Maybe it’s the change of seasons or possibly the increased travel, but lately, it’s felt more challenging than usual to get into a fluid productivity groove. Inevitably in nurturing a startup there’s an underlying sense of urgency and inherent lack of priorities and clarity in what the long-term outcome of today’s efforts will yield.
As we often do when confronted with a conflict, we sought out research-backed tactics to improve our motivation. While the ‘quick hacks’ are abundant, below are a few motivation tactics that resonated with us. A preliminary component that’s essential to each of these tactics is establishing measurable goals or milestones that you’re working towards.
1. Define the emotion you aspire to feel to focus your motivation.
Too often productivity recommendations don’t take into account emotions and feelings, which are the underlying drivers for why we do most everything as humans. Just having knowledge of a productivity hack isn’t enough to make lasting change. We must think in order to plan but feel in order to act.
Check-in with your current emotional state, what are your body and mind telling you? Could there be some underlying anxiety that you’re not facing that’s leading to procrastination? Are you feeling burnt out from work or other life stress that is causing fatigue and impacting your ability to focus?
Studies show we are more likely to procrastinate when we’re in a bad mood. So how do we shake that? After you’ve assessed your current emotional state, determine the feeling you want to have. In what other areas of your life are you naturally motivated, and what emotions are you embodying with those activities?
I’ll give you a for instance: running. No one is paying me to run. In fact, the act itself is rather mundane, but I’m chasing progress and visible improvement. I’m chasing the post-run endorphins and feelings of accomplishment that I’m working towards a broader goal of improving my marathon time.
How does one map this to work? It will vary by the individual, but in this example, the emotions I’m pursuing are progress, accomplishment, and potential opportunity. In applying this emotional lens to work I quickly realize I need to set some measurable milestones that I can start working towards since I haven’t consciously done so. I’m not good at mundane tasks, I much prefer novelty and figuring things out. However, just like those slow running days, the mundane tasks are what enable the ‘breakthrough’ accomplishments. It also helps to realize that every task has an expiration date, and as long as they are supporting the broader vision or strategy it’s essential to cross them off in order to uncover the potential opportunity.
2. Rewards: just like training a puppy, rewards work for humans too.
Rewards are more effective motivators when the task is extrinsically (externally) versus intrinsically (internally) driven. “Researchers find that perceived self-interest, the rewards one believes are at stake, is the most significant factor in predicting dedication and satisfaction toward work. It accounts for about 75 percent of personal motivation toward accomplishment.”
Write yourself a contract with mini-rewards for small tasks and a bigger reward for completing big tasks. I find when a big task is looming I’m much more likely to scroll Instagram or browse the sale page on Lululemon’s website. Without realizing it, I’ve created a habit of reaching for my phone and opening an app when I’m dreading the next item on my to-do list. It’s easy to validate these ‘breaks’, but instead of rewarding my brain for procrastinating, I need to reward my brain when it completes the things I don’t want to. It takes some willpower and practice, but it’s totally feasible to save these impulses for later in the day after I've checked off the necessary objective.
As far as bigger goals, these could be self-declared or established with your partner or colleague. Create a simple ‘if, then’ statement and post it somewhere visible so it incentivizes you. I’ll give you an example from our lives. Jason really wants a Peloton, however, they are quite expensive and an item I would categorize as luxurious. I’d love having one as well for convenience and cross-training. We decided if we hit a certain number in revenue for 2019 we’ll get one. If we don’t then we’ll settle for classes at a gym or rec center. Maybe it’s a trip to the day spa or prolonged vacation, it has to be something you REALLY want. Even if you can purchase it now, wait and commit to rewarding yourself with it once you accomplish something audacious.
3. Find an accountability partner.
Your accountability partner could be a coach, friend, or networking groups. Just identify someone who is close enough to your life and easy to keep a frequent line of communication with. Write down your goals and the steps to get there and share them with this person. A study conducted by Dr. Gail Matthews, a psychology professor at Dominican University in California, found that participants were 33% more likely to actually accomplish their goals when they wrote them down, shared them with another person, and then checked in with regular progress updates.
