Motivating yourself is hard. But effective
self-motivation is one of the main things that distinguishes high-achievers
from everyone else. So how can you keep pushing onward, even when you don’t
feel like it?
To a certain extent, motivation is personal. What
gets you going might not do anything for me. And some individuals do seem to
have more stick-to-itiveness than others. However, after 20 years of research
into human motivation, the following strategies have been identified that seem
to work for most people.
Design Goals, Not Chores
Ample research has documented the importance of
goal setting. Studies have shown, for example, that when salespeople have
targets, they close more deals, and that when individuals make daily exercise
commitments, they’re more likely to increase their fitness levels. Abstract
ambitions—such as “doing your best”—are usually much less effective than
something concrete, such as bringing in 10 new customers a month or walking
10,000 steps a day. As a first general rule, then, any objectives you set
for yourself or agree to should be specific.
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. You might promise
yourself a holiday for finishing a project or buy yourself a gift for quitting
A common trap is to choose incentives that
undermine the goal you’ve reached. If a dieter’s prize for losing weight is to
eat pizza and cake, he’s likely to undo some of his hard work and re-establish
bad habits. 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.
Research on what psychologists call balancing shows that goal achievement sometimes
licenses people to give in to temptation—which sets them back.
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. Fortunately, 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—say, weekly instead of quarterly
targets—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. Research has found that this shift in
perspective can increase motivation.
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. 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 recent study found that people
struggling to achieve a goal like finding a job assumed that they needed tips
from experts to succeed. In fact, they were better served by offering their
wisdom to other job seekers, because when they did so, they laid out concrete
plans they could follow themselves, which have been shown to increase drive and
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 people
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.
In positive psychology, flow is defined as a
mental state in which someone is fully immersed, with energized focus and
enjoyment, in an activity. Alas, that feeling can be fleeting or elusive in
everyday life. Self-motivation is one of the hardest skills to learn, but it’s
critical to your success.
Adapted HBR Dec 2018 Fishbach
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