When we’re motivated, no challenge seems insurmountable. In fact, work becomes almost effortless, and hours can go by without us even realizing it.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could take a pill and wake up each day with that recognizable spring in your step, ready to tackle the day with the best of your energy and ability?
Well, short of actually taking a ‘smart drug’ that purports to elevate your drive, you could engineer your work and circumstances to get the most of yourself.
Behavioral psychologists have long argued that motivation is a case of carrots and sticks.
We do things to move towards rewards and move away from pain, or so they tell us.
And when I reflect on those moments when my own motivation is soaring, it’s typically because one of the following carrots or sticks is present.
A clear and meaningful purpose underpins the work. It has to be something that is not just meaningful, but meaningful to me.
For example, earlier this year I embarked on a fitness challenge that saw me work out for 40 minutes every four hours for 48 hours — that’s 13 workouts in two days. I did it to raise money for myeloma research — a form of blood cancer that claimed my dad’s life.
There was both purpose and meaning, and not once did I think about skipping a workout. I ended up raising over $2,000 for the cause (and burned over 5,000 calories).\
There is nothing more morale-sapping than long feedback loops, where the connection between an action and a result is so distant that the connection itself becomes blurred.
When I’m working on something, I’ll be much more motivated to do it when:
For example, if I’m asked to submit a proposal for a 6-figure engagement, and I know that I’m a 50% chance of winning the work, and I’ll learn the outcome of this process within a few days, then I’ll be super-motivated to work on said proposal.
Similarly, when we’re working towards a goal, if we’re constantly reaping positive results along the journey to that goal, we’ll be far more motivated than we otherwise would be if everything we touched turned to sh!t.
Short feedback loops are great — because they teach us something — but positive feedback loops are so much greater when it comes to human motivation.
Okay, so we’re told that ego is the enemy and that we should become more self-aware, for the sake of our relationship with others and ourselves.
And I agree.
But I can’t deny the fact that a decent chunk of my motivation — at least in the past — has come from an innate desire to either prove something to myself, to prove something to others, or to help allay myself of internal suffering.
This might come from a false and deep-seated childhood-driven belief that ‘I am not enough’, but this belief was surely present in some way, shape, or form, on the path to my building a seven-figure business, getting a book deal, or speaking at SXSW.
But beware — when we use ego as a source of motivation, we might pursue things for the wrong reasons, and therefore, do work that a more enlightened and content version of ourselves wouldn't bother with.
Most of us enjoy a challenge. Life gets pretty boring without an occasion to rise to.
But we can quickly become frustrated and demoralized if the challenge is way beyond our capacity to overcome it.
When I’m embarking on a task that I know will be difficult but something within my reach, I’ll become immersed in it.
In fact, the scientific literature on the psychology of the flow state suggests that we’re most likely to enter flow (or ‘deep work’ or ‘the zone’) when the task is about four percent beyond our capabilities.
Anything more than this and we get frustrated. Anything less than this and we get bored.
Remember putting off that high school essay for weeks and weeks, and then smashing it all out the night before it was due?
No? Perhaps you weren’t as irresponsible as me.
But for those of you who do remember such things, this was a clear case of deadlines and high consequences getting us to focus and do our best work.
When there’s no sense of urgency around our work or our carrots and sticks, there’s no real impetus to get started — in fact, it becomes much easier to justify not working.
When we’re anxious, stressed, or depressed, our working memory and attentional resources are impaired.
It becomes very difficult to focus on anything for longer than a few minutes and makes us prone to task switching, over-eating, and doing all sorts of tasks that aren’t cognitively demanding — like going for another walk or doing the laundry.
However, in those moments when my mind is at peace — when I’m reasonably content with how work, my personal relationships, and my experience of life are allgoing, I can sit down and just get stuff done without the background hum of ‘you’re broken’ beating me down.
So if I want to spend more time being motivated, I could do much worse than embarking upon work that:
Having said all of this, motivation is still likely to ebb and flow, to come and go.
What you ought to be doing is cultivating habits and discipline to perform consistently, no matter how you’re feeling.
But that is the subject of another post — this one.
Steve Glaveski is on a mission to unlock your potential to do your best work and live your best life. He is the founder of innovation accelerator, Collective Campus, author of several books, including Employee to Entrepreneur and Time Rich, and productivity contributor for Harvard Business Review. He’s a chronic autodidact and is into everything from 80s metal and high-intensity workouts to attempting to surf and hold a warrior three pose.