by Paul Matthews

Anchoring motivation

What would it mean to you if all you had to do were to push a button and you felt motivated?

Anchoring is the process of attaching a response to a specific stimulus. Pavlov popularised this concept with his well-known experiments with dogs. For a more thorough explanation, see the pages on Anchoring.

When an anchor is stimulated by a specific sensory input, it produces within us a specific response. For example, a snatch of music might immediately produce a response which includes a memory of a specific event. A waft of perfume might trigger the memory of a person and the way we felt about that person.

Anchors can bring up memories, emotions and even changes in the way you hold your body. Try this: walk up to someone and raise your hand as if to shake their hand, when they are not expecting it. They will involuntarily respond by raising their hand. The trigger in this case is the visual of a hand being raised into hand shake position.

We all have thousands of anchors that have been set as we go through life. Some have been set on purpose, such as the anchors due to advertising, but most have just happened. Some are useful to us, some are not.

Anchoring motivation

You can anchor the state of motivation. That is, you can set an anchor where the response to a defined stimulus is a state that feels highly motivated. This is useful when you feel stuck, unable to get going on something. Using the anchor can be enough to kick-start you into doing the activity, and then momentum will take over.

The steps

  1. Choose a specific stimulus that is unlikely to occur naturally. A common one is a specific touch: for example, touching a particular knuckle on one hand with a finger or gently squeezing one earlobe. Practise this a few times to ensure you can repeat it consistently and accurately.
  2. Recall a memory of when you were in a highly motivated state. Do this vividly and really enter into the feeling of motivation by seeing what you saw, feeling what you felt and hearing what you heard. If you cannot recall a memory, imagine what it would be like to be in that state. Really get into the state of motivation. Feel it strongly, and then, while feeling this state, set your anchor by doing the stimulus chosen in the first step for five to ten seconds.
  3. Change your state away from the memory by thinking about something completely different, as well as standing up and moving about.
  4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 several times in succession. You can also use different memories of motivational states you have experienced. One of the keys to success with anchoring is repetition.
  5. Do something completely different for a while, and then test your anchor by applying the stimulus. If the anchor has been set, you will feel a surge of motivation in response to the stimulus.
  6. To really set a strong anchor that will last, more repetition is required. Do the same process again each day for three to four weeks. It only takes a few minutes each time.

Rather than a touch, some people find it works better to connect the motivation to another type of stimulus, such as a visual image in their mind’s eye – maybe a symbol or perhaps a picture of themselves in a really motivated state, with a fist raised in triumph. You could use an existing anchor that is already motivational – such as a picture of something that gets you enthused and excited – and enhance it; alternatively, you might play in your mind a few bars of a motivational song, such as Simply the Best by Tina Turner.


Another addition you can make is to stack other useful emotions or states onto the same anchor. You could add confidence, focus and any other feelings that it would also be useful to have at the same time as motivation.

Negative anchors

In the same way that a powerfully high level of motivation can be anchored and then triggered at will, an anchor can also be established that lowers the level of motivation.

Think of that sinking feeling you can get when you walk into a meeting and realise that it will be run by someone who is a very poor facilitator. Think of the soporific effect a lecture hall can have.

The work environment can have quite a marked effect on the level of people’s motivation, so talk to people about it; find out what energises people and what saps their energy, and then make changes.