The power within: Practical strategies to boost motivation

The power within: Practical strategies to boost motivation

The first couple of weeks of the year have come and gone. Many of us have created the space in our day to advance on them, and persevered, although it is challenging to be consistent.

When we miss a day or two, our determination decreases, making it more difficult to start again. It is demotivating and frustrating when we see little progress.

Why is it difficult to follow through?

When we notice we are making slow progress, it is difficult to see how long it will take us to finish the task. Sometimes, we have not accounted for the possibility of setbacks, and when these happen they can catch us by surprise.

When we allow for setbacks we can prepare for them, and acknowledging them helps us deal with our emotions (Deci & Ryan, 2000).

We have a decision to make whether to move forward or stay in the status quo. We all experience this internal struggle, and we can spend a lot of time wondering what to do.

Sometimes, we are unclear about what is required, or we think the task is too difficult. This can lead to us questioning our ability to do it well, and we start to imagine negative outcomes reducing our motivation (Deci, 1995).

Rather than waiting for the conditions to be right, it is best to do something to make progress. Deciding to take action can be difficult because of the uncertainty of how things will unfold.

To work on complex tasks we need a lot of energy to manage our thoughts and feelings, which is necessary to focus our attention on our work. When we are tired, we have less patience which is essential to persevere.

In addition, when worrying about these situations, we can lose sight of alternative ways of dealing with obstacles. It can also lower our confidence in our ability to achieve our goals.

We are constantly influenced by our digital devices providing easy access to an enormous amount of information. As a result, it is easy to get distracted by searching various websites or scrolling through social media. This makes it more difficult to focus on our task.

As a result, our progress is slower than we want. It can be very frustrating as we know it is in our hands to choose what we pay attention to. When we get distracted we can ask “Is this action helping me get closer to my goal?”

Our expectations influence our motivation. It is unrealistic to expect that we should be able to master a highly complex task on the first attempt, without mistakes. It can affect our confidence in our ability, and as a result, we may not take the risk of learning new things for fear of failure.

This is characteristic of a fixed mindset, where having to work hard may indicate we do not have the ability to manage the task (Dweck, 2017). We can overcome our fears by approaching the task with curiosity and viewing the effort required as a challenge.

What keeps us motivated?

Research on motivation shows that nurturing intrinsic motivation increases our interest and desire to engage in a task. Trust in our abilities, and confidence in our determination to pursue a goal, is strengthened when we have a sense of purpose and meaning (Deci, 1995).

Noticing our progress boosts our motivation, enabling us to persevere with the task. This ability to be consistent with our efforts is called grit – the belief in our ability to deal with obstacles and get things done. It requires us to tolerate uncertainty, manage emotions, and hope our dedication and hard work will pay off.

However, we need to be careful not to focus solely on what we want to achieve or we are likely to be disappointed. Research indicates that when we focus on wishing for a positive outcome, we are less likely to achieve the results expected. What makes a difference is using what Oettingen (2014) calls mental contrasting. That is, when we take time to identify obstacles and prepare for them.

For example, we may be fearful of making mistakes or worry about possible negative consequences. We can use our capacity to visualise and contrast what we hope to achieve with potential obstacles to plan for them and be prepared. Thinking about possible problems is not pessimism, but realistic.

Goals, to be motivating, need to be moderately challenging to engage us. If they are too easy, we do not learn or develop skills, and if they are too complicated, we are unlikely to follow through.

We soon get bored with easy tasks because they do not stimulate our curiosity – we need a challenge, but not too difficult that we feel we cannot do it (Locke and Latham, 2006).

Relying on our self-efficacy – when we believe we can manage the task – we can persevere with our efforts (Bandura, 1997).

We can develop self-control through practice. We need the energy to regulate our emotions so that we can tolerate frustration, deal with distractions and persevere with our efforts.(Halverson, 2010).

If we expect to achieve the goal, and pay attention to the progress we are making, we are more likely to increase our efforts. This way, we align our actions with our identity as a person who commits to and achieves meaningful goals. 

Strategies to boost motivation:

Focus on purpose: Connecting with the larger picture, what matters to us, helps us keep perspective. Having a purpose guides our decisions, enabling us to tolerate challenges and manage uncertainty.

