Getting motivated, and knowing how to get people motivated, is both art and science. The good news is, you don’t have to become a motivational speaker to do it. You just have to understand these five motivational states.

IN THE days before actual coaching, the only option we had for getting motivated were those dreaded motivational speakers. They whooped onto the stage and spewed out platitudes like, “Today is a gift, that’s why we call it the present!” and then disappeared into the ether. Most often, they left you feeling wholly inadequate for not being able to manufacture, let alone sustain, such levels of enthusiasm. As a result, nobody really trusted them. Still, their message of hope revved people up for a few days, but very soon everything would return to normal. In other words, people went back to skulking around, complaining, gossiping and generally not being engaged. Leaders and HR tore their hair out wondering what to do.

Then coaching became a thing, and quickly earned a reputation for being a much more effective approach to getting motivated. In many ways, you could say that coaching brought those motivational speakers’ message down to earth. It gave people insight into what those wild men had seen and touched that made them so excited. It soberly gave structure and order to their messages. What’s more, it put tools into the hands of leaders. It enabled them to practice, get feedback, consult with their coach and try again. In other words, they were no longer left in the lurch, but guided through a process of implementation and learning.

Getting motivated is at the heart of coaching

Of course, coaching is often about finding your purpose, or improving your approach to—and therefore relationships with—other people. However, finding your purpose has a natural impact on your performance and engagement, and developing your people skills does the same for those around you. According to an International Coach Federation (ICF) study published in 2009, 80% of people who received coaching reported increased self-confidence. More than 70% benefitted from improved work performance, relationships, and more effective communication skills. A 2013 Gallup poll into employee engagement led Pitney Bowes leadership consultant Dr Janet Lockhart-Jones to conclude that “workplace coaching … has gained prominence as one strategy for strengthening manager/employee relationships, which is a big step toward improving employee engagement”.

At the heart of coaching is motivation. The ultimate goal is for you and your people to feel alive, engaged, motivated.

So, at the heart of it all is motivation, and rightly so. We’re no longer in the industrial age where people, out of desperation, were willing to put up with being driven like slaves. Today, we’re operating at a higher level on the hierarchy of needs. Fulfilment matters more than survival and so getting motivated, and knowing how to get people motivated, is a more subtle art. And, yes, there’s been some science added to the mix as well. This series of articles is about how to do that. It’s about putting the power for getting motivated squarely into your hands.

The five motivational states

To begin, let’s start with motivational states. In my work as a high-performance life and executive coach, I’ve identified a matrix of five motivational states which are independent of your moods or emotions. These states are presented below in descending order of the levels of visible activity and exertion normally associated with them:

  • Agitation (using force, pushing too hard)
  • Flow (enjoyment, absorption, the loss of time)
  • Animation (positive action towards a goal)
  • Rest (active relaxation, recovery)
  • Ennui (boredom, flatness, resistance)

Let’s unpack those in more detail. We’ll do this in a slightly different order from how they appear above, one that better facilitates their explanation.

The healthy states

motivational states getting motivatedFlow Think about those times when you’re doing something you love, like your favourite hobby. If you’re a musician, it’s when you’re in the groove. Or, for those exercise bunnies, it’s when you’re hitting those peak performance levels. In those moments, you lose track of time, forget all your worries and feel exhilarated. The psychologist and researcher Mihály Csikszentmihalyi defined this as the “flow” state, or the state of “optimal experience”. He noted that the factors that are present, and which are needed for you to get into that state, are under your conscious control. Importantly, they are action-related and not dependent on whatever mood you’re in when you start out.

Rest After a good bit of activity, even if you’ve been in the flow state, you’re going to want to rest. More to the point, you need to rest, which is something we often forget. Rest is good and necessary—when it’s deliberate, consciously chosen rest for the sake of recovery after a period of exertion.

Animation When you start out with any activity―even one that you enjoy―you often don’t feel like it. For example, when you start out on your run, or when you get up off the couch to start work on that project, it feels like a huge effort—at least until you get going. We’ll call this the state of animation. It’s that state of active engagement—that phase of “getting going”—where you’re making the effort even though you don’t feel like it.

The unhealthy states

Ennui If you remain in the state of rest for too long, you’re likely to drop down into the state of ennui, or boredom. When you’re bored, like on a Sunday afternoon, or when you’re into your second week of holiday and you’ve been lying around doing nothing, you don’t feel like getting going, do you? Ennui becomes a self-reinforcing—and self-destructive—spiral.

Agitation Then, of course, there are those times when you’re pushing too hard to make things happen. You’re trying to do more, or force things to happen faster, than reality will allow. Like when you’re stuck in the traffic and it’s not going to shift for you, no matter how much you scream and shout, hoot or try to change lanes. You get angry, irritable and frustrated. We’ll call this the state of agitation.

