Barring a few apathetic individuals, we all want to be successful. We want to excel in our careers. We want to start our own businesses. We want to learn new languages.
But even though we want those things, many of us don’t actually achieve them.
So what separates the doers from the dreamers? The goal-setters from the goal-achievers?
It all comes down to one thing: motivation.
Many people mistakenly believe that motivation is innate. That we’re either born with drive or we’re not.
While this may be true to a certain extent, motivation is something that can be developed. It just requires the adoption of a certain mindset, combined with a bit of intentionality.
So if you’re struggling to get things done and achieve all those goals of yours, don’t despair. Here are the three main ways that you can jumpstart your motivation.
Focus on Internal Motives
Common sense tells us that if we offer people a monetary reward for completing a task, their motivation will increase. An employer gives an employee a raise and they will perform better. You pay someone a large sum of money to complete a task and they will get it done quickly. Right?
Dan Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, says that, contrary to popular belief, contingent rewards (if you do this, then you’ll get that) often don’t work. Rather, research has shown time and time again that these kinds of rewards only work for simple tasks.
You see, rewards narrow our focus, so for tasks that don’t require a lot of thinking, contingent rewards work well. But for more complicated tasks that require us to think a bit outside the box, these if/then rewards actually destroy creativity and result in a poorer performance.
Think about what motivates you to get out of bed each morning and work. Is it money or fame? Or is it because you are genuinely passionate about what you’re doing? If it’s the former, you might not be very successful; whereas if it’s the latter, congratulations—you’re on the path to success.
There are two kinds of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is motivation that’s driven by internal rewards. In other words, you do something because it gives you pleasure. Extrinsic motivation is driven by things outside of yourself, like grades, money, fame or praise from others.
As Pink proves, intrinsic motivation is what leads to success and high performance—while extrinsic motivation often does just the opposite.
The New York Times affirms this claim, stating that it’s actually better for people to be motivated entirely by intrinsic motives than both intrinsic and extrinsic motives.
Research found that West Point cadets who had intrinsic motivations (like the desire to be trained as a leader in the U.S. army) were more likely to graduate and become commissioned officers and did better in the military than those without intrinsic motivations. They were also more likely to stay in the military after their five years of mandatory service—unless they also had strong extrinsic motivations. In other words, cadets who only had intrinsic motivations performed better than those who had both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. Extrinsic motivations have actually been shown to hinder success.
So exactly what is intrinsic motivation? Pink says that it’s made up of three things: autonomy, mastery and purpose.
As Pink describes, autonomy is “the urge to direct our own lives.” One example he gives is the autonomy provided by the Australian software company, Atlassian. A few times a year, team members are given 24 hours to work on whatever they want—as long as it doesn’t have anything to do with their normal job. At the end of that 24 hours, they then present their findings to their team. These “Fedex days,” as they’re called (because employees have to deliver something overnight), have resulted in many solved problems that otherwise probably wouldn’t have been solved.
They have worked so well that Atlassian employees are now allowed to spend 20% of their time working on whatever they want.
Surely you’ve heard of the ROWE (results-only work environment), which lets employees work when and wherever they want, as long as they get their work done timely and efficiently. Companies that have adopted this sort of work model have seen an increase in productivity, worker engagement and overall satisfaction—and a decrease in turnover.
If you’re a freelancer, chances are, you already have a good deal of autonomy. If you work full (or part)-time for a company, make sure that your boss affords you the freedom to use your time as you see fit. Most companies don’t have a ROWE, but the important thing is that you have control over your work, habits and environment.
The second key to intrinsic motivation is mastery, which Pink describes as “the desire to get better and better at something that matters.”
In order to feel motivated, it’s important that we feel like we are making progress and getting better at something. Without feeling any sense of progress, we might be tempted to just call it quits.
We have to feel challenged in order to really grow. If we aren’t challenged, we get bored or complacent—the enemy of motivation and growth. At the same time, we can’t feel too challenged, or we’ll just give up. There has to be a balance.
The key is to find something that you really enjoy doing and excel at—and then turn that into a career. But don’t stop there. Make sure that you are continuously growing, challenging yourself and improving upon your skills on an everyday basis.
The third part of intrinsic motivation is purpose, or as Pink defines it: “the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.” At the end of the day, people need to care about the work that they do in order to really want to do it.