We are naturally curious, and novelty draws our attention, keeping us motivated (Pink, 2009). Exploring different aspects of the task can keep us interested. We can ask ourselves, “What other ways can I find to view this task or problem?” “What assumptions am I making?” “What evidence supports/is against my plan/action?”

Visualise the goalCreating mental representations of the goal we want to achieve, or the behaviour we want to change, engages us to persevere (Baumeister, 1996). For example, imagine researching a project, writing notes or telling a story.The more detailed the steps, the more likely we will follow through with the task.

Make an active choice: When we view the task as an obligation, we are reluctant to work on it. Instead, thinking of it as something we choose to do changes our attitude towards the task.

A different perspective can provide a fresh look: “What makes it so hard?” “Do we need more information or guidance?” “Do we need resources?”

We like autonomy and being able to choice. It is the key to self-determination and resilience (Deci & Ryan, 2000). Reminding ourselves that to learn new things it is necessary to stretch beyond our comfort zone enables us to deal with challenges (Molinsky, 2017).

Build confidence in your ability: When we believe the task is meaningful, we are more motivated by the task itself. We can tap into our experience: “What similar situations may provide information for this task/problem?

When we believe we can choose to do it, and know we can persevere with our efforts, we are more likely to achieve our goals. This is referred to as having an internal locus of control (Deci, 1995).

When we have a sense of control and belief in our capabilities, we can manage challenges (Bandura, 1997). It includes reaching out to those we trust for guidance and support, and who may offer a different perspective on the situation.

By gathering information, we can build our resources and motivation to make the necessary changes to complete our task.

Practice self-compassion: Being kind to ourselves, like we are to our best friends, helps deal with challenges and manage pressure, reducing stress.

Self-compassion means acknowledging that we are human beings, that we can experience a range of emotions, including frustration, anger, sadness, and that this is part of our human condition (Gilbert & Choden, 2013).

Giving space to our emotions, without judgment, can help us manage them, and see them as a sign that something of value is at stake. They will indicate what matters to us so we can improve things (Neff, 2011).

Picture of two puppiesHowever, we can be very self-critical when we make mistakes, or if we compare ourselves to others who seem to be doing things better. As our work is still in progress, it is premature to evaluate it by comparing it to a finished product.

When critical thoughts appear, we can remind ourselves that the priority is to add to our draft and gradually move it forward. It is easier to manage challenges when we remember that it takes several iterations to achieve a good result.

How we define failure affects how we react to events. When we believe we should avoid failure we are less likely to take risks and feel apprehensive about the possible negative consequences that may follow.

To respond to failure constructively, we can adopt a scientific approach. It involves experimenting through trial and error, a method that shows us what works and what does not. As we review the steps we took we can identify where things went wrong, and use the information to improve our work. As we notice our progress, our motivation will increase (Dweck, 2016).


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Business School Publishing.

Bandura, A. (1997) Self-Efficacy. The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1992) Flow. The classic work on how to achieve happiness. London: Ryder.

David, S. (2016) Emotional agility. Get unstuck, embrace change, and thrive in work and life. Great Britain: Penguin Life.

Deci, E.L. (1995) Why we do what we do. Understanding self-motivation. New York: Penguin.

Deci, E.L., & Ryan, R.M. (1985) Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behaviour.
         New York: Plenum Press.

Halvorson, H. G.(2010) Succeed. How we can reach our goals. New York: Hudson Street Press.

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2006). New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(5), 265–268.

Dweck, C. (2017) Mindset. Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential. Updated edition. New York: Ballantine Books.

Gilbert, P. & Choden, (2013) Mindful compassion. Using the power of mindfulness and compassion to transform our lives. Great Britain: Robinson.

Molinsky, A. (2017) Reach. How to build confidence and step outside your comfort zone. Great Britain: Penguin.
Pink, D. (2009) Drive. The surprising  truth about what motivates us. New York: Riverhead Books.

Oettingen, G. (2015) Rethinking positive thinking. Inside the new science of motivation. New York: Current.

Pink, D. (2009) Drive. The surprising truth about what motivates us. Edinburgh: Canongate.

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