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!


Know Thyself IV

Skills and Mastery

Thus far, in the search of know thyself, I have spent all of my time understanding who I am.  This is time well spent but I have taken almost no time in understanding what I can do.  This is the next step, understanding skills and passions.  It is important to look at both the skills and passions we already have as well as those that we wish to acquire.  Understanding our current skills and acquiring new ones are a critical part of the personal improvement plan.

Let’s first take a deep dive into what we mean by skills.  A skill in its most basic form is the ability to carry out a task with pre-determined results within a given amount of time and energy.  That is a very definition-y approach to something that constitutes what we can do.  Let’s go deeper.

Wikipedia categorizes skills into six buckets: Labor Skills, Life Skills, People Skills, Social Skills, Soft Skills and Hard Skills.  There is a fair amount of overlap between each of these buckets based on different perceptions and categorization schemes.  I won’t waste your time discussing any one type more than once.

Let’s look at the Labor skills first.  These are the skill sets that allow us to operate in the marketplace.  They break down into the sub categories of foundation, transferable and technical and vocational skills.  The foundational skills are the very basics that allow us to acquire new skills.  These are things like literacy and math.  It’s pretty damn hard to learn how to code if you can’t read or do addition.  The next is the transferable skills.  These are the skills that transfer from one line of work to the next.  Many of these are the soft and people skills that we’ll talk about in a little more detail later.  The third is the technical and vocational skills.  These are your hard skills, things that require technical know-how and specific training.

Next we have our general life skills.  These skills allow us to navigate the ship and manage the demands and challenges that life throws at us.  The nerdy term for this skill set is psycho-social.  The folks that struggle with these type of skills typically struggle to find their place in society.  They could be troubled youth, substance abusers, on the autism spectrum, or any other number of other reasons.  These are the very basics: decision making, problem solving, creative thinking, critical thinking, self-awareness, empathy, relationships, assertiveness, coping, communication and resilience.  At this level we are not talking about our people skills, but something deeper.  Life skills form the foundation for things like people skills and soft skills.

With that segue, let’s cover people skills next.  These are the skills that determine how well you play with others.  Most of these are covered in kindergarten but people skills are the ability to effectively communicate, understand and empathize with others.  Strong people skills build trust through sincerity.  These are a must have to interact respectfully with others to develop strong working relationships.

I’m going to cover social skills as well.  There is a fair amount of overlap between social and people skills.  The reason I’m covering social skills separately is that I like the list of social skills that the Employment and Training Administration has identified: Coordination (adjusting actions in relation to others’ actions), Mentoring, Negotiation, Persuasion, Service Orientation and Social Perceptiveness.  Learning these skills is known as socialization.

Soft skills are another categorization of a lot of the other skills we already looked at.  These are less quantifiable like people and social skills and serve as a good complement to hard skills.  Hard skills are more technical and quantifiable.  The hard skills fit nicely in the technical and vocational bucket under labor skills.

Hopefully, this study on skills was interesting even if it was a little dry.  Stay with me though, there is a point to all of this.  To build an effective personal development plan, we need a way of getting from who we are to a better version of us.  Some of that comes from understanding ourselves but a larger part is going to come down to strapping in and working on those skills that we want to improve.  We all have soft and hard skills that could use a bit of work.


Before I share the skills that I am choosing to work on, I would first like to discuss motivation and mastery for a second.  Daniel Pink has done some amazing studies on what motivates us.  He has done a couple of TED talks and written a book on motivation but my favorite is the RSA Animate version of his talk.  We are going to use these tools heavily in making sure we stay on track on our plan.  What he found is that the three biggest factors in motivation are: autonomy, mastery and purpose.  You will have total autonomy in how you build your plan.  We will also spend some time defining your purpose when we build out the vision that the plan is based on.  Mastery however is going to be an ongoing goal for the rest of your life so it’s worth spending a couple cycles on that now.

The scale of mastery that we use comes from the four stages of competence.  This was a theory built by Noel Burch while working with the Gordon Training International.  In the first stage, we are incompetent and ignorant of the fact.  The way to progress out of this stage is by showing a serious desire to learn.  We classify folks at this level as novice, because at this stage you don’t even know what you don’t know.

Personal Improvement Plan Mastery Arrow

In the next stage we have conscious incompetence.  This is where folks start to understand how much there is to know and how little they know of it.  They can recognize their deficits as well as the value of the new skill.  We classify folks at this level as apprentice, because they are starting on the journey to mastery.  In the third stage, the practitioner knows how to do the skill but it takes intense concentration.  They may have to break it down into its component parts and a ton of focus is required.  We call this level journeyman.

In the final stage, you have reached mastery of the skill.  It’s something that can be done with your eyes closed.  Many times, you can execute the skill while doing something else.  A good example of this is driving.  You don’t think about how you are going to pull out of the driveway in the morning, you just do it while you are thinking about what you have to get done for the day.  This stage is mastery.

The first step in the skill breakdown is listing out all of your skills and assigning your current mastery level to those skills.  This was a fun step for me that allowed me to flesh out my quiver of all the things that I know how to do or that I want to learn how to do at some point in the future.  The list ends up being far too long to manage though, so I will share the next step which is narrowing down the list to just those skills I plan on using in the next two years or the skills that I hope to acquire in that same time period.


This list becomes the launch pad for the next part of the process of building our vision and scorecard.  I will cover my version of those steps in the next several blogs.  There will be a final know thyself blog though that covers all of the other tools that we tried and decided not to incorporate into the process and why.  Stay tuned!