?

In order to find out, do the following exercise.


Think of a future activity. In order to do so, you will need to make a representation of it in your mind.

  • As you think of an activity, notice it has a picture in your mind?
  • If so, is that picture big or small, bright or dim, clear or fuzzy?
  • Where is the picture? Up, down, to the side or even behind you?
  • Is it far away or close up?

We can ask similar questions about how an activity is represented with sounds or with feelings if no picture appears to represent it.

The representation of the activity in our mind has properties which are not dependent on the content.

These aspects or properties of how we represent something in our mind are called submodalities in NLP. The submodalities are the way we encode meaning to the things in our mind. Some people call them the mind’s programming language.

To understand how they work, please read the pages on Submodalities in the NLP topic.

Changing your motivation level

The really exciting thing is that we can change the submodalities of something in our mind; that is, we can encode it differently and it will acquire a different meaning as a result. Changing the submodalities of a behavioural consequence will influence whether we perceive it as positive, pleasurable and desirable, or negative, painful and frightening. This alters the degree of attraction and hence it means we can directly change the motivation level setting.


Think of an activity that you are considering doing that has a low-to-medium level of motivation attached to it.

Notice as you do so that you have a picture in your mind.

Bring this picture closer; make it brighter and clearer and in full colour.

Now notice what that has done to the level of motivation.

For most people, the level will be higher, probably much higher.

You could now play with moving the picture away to a dot on the horizon of your mind’s eye – and any other variations on how it appears – all the while noticing what these variations do to the motivational level.

Now play with the running commentary you have about the task. Rather than just saying to yourself ‘I want to do the task’ say ‘I really want to do the task’ in a much more emphatic voice. How does that change things?

Choose the level you want for this activity and, within your mind, click a lock on it to hold it at that motivational level setting. You might even hear the lock click as you do that!

For some, the representation will be more a feeling than a picture. If that is the case, change how it feels, making it hot or cold, moving or still, changing size or static, slippery or rough, solid or soft and so on.

For some, the representation will be more of a sound than a picture. If that is the case, change how it sounds: loud or soft, high or low pitch, varying or steady, clear or muffled and so on.

Everybody has a way of encoding activities that, to them, means the activity is really attractive and thus has a high level of motivation. It is worth finding out how you encode activities with high motivation, and also how you encode those with a low motivation. In other words, what is the set of submodalities that, when applied to an activity, make it have a high level of motivation for you?

After you’ve read the NLP pages on Submodalities, practise with the lists of major submodalities that are available there. You will very quickly learn how you personally encode tasks at different levels of motivation. If you have trouble doing this on your own, find someone who has studied some NLP and have them help out.

One way to think of this is that you are simply changing the way you focus on something to raise or lower its importance to you. The submodalities are just the mental mechanics you use to do that, though this normally happens at a completely unconscious level.