Harnessing Psychology to Get - And Stay - Motivated

Harnessing Psychology to Get - And Stay - Motivated

Finding the will to start a project or keep up with a goal isn’t always easy.

No matter how many times we tell ourselves how important a task is, the will to do it can be elusive. If you’ve ever set a goal, no matter how tiny, you know the feeling. You can be doing the most interesting, fulfilling work and it’s still not guaranteed that you’ll show up feeling motivated each day. 

This becomes especially difficult when you’re overworked or find yourself in a lull. It doesn’t matter where you’re at in your career, goal, or project, there will be days when motivation feels non-existent, but you desperately need to kick it into gear. 

What do you do? 

First, it’s important to pinpoint why you’re unmotivated, then it’s all psychology from there. Sometimes there’s an easy fix. Sometimes you need a little bit of rest. Other times psychologists point to some tried and true ways you can “trick” your brain into finding and sustaining motivation

These methods have expert backing and can help you find your way back to productivity when you need it most. 

Ditch all-or-nothing thinking

“Perfection is the enemy of progress.” Winston Churchill famously said this, but it continues to ring true in day-to-day life for so many people. It’s easy to get caught up in the what-ifs and fear that any work will be useless if the final product isn’t perfect. Sound familiar? 

Experts say this is when it’s important to focus on your mindset. What causes you to think that you won’t be able to accomplish the task or goal before you? When you begin to recognize those triggers, you can then begin to shift your thoughts so that they better align with reality. 

"You can consciously convert the thoughts to a more middle-ground perspective, so you remain logical versus emotionally fired-up, which can interfere with motivation to stick with goals,” explains psychologist Yvonne Thomas, PhD

This works particularly well with goal-setting. If you find yourself falling off the wagon and inching toward giving up, employ this method. Here’s how it works: If you’re considering giving up on a goal to run a marathon because you didn’t train for a week, for example, make a list of what you’re looking forward to when you hit the pavement again. 

Sometimes it can be helpful to readjust the lens through which you view the future. An uphill journey doesn’t always have to be daunting, and this restructuring of thoughts can provide the motivation to start again and keep going.

Make it bite-sized

Lacking motivation comes in many forms, but a common one is when the task before you seems like it’ll take more energy than you have. It’s normal to feel unmotivated and not have any good reason why. Sometimes there just isn’t one! Yet, things still need to get done. 

The brain hack? Trick yourself by starting small. Commit to a power hour of research, writing 200 words of a proposal, or sending two emails. A lack of motivation can prevent us from getting anything at all done, so it can be helpful to nudge ourselves along. After you’ve completed that bite-sized task, you’ll probably find that you’re on a roll and can keep it going. 

This notion is also helpful for big goals. You don’t want to overwhelm yourself with doing too much. B.J. Fogg, Stanford University researcher and author of “Tiny Habits,” says that sustainability is important, and the best way to do that is to start small. 

“In his own life, Dr. Fogg wanted to start a daily push-up habit,” The New York Times writes. “He started with just two push-ups a day and, to make the habit stick, tied his push-ups to a daily habit: going to the bathroom. He began by, after a bathroom trip, dropping and doing two push-ups. Now he has a habit of 40 to 80 push-ups a day.”

Celebrate wins (even small ones)

It’s true that sometimes when you’re feeling unmotivated you have to turn to bribery – but the good news is that celebrating our wins actually works to garner motivation if you do it the right way. 

“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, especially if they complement incentives offered by your organization,” writes University of Chicago behavioral science professor Ayelet Fishbach. “You might promise yourself a vacation for finishing a project or buy yourself a gift for losing weight. But be careful to avoid perverse incentives.”

This means that the incentive has to be tied to quality, not quantity. If you focus on how many (and not how well), there’s a chance you’re setting yourself up for failure by moving too quickly, which can open your work up to mistakes. 

The other important thing to remember here is that you don’t want to undermine your own success. 

“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 reestablish bad habits,” Fishbach says. “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.”

The bottom line is that finding motivation can be hard, and the journey to productivity doesn’t look the same for everybody. These tips and psychology hacks might be just the thing you need, or they might not quite work for you in every scenario – and that’s okay, too! 

Most importantly, motivation shouldn’t be considered a constant. It’s just not the way the human brain is designed to operate. Even if you have to slow down, set smaller goals, and incentivize your way to the finish line, you can still consider it progress. 

Written by Kara Mason
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