Hamilton Lindley Motivation After You Have Lost It

Some days, motivating myself is tricky. No amount of inspirational posters or caffeine can inspire me over the slump. So how can we keep going on even when we don’t feel like it? Researchers have discovered strategies. They recommend setting intrinsically satisfying specific goals. Reward yourself in the right way for getting things done, break goals into subgoals, and practice social influence.

Design Goals, Not Chores

When we have specific goals, we get more done. “Doing your best” isn’t good motivation. Instead, setting concrete goals like 15 new customers per month or one hour of daily exercise are more effective. Objectives that you set for yourself or agree to should be specific. 

Most of us are compelled to work hard each day not by the small, short-term goals, but by big-picture objectives. Research shows that motivation driven by intrinsic desires produces better performance than extrinsic motivation. The more we want to get something done, the less we call it “work.” So find the intrinsic reason for your job. An action is intrinsically motivated when it’s seen as its own end. This is in contrast to extrinsic motivation, which has a separate purpose. Something is extrinsically motivating when it helps you avoid punishment or provides a reward. So focus on the parts of the work that you do find fun. 

If you are leading others, you need to know how to spark their intrinsic motivation. Don’t use “if-then” incentives because those are extrinsic motivators that aren’t effective. Instead, spark a sense of autonomy. Let them choose a project that they want to work on. Give assignments that are incrementally above the skill level of the employee, so that they can develop mastery into the subject matter. And spark a sense of purpose. Work must be about more than just making money.

Find Effective Rewards

There are stretches of our work life that are onerous. In those situations, it is helpful to create rewards that complement the incentives granted by your company. Positive imagery is a powerful way to remain inspired to advance. Think about your goals every day. Imagine your life once you’ve reached your professional goals, and use these images to motivate yourself. A year from now you will wish that you had started today. 

But avoid incentives that create bad habits. Some of our rewards provide a license to give in to temptation, setting us further back. If your reward for shining at work one week is to allow yourself to slack off the next, you will undermine the positive impression. One mistake is to reward yourself for the number of completed tasks or speed. An accountant who treats himself for completing his auditing projects quickly may create more mistakes. A salesperson concentrating on maximizing sales instead of repeat customers will inevitably create unhappy clients.  

Some incentives are more effective than others. For instance, in some situations, we work harder for uncertain rewards instead of certain rewards. In these experiments, researchers believe that the uncertain reward is more challenging. Loss aversion can also be a strong external motivator. In a study, people were asked to walk 7,000 steps a day for six months. Some people were paid $1.40 for each day they reached their goal, while others lost $1.40 if they didn’t. The losing group hit their everyday target 50% more often. There are also services that will help you commit to a loss if you don’t achieve your goal. For example, donating to a despised political party if you don’t quit smoking.

Sustain Progress

We usually have a burst of motivation at the beginning of a new goal. Then we slump in the middle and never meet the end. So the solution is to find “short middles.” Break your quarterly targets into weekly or daily tasks. That way there is less time to meet your goals. We tend to increase effort when a goal seems within reach. This is why consumers in loyalty programs spend more when they’re closer to earning a reward. 

Goals should be like donut holes. Before you know it, you’ve eaten a dozen. You should have big dreams. But make break down those dreams into bite-sized goals. That way you’ll feel the progress in your journey into dream achievement. 

Imagine that your starting point is further back in the past. That project started the first time it was proposed, not the first time you took action. Focus on what you’ve already done. Then turn your attention to what you have left to complete. 

This can work for routine tasks (such as sending out 20 thank-you notes) in addition to more qualitative goals (becoming an expert guitar player). That thank you note writer can gain motivation by telling herself how many she’s sent until she passes 10, then counts down how many she has left to do. In the same way, a novice guitar player should focus on all the skills he has gained in his early stages of growth. Then focus on the remaining technical challenges that he needs to master.

Harness the Influence of Others

We are social animals. That is why we look to see what others are doing. 

Just sitting next to a high-performing employee can increase our performance. But our reactions are more complex when it comes to motivation. We react in one of two ways when we see a coworker racing through a task that leaves us frustrated: (1) we’re encouraged and then try to copy that behavior; or (2) we lose motivation on the premise that we could leave the task to our peer. So how can we use this dynamic to bolster motivation? Don’t passively watch successful, ambitious, efficient, coworkers. Instead, ask them what they’re trying to achieve and why they recommend it. Listening to what your role models say about their goals can help you find extra inspiration and raise your sights.

Another way to boost motivation is to give advice. In an experiment, people struggling to reach a goal assumed that they needed expert advice. But those who offered their knowledge to others did better because they laid out detailed strategies they could follow themselves.

A final way to harness positive social influence is to recognize that the people who will best motivate you to accomplish certain tasks are not necessarily those who do the tasks well. Instead, they’re folks who share a big-picture goal with you: close friends and family or mentors. Thinking of those people and our desire to succeed on their behalf can help provide the powerful intrinsic incentives we need to reach our goals. A woman may find drudgery at work rewarding if she feels she is providing an example for her daughter; a man may find it easier to stick to his fitness routine if it helps him feel more vibrant when he is with his friends.


As a species, we are inherently lazy. We’re hardwired to find the most efficient resources to conserve our energy, which is why when choosing between watching TV or going for a run, so many of us plop down on the couch. It’s our nature. When we are fully immersed in an activity with energized focus and enjoyment, we find our state of flow. It can help to tap the power of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. Self-motivation is one of the toughest skills to learn, but it’s vital to your success.