I remember a time when someone, possibly me, had a lot of trouble getting motivated. This was not fun.
Three years ago, I starred in a suspense film titled Oh Good God I Have To Write My Second Book. Some might be thinking: “That must have been easy, you’ve done it before.” Oh No No No No — that’s not how it works. First time out you have no idea what’s going on. It’s stressful but you can naively jump into the maelstrom. However, after you’ve been to war, you now know just how hard it’s all going to be. Once bitten, twice shy.
From proposal to writing to release and marketing it takes years. This is not a marathon where you run 26 miles; it’s a marathon where you run until you die. And I had to emotionally prepare myself for the relentless everything that lie ahead. I felt like I received a “motivation overdraft” notice from my bank. Sorry, not enough here to cover the bill you’re trying to pay.
I thought a mature adult perspective would just passively wash over me, and I’d suddenly want to do what needed to be done. NOPE. What I wanted was a juice box and a nap. (Heck, that’s all I want right now.) I tried being practical: “Eric, you need to write this so you can pay the rent, buy food, and save money for retirement so you can die someplace warm.” That didn’t work either. Yeesh…
These are the moments when you learn a lot about yourself — including things, uh, you don’t really want to know. There are more than one of you: one who wants to accomplish big goals and another who wants to sleep until dinner. And these two yous are mortal enemies.
Luckily, there is a scientific solution. Ayelet Fishbach, professor at the University of Chicago, has written “Get It Done: Surprising Lessons from the Science of Motivation.” Reading it is like someone backed a dumptruck full of useful research studies directly into your eyeballs. And it can help us.
Okay, motivated or not, let’s get to it…
Define Goals Properly
We hear a lot about goals. Too much. Setting them makes you more successful, you become more accomplished, you get more happy, and you win more Emmys… blah blah blah. But our goals don’t always hold up when they collide with reality. We set the goal… and then often we still don’t want to do the work. It feels like a chore. And nobody likes chores. That’s why they call them “chores.”
But when we construct goals properly, motivation comes naturally and we can dodge the chore problem. How do we do that? Thank you for asking. Four things to keep in mind:
1 – Frame Goals As An “End”, Not A “Means”
“Getting a new job” sounds kinda cool. “Filling out applications” sounds about as appealing as deliberately and repeatedly hitting your fingers with a ball-peen hammer. “Getting a new job” is a desirable outcome. “Filling out applications” is an annoying means by which you achieve the outcome. As Ayelet says, “Achieving a goal is exciting; completing the means is a chore.”
Define your goal in terms of benefits, not costs.
2 – Keep Goals Abstract
You want your goal to be concrete enough where you know what you need to do but not so concrete that it sounds like a laundry list. The phrase “reading job postings and submitting applications” drains the life out of you. Meanwhile, “exploring career opportunities” is almost sexy. (I didn’t say “sexy.” I said, “almost sexy.”)
An abstract goal emphasizes the meaning behind the actions. That’s motivating. When you make goals too concrete, they quickly sound as enticing as “cleaning out the garage.”
3 – Set “Approach” Goals, Not “Avoidance” Goals
Framing your goals as something you need to “do” versus “not do” is a good idea. Research shows the former is much more motivating. Decide to “Eat healthy” instead of “Stop eating junk.”
4 – Make Goals Intrinsic, Not Extrinsic
This is the big one. It’s shocking, I know, but doing something because you want to is always more motivating than doing something because you feel you have to. In my personal experience, the former is fun while the latter leads to convulsive sobbing.
In a study Ayelet did, participants predicted they would persist longer on whatever task they were paid the most for. Wrong. Pay ended up having zero effect. Nearly everyone worked longer and harder on the tasks they found enjoyable.
The takeaway? Give a thought to how to make achieving your goals more fun. We usually don’t bother. Working on a project with co-workers? Divvy up the tasks based on who likes what better. When you exercise, pick an activity you enjoy doing. And when something is inherently not-fun, try to spice it up by letting yourself listen to music or audiobooks in the background.
(To learn more about how to improve your relationships, check out my new bestselling book here.)
Okay, goals are great but we can take motivation up another notch by adding something else to the mix…
Set A Target
Having a goal often isn’t enough to get you all the way way to the finish line. That’s where a target comes in — specifying a number.
People who say they want to “walk more” rarely follow through, but we all know someone who became a hyperactive crazy person once they got a pedometer and set a target of 5000 steps a day. An exact number allows you to track progress and adjust your effort. This works. A study of over 10 million runners showed that a disproportionate number of them finished their races just under the target they had set for themselves. Having an exact number made them kick it into high gear when they felt they weren’t going to make it.
So if you’re a Type-A person with Type-F motivation, another good trick is to set multiple early deadlines. More targets, more motivation. Remember that teacher in school who had a date when you had to turn in an outline, another date for a first draft, and a third deadline for the final paper? That works. Use it.
How ambitious a target should you set? Think Goldilocks — a medium challenge is what energizes us most. When a target seems too easy, we don’t adequately prepare. And if it seems impossible, our motivation gets extraordinary renditioned to another country. Choose a target that’s difficult, but doable.
(To learn the 5 secrets neuroscience says will make you emotionally intelligent, click here.)
Having a goal and target helps create motivation. But the only thing less reliable than my phone’s bluetooth connection is my ability to sustain that drive. So how do you maintain motivation?
Monitor Your Progress
As we keep working, motivation almost inevitably declines. Here’s where we can utilize an aspect of human psychology that’s normally a negative: “the sunk cost fallacy.” It’s the human tendency to keep working on something simply because we’ve already invested in it. It’s usually a negative because it can lead us to throw good money after bad…
But with our goals it can be a positive. By regularly reviewing your progress you can activate the sunk cost fallacy and resist the urge to quit. “I’ve already done this much; might as well keep going.”
