Building Your Motivational Muscle

Start With Warmups

Care For Yourself: Motivation starts with taking care of your own personal needs. Your body requires hydration, nutrition, sleep, regular breaks, and exercise. Disregard the pundits who share "hero stories" ignoring these requirements. Give yourself bonus credit for taking care of yourself first.

If you need help addressing these needs, try the tips below. They help with your personal goals just as much as -- if not more than -- work deadlines. You CAN change your perspective and build better habits!

Quick Sprints

When you have a one-time task that needs to get done, it is more useful to just get through it than it is to build a motivational case. Here are two great ways to deal with an unrewarding task.

Pomodoro technique: Block 30 minutes on your calendar. Set a countdown timer for 25 minutes. During the allotted time, you must only work on the task -– no interruptions, no distractions. If you just can't do it, sit there until the timer goes off. After 25 minutes, take a 5 minute walk or stretch break. Most likely, you’ll find that 25 minutes of progress increases your motivation to continue – and you’re already that much closer to your goal.

Fast start: Before you leave work for the day, set yourself up for the next day by putting everything you need to make progress on ONE TASK right in the middle of your workspace. Have the forms you need for the task ready to go. Assemble whatever equipment you need. When you arrive the next day, do the task before you do anything else. Use this chance to break your habit of checking email or getting coffee. Use those as a reward for completing the task you need to do.

Reframe and Clarify Goals

Goal setting in a work environment is full of pitfalls. To counter these, consider some tools to reframe your thinking, fix your motivation, and improve your success.

Explore the Journey, Not the End Result
We often hear that motivation comes from some external target that is set for us, with some "carrot" designed to reward a result (and a "stick" in some cases when we miss, even if it isn't our fault).

Motivation for an external target (known as extrinsic motivation) goes away completely when the rewards or penalties are removed, so these tools only work in the short term at best.

Instead, think about setting small rewards for yourself that show progress and improvement. Even top performers get motivated by improvements and growth in their own abilities. Humans love to play games where the only reward is the chance to play the game again. Make the journey itself your reward and you'll naturally feel more motivated.

Create skill-building goals: Instead of setting a specific, quantitative end target, consider instead a skill-building goal. This way, you’ll monitor your PROGRESS rather than the quantitative result. Skill-building itself is intrinsically rewarding. You can always keep improving, and your skill improvements will contribute to the end results you are seeking.

SMART Goals Are Often Dumb: You may have been taught that you should set goals that are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound. However, this idea is a very narrow way to look at goals. SMART goals usually are too simple (because we don't like to fail) and don't reflect how circumstances change over time. Worst, although many people have heard of SMART goals, I haven't yet found anyone who thinks that they actually work. (Please let me know if you disagree!)

Instead, consider a model that uses CLEAR goals: Collaborative, Limited in scope, Emotional, Appreciable into smaller goals, and Refinable over time as you learn more. The CLEAR model aligns closely with all of the tips in this Motivational Muscle module.

For more information about CLEAR goals, check out this short article from Inc.:

Running the Long Race

For longer projects, you’ll want to have a reliable plan to sustain motivation over time. Here are some ways to improve motivation and build long-term habits.

Smallest Next Step: When facing a large task that has multiple stages and steps, don’t let yourself get overwhelmed by the scope of your goal. Instead, identify the smallest next step that will show progress, and do that next step. Taking one real step of progress makes the next steps easier to do.

Don’t Break The Chain. Some goals need ongoing repetitions in order to make a big difference. In order to sustain your motivation, make a commitment to do one thing every day that gets you closer to your goal, without deviation. Keep track on a simple chart like this:


If you stop, even for one repetition, you’ll have to start “the chain” again. Once you get rolling, you’ll find that the game of keeping the streak alive can overpower the procrastination and inertia that lowers your motivation.

Join a Team

Human beings are social creatures, but traditional managers often are hyperfocused on isolated, individualized goals. This creates feelings of loneliness and a win-lose competition where motivation disappears.

Counterbalance this error and build motivation by teaming with others and building your own supportive community in these ways:

Accountability Partners: Find at least one other person with a similar goal and hold each other accountable for results. Don’t make it a competition; instead, let each other know what you are trying to accomplish, share your progress, and help each other get through tough times and challenges.

Share the Work: Groups offer the potential for specialization on the tasks that align best to your skills and interests. Using your strengths in combination with other people’s strengths improves both motivation (enjoying the work you do) and results (using the best combination of skills). Plus, humans enjoy bonding socially, so you’ll have more fun!