Why is motivation so hard? : 5 Ways our users found to combat the pain


Why is motivation so hard to find?  Why only sometimes?  Why is it that other times it shows up like an old friend and sticks around for days or even weeks?  How can we drill these fields of motivation just below the crust of our psyche and turn them into a reliable source of energy and drive?  First we need to understand motivation a bit.

Let’s start with Daniel Pink’s amazing TED talk on motivation.  If you haven’t seen it, stop reading and watch it now.  It’s transformative work.  The link I gave is the animated version which I like even better than his TED talk because it feels more engaging.

Pink’s study on motivation is biased towards the workplace.  He claims that money is a very poor motivator for cognitive tasks.  Manual labor, sure, money works great as a motivator.  However, once you have to turn the brain up, even to a two or a three, money does the opposite of motivate.  Once the brain has to be engaged, the higher the monetary bonus, the worse the performance we get from people.  The science shows that corporate bonus incentives are actually hurting performance.  Crazy, right?

Now, there is a big caveat here.  This makes the assumption that people are getting paid enough to be comfortable in the first place.  These folks are getting enough money so that money doesn’t NEED to be part of the motivation conversation.

So what works in the workplace?  Turns out, three big factors hold sway.  The first is autonomy.  People hate to be micro managed.  When workers are given the respect to think for themselves, performance goes through the roof.  This is why things like 24 hour ship day or FedEx day are so successful.  Anytime you give employees free reign to create and BE creative, they reward you with incredible innovation.

The second is mastery.  People like to get better at things.  There was a long study on this in Cal Newport’s excellent book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You.  The title of the book came from a Steve Martin quote when someone asked him about his success.  Steve Martin was one of the hardest working guys in comedy.  He worked his ass off to hone his craft.  Newport also makes the argument that chasing your passion is a recipe for disaster.  He recommends that mastering a craft is the goal to happiness.  Shawn Achor, in his book, The Happiness Advantage, happens to agree with him.  One of Achor’s seven keys to happiness is to ‘exercise a signature strength’ or do something you are good at on a regular basis.  That craftsman’s attitude holds a ton of merit.  Even though I’m starting this business, I still consult on a regular basis to help companies with leadership vision as well as cleaning up their software development organizations.  Not only do I get paid well, but it feels great to do something at which I KNOW I excel.

The third is purpose.  When mastery and autonomy are linked with some unified purpose, amazing things begin to happen.  This is true both in the private sector and outside of it.  This is how we got huge success from companies like Apple and Google but also how things like Wikipedia and Linux came into being.  Once purpose falls out of sync with mastery and autonomy, really bad things start to happen.  Lehman Brothers anyone?

Great, so that covers the biz side.   But, what about motivation in your personal life?  There is definitely some crossover of mastery and purpose from the biz side.  We all want to improve.  We all want to chase something meaningful.  But why is it so goddamn hard to get off the couch and go for a run?  How do we find the motivation outside of work to hit our non-work goals?  To answer these questions we conducted several studies on the groups we had testing our methodologies.  We looked at who was successful, who was not and what factors motivated them to succeed.  Here are five of the most successful ways we found to get you up and rolling.

5 ways to get off your ass and get it done

# 1 – Reward your success

A friend of mine and one of the subjects of testing these methodologies found rewards to be a big secret of her success for hitting personal goals.  If you hit a goal or a milestone, give yourself an appropriate reward.  If you want a new pair of running shoes, allow yourself to buy them after you hit your step count goals for a full week.  I know this works for me.  I always give myself a reward for finishing a project or a blog post.  That could be an indulgent lunch or a 30 minute break to read.  Achor seems to believe that this is one of the seven keys to happiness – find something to look forward to.

# 2 – Understand what motivates you

People are motivated by many different things.  Some of us are very self-driven as long as we have purpose.  Some of us thrive on praise.  Some love to be challenged.  Others require some level of competition to get their engine started.  Still others need to know that results are around the corner.  What is it for you?  Select goals and next steps that allow for your motivation style.

# 3 – Make starting the task easy

This goes back to another of Shawn Achor’s ideas, the 20 second rule.  In his words, ‘inactivity is simply the easiest option.’  The science is in though, humans don’t like inactivity.  We’d rather be engaged.  So, we need to make the tasks around our goals easy to start.  If you want to start a running habit early in the morning, go to bed in your running clothes.  If you want to stop watching TV so much – take the batteries out of the remote.  Those were both examples from Achor’s tests on himself.  If the task you want to do takes less than 20 seconds to start, your chance of sticking with it is MUCH higher.

# 4 – Look at the big picture

This came from another one of my friends in the study.  His recommendation was to tap into the very powerful emotion of regret.  If you look 10 years down the road, what would you regret that you didn’t accomplish over the past 10 years?  Oh, I wish I knew how to ____.  You fill in the blank.  You only get one shot at this life.  Don’t play small.

# 5 – Don’t sell your attention so cheaply

William James said something along the lines of – at the end of your days, your life will have been what you paid attention to.  Give yourself time to not be distracted.  There are an infinite number of distractions out there, be conscious of them.  It’s up to you to carve out blocks of time to get the important stuff done.


Find your motivation.  Please share with us what works for you!

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