How to Stay Motivated – Or Make Peace Without It

Research shows motivation can be protected, but also isn’t necessary to get work done

March 16, 2022
Behavioral Science
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Distraction is everywhere. From endless emails to countless meetings, it can easily zap motivation. Ongoing research shows there are ways to protect motivation, and maybe even succeed in its absence.

Motivation is flighty and fickle, said Gráinne Fitzsimons, an experimental psychologist and professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, who discussed the ongoing research on Fuqua’s LinkedIn page.

“Structural things in the environment often drive then whether we feel motivated and whether we succeed, but I think we can develop some strategies to get around that,” Fitzsimons said.

Fitzsimons, who is conducting the research with Ph.D. student Jessica Paek, suggests that often, people expect steady progress when success doesn’t usually work that way. She gave the example of dieting: a person may lose two pounds one week but gain a pound another week.

Fitzsimons said even when people have the same amount of success over the same amount of time, they feel less motivated when there is bumpiness along the way.

For example, the researchers conducted one experiment in which about 400 participants completed a task for pay, with a goal to complete more than half of the work correctly. Participants earned a small bonus by meeting the goal.

Half of the participants had smooth progress towards earning the bonus and half had bumpy progress, Fitzsimons said. Even though the two groups had made the same amount of progress overall, the group making unsteady progress became less motivated because of that experience, she said.

However, initial studies show that when people expect unsteady progress, they don’t show that same drop in motivation. Because unsteady progress is much more common than steady progress, Fitzsimons suggested that people build in expectations for obstacles or delays when setting their goals.

“Being unrealistic and expecting steady progress is going to make it harder to stay motivated when you meet those inevitable bumps in the road,” Fitzsimons said.

Protect your motivation or work without it
Research offers many small strategies to keep motivation high despite situational challenges. For example, people could set up their work spaces with reminders of their goals. They can also review their goals at scheduled times and monitor their progress.

Accountability to others is another way to sustain motivation, Fitzsimons said.

“If your mom is counting on you to come through with something, you’re more likely to come through,” Fitzsimons said. “So those are the kinds of ways we can take advantage of motivation’s flightiness by sort of bolstering it.”

However, Fitzsimons suggested it can be helpful for people to know they don’t necessarily need motivation to complete tasks.

“Rather than focusing on keeping ourselves psyched up, and bolstering our motivation, and putting little motivating sticky quotes on our screens, my real suggestion to you is to consider thinking of motivation as something that’s lovely, nice to have, a gift from the universe – but not necessary to do what it is that you want to do,” Fitzsimons said.

Research has shown that just getting started can often bring motivation, Fitzsimons said, highlighting how many times, people aren’t motivated, but then start on a task anyway and begin to feel excited committed to the work.

Anyone who has ever dragged themselves to the gym has likely experienced this – people often feel motivation surge simply by getting started, she said.

“What if motivation is not a birthright, but a lovely reward from the universe that we can earn by doing things,” Fitzsimons said. “I think that framing of motivation is much more helpful than the one that has us sitting around and waiting for it to strike.”

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