The New York Times claims that, “Helping people focus on the meaning and impact of their work, rather than on, say, the financial returns it will bring, may be the best way to improve not only the quality of their work but also—counterintuitive though it may seem –their financial success.”
If you’re just crunching numbers or analyzing data all day, you might forget your sense of purpose. Remind yourself of why your work really matters. Granted, it’s easier to feel a sense of purpose in some professions than others. But even if you’re not saving lives or working directly with people, chances are, you are somehow making the world a better place. In order to feel motivated, it’s important to really believe that and remind yourself of what your purpose is—each and every day.
According to psychologist, Alice Isen, positive moods help to boost creative problem-solving, while negative moods cause us to think more narrowly (ie: less creatively).
She claims that, “Negative emotions like fear and sadness can lead to brain activity and thought patterns that are detrimental to creative, productive work: (a) avoidance of risk; (b) difficulty remembering and planning; and (c) rational decision-making.”
One study found that “people seek mood-enhancing activities when they feel bad and engage in unpleasant activities that might promise longer-term payoff when they feel good.”
That’s why you might binge on ice cream and Netflix when you’re having a bad day…and work for ten hours straight when you’re feeling really good.
Of course, being happy is a lot easier said than done. So what can you do to become a more positive person?
For starters, make sure that you are getting enough sleep and exercise. Exercise helps to increase levels of serotonin and norepinephrine, which may help reduce stress and depression.
If you are feeling down, practice positive self-talk. It’s amazing how the words that we say aloud can have such a drastic impact on our mood.
Keep a gratitude journal, and each day, write down several things that you are grateful for.
Find something to look forward to, whether that’s an upcoming beach vacation with a friend or going home to watch your favorite movie at the end of the day.
As cheesy as it sounds, try to extract the good from every bad situation that happens. Did you miss the bus? Maybe that gives you the opportunity to meet someone new or enjoy the fresh air. Did you not get that promotion you really wanted? You could see it as an opportunity to grow even more in your current role.
Giving back to others is another thing that has been known to increase happiness. Practice little acts of kindness on a daily basis. Help out a random stranger. Hold the door for someone. Volunteer once a week. Helping others is a surefire way to increase your self-esteem—and happiness.
Celebrate your accomplishments, however small they may be. Write them down and look back on them when you need a little nudge to move forward.
If you catch yourself having a negative thought, counter that with something positive. Practice mindfulness and become aware of your thought process.
Continuously remind yourself of everything that you are capable of accomplishing. You may even have to “fake it till you make it,” but once you make positive thinking a habit, those positive emotions—and motivation—will come naturally.
Just Do Something
We often procrastinate because we feel so overwhelmed by everything we have to do that we don’t even know where to begin. Or we feel confused about what direction to take or just totally lost on what to do, so instead of starting to do something, we don’t do anything at all.
But here’s the thing: doing something (anything) is much better than doing nothing.
American author, blogger and entrepreneur, Mark Manson, says that when he first started his own business, for a long time, he got very little done. Until one day he remembered something that his old math teacher had said: “If you’re stuck on a problem, don’t just sit there and think about it; just start working on it. Even if you don’t know what you’re doing, the simple act of working on it will eventually cause the right ideas to show up in your head.”
He learned that “action isn’t just the effect of motivation; it’s also the cause of it.”
Many people don’t take action until they feel motivated. And they don’t feel motivated until they feel inspired. So they wait. They wait for inspiration to hit them, so that they can feel motivated and take action. Sound familiar?
But Manson claims that we’ve got that sequence all wrong. Instead of being inspiration>motivation>action, we can (and should) change the order to be action>inspiration>motivation.
Manson says that he initially felt so overwhelmed by everything he had to do, that he would just put everything off. But he found that “forcing myself to do something, even the most menial of tasks, quickly made the larger tasks seem much easier,” so he would start working on one small thing and then would gain the motivation to work on something else. Acting would produce a chain reaction “and before I knew it, I’d be energized and engaged in the project.”
Many people fear failure, so they put things off. But as Manson points out, “if we follow the ‘do something’ principle, failure feels unimportant. When the standard of success becomes merely acting—when any result is regarded as progress and important, when inspiration is seen as a reward rather than a prerequisite—we propel ourselves ahead. We feel free to fail, and that failure moves us forward.”
When we take action, we feel inspired, which jumpstarts our motivation and produces more action (and so on). Acting creates a ripple effect that leads to success. But in order to produce those ripples, you’ve got to jump in the water. You’ve got to start by taking action.