Motivating yourself is difficult. Trying to sustain your drive through a task, a project or even a career can sometimes feel like pulling yourself out of a swamp by your own hair.
Effective self-motivation is one of the main things that distinguishes high-achieving professionals from everyone else. So how can you keep pushing onward, even when you don’t feel like it? If you’ve ever failed to reach an attainable goal because of procrastination or lack of commitment, these four sets of tactics can help propel you forward.
1. Design goals, not chores.
Ample research has documented the importance of goal setting. Studies have shown that when salespeople have targets, they close more deals. Abstract ambitions — such as “doing your best” — are usually much less effective than something concrete. As a first general rule, any objectives you set for yourself should be specific.
Goals should, whenever possible, trigger intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, motivation. An activity is intrinsically motivated when it’s seen as its own end; it’s extrinsically motivated when it’s seen as serving a separate, ulterior purpose.
In an ideal world, we would all seek out work roles and environments that we enjoy and would keep our engagement high. Unfortunately, people often fail to do this. Simply remembering to consider intrinsic motivation when choosing jobs and taking on projects can go a long way toward helping sustain success.
In cases where that’s impractical, the trick is to focus on the elements of the work that you do find enjoyable. Think expansively about how accomplishing the task might be satisfying. Finally, try to offset drudgery with activities that you find rewarding.
2. Find effective rewards.
Some tasks or even stretches of a career are entirely onerous in which case it can be helpful to create external motivators for yourself over the short- to-medium term. But be careful to avoid perverse incentives. One mistake is to reward yourself for the quantity of completed tasks or for speed when you actually care about the quality of performance.
Another common trap is to choose incentives that undermine the goal you’ve reached. If the reward for excelling at work one week is to allow yourself to slack off the next, you could diminish the positive impression you’ve made.
Some external incentives are more effective than others. For instance, in experiments researchers have discovered that most people work harder to qualify for an uncertain reward than they do for a certain reward. Uncertain rewards are harder to set up at work, but not impossible.
Finally, loss aversion — people’s preference for avoiding losses rather than acquiring equivalent gains — can also be used to design a strong external motivator.
3. Sustain progress.
When people are working toward a goal, they typically have a burst of motivation early and then slump in the middle, where they are most likely to stall out.
Research has uncovered several ways to fight this pattern. I refer to the first as “short middles.” If you break your goal into smaller subgoals, there’s less time to succumb to that pesky slump. A second strategy is to change the way you think about the progress you’ve achieved. When we’ve already made headway, the goal seems within reach, and we tend to increase our effort. Another mental trick involves focusing on what you’ve already done up to the midpoint of a task and then turning your attention to what you have left to do.
4. Harness the influence of others.
Humans are social creatures. We constantly look around to see what others are doing, and their actions influence our own. Even sitting next to a high-performing employee can increase your output. But when it comes to motivation, this dynamic is more complex. When we witness a colleague speeding through a task that leaves us frustrated, we respond in one of two ways: Either we’re inspired and try to copy that behavior, or we lose motivation on the assumption that we could leave the task to our peer.
The problem is that, especially at work, we can’t always delegate. But we can still use social influence to our advantage. One rule is to never passively watch ambitious, efficient, successful coworkers; there’s too much risk that it will be demotivating. Instead, talk to these peers about what they’re trying to accomplish with their hard work and why they would recommend doing it. Listening to what your role models say about their goals can help you find extra inspiration and raise your own sights.
Interestingly, giving advice rather than asking for it may be an even more effective way to overcome motivational deficits, because it boosts confidence and thereby spurs action.
A final way to harness positive social influence is to recognize that the people who will best motivate you to accomplish certain tasks are not necessarily those who do the tasks well. Instead, they’re folks who share a big-picture goal with you: close friends and family or mentors. Thinking of those people and our desire to succeed on their behalf can help provide the powerful intrinsic incentives we need to reach our goals.