When writing my second book I would print out my completed pages every day and stack them next to me. I never edit on paper so there was no practical need to do that. But I could look at that stack when I needed a reminder of why I was working so hard – which was pretty often.
(To learn how to raise emotionally intelligent kids, click here.)
Now we need to discuss a serious problem that rarely gets mentioned. It’s a reason many of us quit. But by understanding it better, we can solve it…
Beware The Long Middle
We feel motivated at the beginning of a project and later we get another burst of motivation when we see the end in sight. It’s that middle ground that’s dangerous.
Middles can feel like they’re never going to end. They cause that same frustration you feel when the people you’re cyberstalking on social media don’t post frequently enough. But we have two tricks that can help…
First, when tracking your progress through the first half of a project, look back. As we discussed, reviewing what you’ve accomplished keeps you going. (“I only have to do 60 minutes on the treadmill and 20 minutes are done. Keep going, Eric.”) But then when you pass the midpoint, flip it. (“I only have to do 60 minutes on the treadmill and only 20 minutes are left. Keep going, Eric.”) Research shows this perspective shift helps. It’s like fabric softener for your emotions when challenges get hard.
The second trick is structural. Since middles are hard, shorten the middle. Use weekly goals instead of monthly goals. And stay the heck away from annual goals. This way when you’re tired and Temptation flashes you a sociopathic smile that’s all “Hello, Clarice” you know you don’t have far to go before the close-to-the-end motivation boost kicks in.
(To learn how to rewire your brain for happiness, click here.)
Now let’s go big picture. A perspective shift of the highest order. One that’s less about how the project is going, and more about who you are…
Think About Your Future Self
Don’t cock that unibrow at me. Yeah, I know it sounds corny. But this works. Students who were told to write a letter to their future selves increased their propensity to exercise. When we spend more time thinking about the future, we make better choices in the present.
Don’t think about the immediate result of you procrastinating, quitting, or cutting corners. Instead, think about the total effect of being the kind of person who routinely takes those easy ways out.
From Get It Done:
So instead of asking yourself whether it’s okay to procrastinate, cheat, smoke, or drink today, you should ask yourself whether it’s okay to do so for the rest of your life. Multiplying a small temptation by the number of times you would succumb to it in the course of your life will surely make it too large to ignore.
Or another way to frame it: Is this the kind of person I want to be? A study of Stanford students showed that when a behavior is associated with an identity we don’t want to hold, we’re far less likely to keep engaging in it. I hate to sound like your childhood tee-ball coach but “Do you want to be a quitter?”
We often act like the person we are is fully formed and complete but that’s not the case. You’re perpetually under revision. Beware the deleterious effects of your day-to-day behaviors. They become habits.
(To learn the 4 harsh truths that will make you a better person, click here.)
Okay, we’ve covered a lot. Time to round it up and learn one last trick to boost motivation that will help you – and help others. Don’t worry; it’s deliciously easy…
Here’s how to get motivated:
- Define Goals Properly: Ends, not means. Make them abstract. Approach, don’t avoid. This is how you stop goals from becoming chores. And work from intrinsic desire. You don’t wanna go through life like that kid in the elementary school play who obviously doesn’t want to be there.
- Set A Target: Use specific numbers. Set too easy a target and you’ll slack off. Making the target impossible is the most potent paralytic agent known to humankind. Make targets difficult but doable, Goldilocks.
- Monitor Your Progress: Review your progress to get the sunk cost fallacy pushing you forward. Stack those pages. (You’re almost done with this blog post, Eric. Don’t quit now.)
- Beware The Long Middle: The middle of a project can be worse than the middle seat on an airplane. Once you pass the midpoint, flip from reviewing progress made to monitoring the shrinking amount of work left. And use shorter duration goals to reduce the middle altogether.
- Think About Your Future Self: You don’t want Future You cursing at Present You. Think about the future. Think about who you want to be. And be that person now.
Obviously, I overcame my own motivation crisis and got my second book done. I picked up my laptop (a device I have an abusive and codependent relationship with) and did the work. How did I do it? I focused on that intrinsic desire. I took the time to look at what I wanted to accomplish and fell in love with it again. The questions I was curious about, the desire to help others better understand our crazy relationships, and the need to tell even more snarky jokes.
So what’s that final easy way to boost motivation? Give others advice on the subject you’re struggling with.
From Get It Done:
Research suggests that giving advice can help you regain motivation and restore confidence. To give advice, you have to search your memory to figure out what you’ve learned about how to (or not to) go about your goal. This memory search reminds advisors just how much they know. Further, in the process of giving advice, you form specific intentions and lay out concrete plans of action, both of which increase motivation.
In fact, experiments have shown that the giver gets more benefit than the receiver. (And you thought I wrote this long blog post just to help you. HA!)
When we get motivated, we can do the things necessary to live a full and happy life, successful and secure, surrounded by those we love and… Good God, I sound like an ad for an insurance company. Okay – if you don’t get motivated you’re going to end up with 50 kilograms of pure, uncut regret. (Insurance ads never say that.)
Seriously — if you really, really think about it, which I really, really have, you want to look back on your life and be able to list the accomplishments you’re proud of. The longer and more meaningful that list, the less frequently the Regret Demons will pay a visit.
Get energized. Vanquish those big goals. Finish things you’re proud of. Your accomplishments will become the shrapnel of your detonating awesomeness. And then you can rest with a smile.
My book got done. This post got done. Finally – it’s time for a juice box and a nap.