How to Unlock Your Secret Source of Self-Motivation, According to Science

Mar 16, 2022 | Blog, Career, Entrepreneurship, Success

It is easy to set a goal —we do it all the time. Staying motivated to achieve those goals? Well, that’s a different story.

Take New Year’s resolutions, for instance — while 93% of people set them, only 8% of them actually find the inner-drive to follow through.

However, motivation is a better predictor or of career success than intelligence, ability, or salary — so we’d better get it right, for ourselves and for our teams.

Motivation isn’t some innate, God-given trait. Research shows that there are proven ways you can become self-motivated, even when the going gets tough.

The crux of the issue

Staying motivated is not automatic. We need to be intentional about our behaviors to be sure we stay on the right path.

Unfortunately, people often take the wrong direction in finding motivation — they blindly tie it to huge, unattainable goals and use all of their energy attempting to power through and get it done. In reality, this approach leads to burnout and waning willpower.

I’ve seen it time and again in entrepreneur groups I join: they’ll be motivated by some huge desire — to become the next Steve Jobs or disrupt the airline industry — yet do nothing to stoke their inner flame in the meantime. 

Instead, start by being specific and making it a challenge.

According to the American Psychological Association, people who set goals that are both specific and challenging are 90% more likely to achieve them. For instance, if the goal is “increase sales,” you could technically accomplish it with one more sale (or be left in permanent limbo as your sales increase more).

As I always tell my team, goals are dreams with deadlines. Here’s a more motivating example of the above:

“I will increase sales by 5% in the next six months by engaging with clients on a weekly basis, requiring my direct reports to do the same, and by tracking our progress on a monthly basis with the entire team.”

Being realistic with what you can achieve in a given amount of time is crucial to your success and for the morale and motivation of your team. 

Setting challenging goals is a major ingredient for success (even if you miss them). That’s why I encourage “reach” goals, which hit the Goldilocks level between realistic and “slightly out there.” That approach changes the paradigm: you didn’t fail, you simply reached higher than you did before.

Own it.

Having control and ownership of our work makes us more motivated to actually do it. 

Psychology Today explains how this phenomenon showed up in the form of a Betty Crocker box in the 1950s. During this time General Mills launched a Betty Crocker brand of “instant cake” — all you had to do was add water! To their surprise, the launch failed miserably.

How could it be!? After bringing in a team of psychologists, they discovered that their new instant cakes were not selling because women felt a lack of ownership in the process; they preferred taking a few extra steps to feel like they were contributing to the success of the project (or, in this case, the cake). So what did General Mills do? They added an egg! Yes, by simply adding an egg to lengthen the process, the sales of instant cake soared.

So how can we implement this insight with our teams or in the office? In your next staff meeting, try handing over the mic; have each member share what they have been working on and what they have achieved in the last few weeks. You may quickly start to notice that when people are given a chance to brag about what they are doing, they will work harder for a successful result.

Celebrate little wins.

Like most entrepreneurs, you probably have major — even audacious — long-term goals. But as you probably know, huge aspirations are rarely accomplished overnight.

Find the time to make a symbolic fist pump every day, instead of waiting to reward yourself solely at the finish line. As Tech co-founder Frank Gruber put it, “This is a journey — a hard one — and the only way to make it sustainable and bearable is if you actually acknowledge your small successes along the way.”

Reap the rewards.

“By fighting the small battles. I get joy in overcoming obstacles, and by celebrating after a small win. This includes rewarding myself for a job well done. You can get overwhelmed by focusing too much on the big picture.”

— Will Curran, President of Endless Entertainment

Just because we are all grown up, doesn’t mean that we no longer react positively to rewards. The next time you meet a goal or milestone, treat yourself.

Motivation expert Bob Nelson said, “You get what you reward” — and the same goes for your team. Studies show that when employees are continuously rewarded, they are more likely to feel valued, stay with the company, invest in the company, and feel committed to the company.

While raises and promotions have their time and place, I’ve found that tiny rewards are necessary and can be just as rewarding. So take the time to say thank you, cater lunch, or leave early on a Friday. 

Be accountable.

“Peer-to-Peer Accountability. This is a crucial step I take. Look for another business owner in the same or totally different profession that you can talk to on a weekly or daily basis if possible to discuss ideas, challenges, and triumphs. This is a great way to keep both parties accountable.” 

— Adam Martin, Founder of Laabn Social Haircare Inc.

An important part of goal-setting and staying motivated is holding yourself accountable. Research shows that after setting a specific goal, 70% of individuals who sent a weekly update to a friend were successful in meeting their achievements (met either halfway or fully), compared to the 30% who did not.

Tying it all together

Think about motivation as a mindset. The goal you are working towards doesn’t change, but the way you see it and think about it does. If needed, reframe the scope to something manageable, find a way to manage it yourself (even if it was delegated), hold yourself accountable, and remember to treat yourself when you achieve it.

Do you have any other tips to add, or have you tried any of these suggestions? I’d love to hear your thoughts — please leave a comment! 

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