Observation: Motivation and efficiency seem appear to me to be inversely correlated for most people. That is, I know some people who tend to get very excited about a goal and take large amounts of action but fail to plan efficiently, so a large chunk of their work is wasted. Conversely I know a lot of people who can plan and take action efficiently but tend to do comparatively less work (and I tend to fall into this category.)


  • Is motivation and efficiency inversely correlated?
  • If so, is there a biological/neuroscientific reason for this?

For example, perhaps willpower is a finite resource, so that planning literally uses up the energy you have to do other work.

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    $\begingroup$ It seems that you are using anecdotal evidence to back up the claim that motivation and efficiency are inversely related and then ask for the reasons. But it's not that clear that the claim is true in the first place. Before one can look for reasons there must be some confidence in the relationship which I don't think there is. $\endgroup$ – Jens Kouros Jul 15 '13 at 22:03
  • $\begingroup$ To my mind, if you are motivated to complete a task, then concentrated effort dedicated either to doing the task or planning the task is on-task behaviour. So I don't consider time planning the task as a sign of lack of motivation. Doing behaviour unrelated to the task is more a sign of lack of motivation. So I wonder whether you are actually asking whether there is a trade-off between effort spent planning a strategy versus effort spent implementing a strategy? $\endgroup$ – Jeromy Anglim Jul 16 '13 at 3:20
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the responses. The Yerkes-Dodson law seems to be the precise version of what I'm thinking of. Yerkes-Dodson suggests that high levels of stress/arousal increase one's ability to solve simple tasks, but decrease their ability to solve difficult tasks past a certain point. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yerkes%E2%80%93Dodson_law $\endgroup$ – Satvik Beri Jul 16 '13 at 9:52

You might find Self Determination Theory interesting, which takes a detailed look the concept of motivation. Even if you don't explicitely mention it in your question, you seem to be refering to the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, which is a distinction that is traditionally made with respect to motivation.

In SDT this is taken a step further. Gagne & Deci (2005) introduce the distinction between autonomous and controlled motivation, which can be seen as two endpoints of a continuum. Intrinsic motivation is autonomous, and people who are intrinsically motivated engage in a certain behaviour because they like it, find it interesting, etc. In this sense, the behaviour is self-determined.

To the contrary, behaviour can also be externally controlled (e.g. your boss tells you to do something) and thus not self-determinded. In its most extreme form, this kind of controlled motivation is what we know as extrinsic motivation. However, a task that is extrinsically motivated can be internalized and thus become more autonomous and more important to the individual. Gagne & Deci postulate 3 degrees of Internalization, which vary from low to high. In its most internalized form, which is called integrated motivation, the behaviour has become autonomous and is equally important to the individual as intrinsically motivated behaviour, even though not for the same reasons.

In their article, Gagne & Deci (2005) make a couple of propositions derived from the theory, the first one of which also speaks to your question. Because integrated and intrinsic motivations differ in their underlying mechanisms, they should be predictice for performance on different kinds of task. An intrinsically motivated person should perform well on a task that she likes, whereas soemone with integrated motivation should perform well on tasks that require discipline and effort. This proposition has already been tested and confirmed with respect to political envolvement and voting behaviour (Koestner et al., 1996).


Gagné, M., & Deci, E. L. (2005). Self‐determination theory and work motivation. Journal of Organizational behavior, 26(4), 331-362. PDF

Koestner, R., Losier, G. F., Vallerand, R. J., & Carducci, D. (1996). Identified and introjected forms of political internalization: extending self-determination theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 1025–1036.


Let me take the liberty of rephrasing some of the things you have mentioned. To be highly motivated , as per you, is starting a lot of things (more work), more excitement about new stuff and more efforts put in, but less follow through to completion maybe because a plan was not followed (more open ended stuff) ; efficiency, as per you is, doing less, but doing it well, by following a well established plan/ procedure and getting expected results. Ensuring six sigma compliance would be a matter of being efficient, while perhaps making incremental innovations happen by stretching out and taking risky activities a sign of a motivated individual.

The way I see this, is, as a tension or tradeoff between exploration drive (open ended exploration, too many simultaneous open ended threads, that do motivate in a sense that they bring passion out) and exploitation drive (sticking to what works best and ensuring efficiency by avoiding costly mistakes).

I can clearly see that these exploitation drive and exploration drive are theoretically related to the constructs of Avoid motivation and Approach motivation respectively. In the approach motivation you are driven towards achieving a desired end goal and the actions consequently are more exploratory in nature, you can give rein to your impulses, are more playful, spontaneous; in the Avoid motivation you are more driven by avoiding landing in an undesired state (like making a mistake) and more concerned with exploitation of what you have learned and on the lookout to avoid mistakes and generally anxious/ vigilant/ more planful/ controlled.

As a person will typically have either a predominant Approach orientation or Avoidance orientation, its true that your observation that some seem more motivated/ passionate and others more careful/ efficient would be generally true and finding a balance of both qualities in a single person may be difficult.

As for citation, I would have cited my own (future) posts on PT about this for the larger theoretical framework, but constructs of Approach and Avoidance motivation can be easily found in the works of Elliot/ Shculz or Carver/ Scheier.


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