Finally, loss aversion—people’s preference for avoiding losses rather than acquiring equivalent gains—can also be used to design a strong external motivator. In a 2016 study scientists from the University of Pennsylvania asked people to walk 7,000 steps a day for six months. Some participants were paid $1.40 for each day they achieved their goal, while others lost $1.40 if they failed to. The second group hit their daily target 50% more often. Online services such as StickK.com allow users to choose a goal, like “I want to quit smoking,” and then commit to a loss if they don’t achieve it: They have to donate money to an organization or a political party that they despise, for example.
How to Motivate Yourself: 10 Tips for Self Improvement
Setting a goal—anything from getting a degree or landing a new job to achieving a new level of physical fitness—is a big step toward improving your life. But following through to achieve what we’ve set out to accomplish can be challenging, especially on those days when motivation wanes. So how do you follow through on your commitments during those times when you just don’t feel like putting in the work?
Start a Gratitude Journal
This isn’t our first crisis, and it won’t be the last, so let’s take heart in gratitude for the simple pleasures in life. Appreciate that satisfying meal, the roof over your head, loving friends, and family. It’s easy to fall into the cycle of wanting more. Instead, build the habit of writing down three things you’re grateful for in your journal every day.
Think back to a time where you did something that you previously hadn’t thought possible. Maybe you earned a promotion, got an A in a class, or traveled solo. If it’s been a while since you stepped out of your comfort zone, go back to your childhood.
Remember how you learned to ride a bike when you were scared, made a new friend, or asked someone out even though you were shy. We’ve all overcome fear in the past, so keep it at the forefront of your mind as you learn how to increase motivation each day.
When people are working toward a goal, they typically have a burst of motivation early and then slump in the middle, where they are most likely to stall out. For instance, in one study observant Jews were more likely to light a menorah on the first and last nights of Hanukkah than on the other six nights, even though the religious tradition is to light candles for eight successive days. In another experiment, participants who were working on a paper-shape-cutting task cut more corners in the middle of the project than they did on their initial and final shapes.
Fortunately, research has uncovered several ways to fight this pattern. I refer to the first as “short middles.” If you break your goal into smaller subgoals—say, weekly instead of quarterly sales targets—there’s less time to succumb to that pesky slump.
A second strategy is to change the way you think about the progress you’ve achieved. When we’ve already made headway, the goal seems within reach, and we tend to increase our effort. For example, consumers in loyalty programs tend to spend more when they’re closer to earning a reward. You can take advantage of that tendency by thinking of your starting point as being further back in the past; maybe the project began not the first time you took action but the time it was first proposed.
Another mental trick involves focusing on what you’ve already done up to the midpoint of a task and then turning your attention to what you have left to do. My research has found that this shift in perspective can increase motivation. For example, in a frequent-buyer promotion, emphasizing finished steps (“you’ve completed two of 10 purchases”) increased customers’ purchases at the beginning, and emphasizing missing steps (“you are two purchases away from a free reward”) spurred consumption as buyers neared the goal.
This tactic can work for rote tasks (such as sending out 40 thank-you notes) as well as for more-qualitative goals (becoming an expert pianist). The person writing the notes can gain motivation from reminding herself how many she’s sent until she passes 20; then she should count down how many she has left to do. In the same way, a novice pianist should focus on all the scales and skills she has acquired in her early stages of development; then, as she improves, focus on the remaining technical challenges (arpeggios, trills and tremolos, and so on) she needs to master.
Harness the Influence of Others
Humans are social creatures. We constantly look around to see what others are doing, and their actions influence our own. Even sitting next to a high-performing employee can increase your output. But when it comes to motivation, this dynamic is more complex. When we witness a colleague speeding through a task that leaves us frustrated, we respond in one of two ways: Either we’re inspired and try to copy that behavior, or we lose motivation on the assumption that we could leave the task to our peer. This is not entirely irrational: Humans have thrived as a species through individual specialization and by making the most of their comparative advantages.
The problem is that, especially at work, we can’t always delegate. But we can still use social influence to our advantage. One rule is to never passively watch ambitious, efficient, successful coworkers; there’s too much risk that it will be demotivating. Instead, talk to these peers about what they’re trying to accomplish with their hard work and why they would recommend doing it. My research shows that when a friend endorses a product, people are more likely to buy it, but they aren’t likely to if they simply learn that the friend bought the product. Listening to what your role models say about their goals can help you find extra inspiration and raise your own sights.
Interestingly, giving advice rather than asking for it may be an even more effective way to overcome motivational deficits, because it boosts confidence and thereby spurs action. In a recent study I found that people struggling to achieve a goal like finding a job assumed that they needed tips from experts to succeed. In fact, they were better served by offering their wisdom to other job seekers, because when they did so, they laid out concrete plans they could follow themselves, which have been shown to increase drive and achievement.
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.
In positive psychology, flow is defined as a mental state in which someone is fully immersed, with energized focus and enjoyment, in an activity. Alas, that feeling can be fleeting or elusive in everyday life. More often we feel like Baron Munchausen in the swamp—struggling to move forward in pursuit of our goals. In those situations it can help to tap the power of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators, set incentives carefully, turn our focus either behind or ahead depending on how close we are to the finish, and harness social influence. Self-motivation is one of the hardest skills to learn, but it’s critical to your success.