It’s important this person shows a bit of tough love and holds you to your tasks with fair, realistic expectations. In writing this I’m realizing I’m definitely lacking in this area. Working for yourself is empowering but also rather isolating, so it’s important I find another entrepreneur or networking group that I can check-in with. Now that I put it in writing, you can hold me to it!
4. Start with a dopamine-releasing activity then segway into your task.
This is similar to temptation bundling in that you’re pairing something that your brain intuitively likes with a task that is less desirable. That can be accomplished in a variety of ways, one of our favorites is starting the day with some form of exercise that you enjoy. Don’t make it a suffer-fest, find something that you enjoy whether it’s a group run, a yoga class, rock-climbing, or a walk to the coffee shop while listening to a podcast. Use this dopamine boost to lead right into work or to break up your day for an energy boost in the afternoon.
We’d be remiss not to mention eating dark chocolate has been shown to increase both serotonin, a neurotransmitter that promotes calm, and phenylethylamine, which promotes stimulation. Sorry, M&Ms don’t count, you need quality dark chocolate with low sugar and high cocoa count.
If your system handles it okay, coffee has also been shown to release dopamine, which will elevate your heart rate and significantly increase motivation. We’ve mentioned it before, but we like to have a cup first thing in the morning and another around 10 am when there’s a natural drop in cortisol. Other foods that fall into the ‘dopamine-releasing’ category are fruits and veggies (especially bananas), Omega-3 rich fish, almonds, walnuts, and unprocessed meats.
5. Create a fool-proof environment to focus your motivation.
It’s easy to be distracted by others in an open workspace or to procrastinate with household tasks when working from home. When something is pressing or you feel like you can’t get into a good workflow, you may need to change your environment.
Set dedicated, no distraction, work blocks on your calendar and stick to them! This means putting the phone on airplane mode, possibly disconnecting from WiFi, and finding a quiet distraction-free space. I use to do this when I worked at agencies and Uber since all promoted an open workspace (more on that in another blog post). I would find a small meeting room and bring all my supplies to get me through a solid 3-4 hour block and tell my coworkers I was relocating and would be back in the afternoon to answer any questions but would not be responding on chat until then.
Currently, when working from home I find having a dedicated room for an office is helpful, but if I am in a lull I like to go to a co-working space such as Kiln for a few hours knowing I’m there with a clear intention, and not leaving until the task gets completed. With headphones and self-regulating WiFi access, I’m not as likely to procrastinate since there are fewer distractions.
6. Imagine your future self and how today is leading to that version of you.
Let’s face it, life is full of things we just do not want to do. It’s a part of the human experience, however putting it into perspective has helped me get through tough times when I feel like quitting. I think about where I want to be in 5 or 10 years, and how powering through this day or week gets me closer to that persona rather than giving up. Sometimes I’ll listen to ‘How I Built This’ or watch a Ted Talk from other female entrepreneurs and put myself in their shoes. They’ve been through the mud and back and had to weather a lot of undesirable days in order to achieve success. The more accomplished individuals I’ve met, the more I realize success is primarily born of resilience and tenacity, rather than talent or inherent intelligence.
This tactic presents another great opportunity to write it down or put a picture up near your desk that shows the person or event that you aspire to become in 5 years. Researchers found that these “intertemporal markers” encourage us in two ways: by making people disconnect from past failures, and by promoting a big-picture view of life. A little perspective can go a long way when your outcome is aligned with your intrinsic purpose or ‘why’.
Based on writing this I see a few immediate areas I can make improvements:
Setting more measurable daily and weekly goals, and tracking my progress towards the larger vision.
Using my ‘distractions’ as micro-rewards throughout the day, and establishing a compelling macro-reward for the year.
Finding an accountability business buddy to check in with weekly.
Eating some dark chocolate (or other dopamine-releasing foods) with my breakfast after exercising.
Changing my environment to encourage greater efficiency.
Hanging a picture of the place I want to be in 5 years.
Finally, it’s important to note that if you’re having prolonged feelings of low motivation, no energy, etc. it could be caused by a hormonal imbalance, nutrient deficiency, or chronic poor sleep. It’s worth getting lab work done and strategizing with a doctor if you’re feeling like this for multiple months. Often our bodies are sending us signals we don’t want to listen too and you could be experiencing unnecessary suffering.
We’d love to hear what helps you get motivated during turbulent times!