The conditions for the flow state

The state of flow has been extensively studied scientifically and reported on. It’s attainable when the right conditions of action are met. In other words, it’s more about how you do an activity than it is about choosing the “right” activity. In short, you want to be reasonably challenged in terms of your skill levels, you want to be mindful in your approach to the activity; and the outcome—and the activity itself—should matter to you. For more on this you can find it summarised in any one of my books, or you can study it in depth in the original book on the subject, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihály Csikszentmihalyi.

The need for rest

The flow state cannot be sustained indefinitely through any one activity. Therefore, you need to “leave at the peak of the party” and switch to another activity; and, at times, you need to rest. Rest is quite unpopular in this day and age. Sleep when you die, is more commonly the motto. However, you do need rest. Rest is good. Your body and your doctor will tell you that.

You want to be moving consciously and deliberately between the three states that make up the healthy zone.

As with most things, just because something is good for you, it doesn’t mean that more is better. With too much rest, you slip down into the flat, bored, listless state which I’ve chosen to call ennui. Usually, when you’re in that state, the last thing you feel like doing is, well, anything. If you’re lying on the couch, you don’t feel like getting up to get a drink even though you’re dying of thirst. Or you couldn’t be bothered to fetch a snack, despite being hungry.

Getting motivated means getting animated

Often, what you’re hoping for when you’re in the state of ennui is that you’ll somehow magically be transported into the state of flow. However, if you read the science, the state of flow is never achieved when there is no challenge. So therefore, lying on the couch, or lazing around, is never going to deliver the optimal state.

The path, and the only path, to the flow state is the state of animation. That’s the state of getting motivated. In other words, it’s when you pick yourself up off the couch and start doing stuff. It’s when you sit down on a Sunday afternoon and open your laptop to prepare for work on Monday. It’s when you put on your kit and head out for that run, feeling all stiff and sore.

An important thing to note about the state of animation is that it’s most often activated by an external trigger. For example, your boss just messaged and so you know they’re done with their meeting—better get that email out before they get back! Animation can also be activated by an internal trigger. For example, when you decide to shift your own lazy ass and get yourself to the gym.

Too much agitation is what we call stress

Finally, the state of agitation is achieved when you’re trying too hard. It could be that you’re impatient, for example to get something done so that you can return to the rest (or ennui) state. It can also arise when you’re trying to control outcomes, or control the way things are being done.

A good analogy for the state of agitation is when you’re stuck in traffic. You can shout and hoot (American: honk your horn) all you like. The traffic ain’t going nowhere. You’d do better to sit back and let things be. Tune into Audible, or make a phone call. If you’re going to be late for a meeting, well, you won’t die, and it won’t actually be the end of the world. For more on this theme, look for article 5 in this series.

Spending too much time, too often, in the state of agitation will naturally lead to the experience of life as stressful. That, in turn, will produce all the stress-related mental and physical symptoms.

Getting motivated happens naturally when you remain in the healthy zone

As you can see, the state of flow, the state of rest and the state of animation are positive states. That’s the healthy zone. Those states good for you and you want to be moving between them consciously and deliberately. Ideally, you want to exit the state of rest, and get into the animated state, before you drop down into ennui. Similarly, you want to remain mindfully present and equanimous when you’re in the animated state, which are two key factors for getting into the flow state. You want to remain aware of when you start pushing too hard, which will lead you into the unhealthy state of agitation. When you recognise that you’re doing that, then you need to drop back a little. Take your foot off the gas. Whatever’s driving you, it probably won’t be the end of the world.

In the next article in this series, you’ll learn how to monitor your motivational states and how to focus on them instead of on your feelings. Continue through all five articles and you’ll learn to become your own motivational speaker, or coach, and become an expert in getting people motivated—both yourself and others.


self-help books coaching neil bierbaum

For more information and/or coaching on how to move consciously between the Five Motivational States, try any one of the following options:

  1. Read any one of the books in my Personal Effectiveness series, available in paperback and eBook formats. Details at this link.
  2. Sign up (or sign your people up) for an online self-coaching course at this link.
  3. Enquire about talks, workshops and one-on-one executive coaching at this link.


self-help books coaching neil bierbaum

For more information and/or coaching on how to move consciously between the Five Motivational States, try any one of the following options:

  1. Read any one of the books in my Personal Effectiveness series, available in paperback and eBook formats. Details at this link.
  2. Sign up (or sign your people up) for an online self-coaching course at this link.
  3. Enquire about talks, workshops and one-on-one executive coaching at this link.