How to keep yourself motivated

What do you call something that includes a goal, rules, obstacles, feedback, and voluntary participation?Here's where this definition comes from, and here's where you can find an example illustrating the five points.

A game!

How hard is it to stay motivated to play a game?  Finding the motivation to stop playing is sometimes the greatest challenge in video games.

We can learn the secrets to staying motivated at work from games.  To find our motivation we also need to ask three questions: Why, what, and how?

Start with why

This is the most fundamental component of motivation.  To maximize the chances of success, make sure the goal harmonizes with the following:

Hugo M. Kerr of UC Berkeley developed the "3C" model of motivation.  According to this model, the metaphor of “head”, “heart” and “hand” represent the three components: explicit (self-attributed) motives, implicit (unconscious) motives, and perceived abilities.Kehr, H. M. (2014). Das 3K-Modell der Motivation. In J. Felfe (Ed.), Psychologie für das Personalmanagement: Vol. 27. Trends der psychologischen Führungsforschung. Neue Konzepte, Methoden und Erkenntnisse (pp. 103–116). Göttingen: Hogrefe.  

It's easy to see why abilities are crucial to motivation.  Not being able to keep up with the challenge of a game can make one lose interest.  If you can't keep up with the demands of a challenging work project, you may be discouraged or even fail entirely.

Expectancy theory also includes ability as one of the key factors.  Furthermore, the ability to achieve the desired results and sufficient control over the outcome are important.  Finally, the person must have a high degree of confidence that the reward will follow the desired outcome and believe the reward will be worth the effort.For evidence that supports this theory, see Barba-Sánchez, V., & Atienza-Sahuquillo, C. (2017). Entrepreneurial motivation and self-employment: evidence from expectancy theory. International Entrepreneurship and Management Journal, 13(4), 1097–1115. and Cohen-Chen, S., & Van Zomeren, M. (2018). Yes we can? Group efficacy beliefs predict collective action, but only when hope is high. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 77, 50–59.

Another factor that determines success is adequate preparation.  A 2016 paper about the impact of human behavior on planning commented:

There is a growing body of evidence that implementation intentions that are formed after engaging in mental contrasting are more meaningful (more integrative) and more effective for reaching goals than forming implementation intentions alone.Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., & Oettingen, G. (2016). Pragmatic Prospection: How and Why People Think about the Future. Review of General Psychology, 20(1), 3–16.

In other words, when people use the WOOP method of anticipating obstacles and planning for them, as discussed in this article, they are much more likely to succeed.  Also, certain qualities such as persistence and willingness to take risks, hallmarks of a well-rounded person, increase the likelihood of success.

Planning is most successful when regrets and other negative emotions are anticipated.  Using visualization can be a powerful tool in this process.

Additionally, social factors affect motivation.  Feeling that one's efforts will help others can be very motivating.  Social norms are also powerful motivators, for better or for worse.  

Note that so far, we've introduced three of the elements of satisfying gameplay to our recipe for sustained motivation: goals, obstacles, and voluntary participation. We'll include the other two below.

Now decide what

According to the 2016 paper quoted above, "A plan has a narrative structure in that one step leads to the next, with an ending envisioned. The steps are designed to cause a desired outcome." In other words, you need to create a process.  In the authors' experience, neither vague plans nor highly specific ones prove to be helpful. Plans that were moderately specific produced the best results, since they were more flexible.

Keys to success here include:

  • Establishing standard practices (the rules of the game)
  • Frequent feedback
  • Rapid adaptation
  • Not trying to take on too much at once
  • Enjoying the process

Smart, self-motivated people recognize that having a rewarding goal in mind isn't enough in most cases.  They learn to enjoy and benefit from the process itself:

  • Lessons learned along the way
  • The chance to try new methods of doing things
  • Personal growth

Start as small as possible and aim for a rapid product cycle with frequent opportunities for feedback from customers.  Not only does this reduce risk, it reduces the chance that you will become overly invested in unproductive ideas and strategies.  Once you've found something that works, you can start to scale it up.

Don't abandon the process too soon if it doesn't seem to be working.  Productivity guru James Clear writes, "Most of the mistakes that people assume are Failures of Vision [the why] are actually Failures of Strategy [the what]."  Consider the example of Edison and the lightbulb.  He realized his vision only after trying unsuccessfully one thousand times.

Failure is your friend.  Plan for it.  Embrace it.  Fail small, fail often, and win big.

The how

Start with a vision, create a process, and carefully develop your tactics.  This is the execution stage.  Clear offers the following advice for this stage:

  • Build robust systems
  • Measure carefully
  • Don't overlook the details

Remember the rules and feedback from our game analogy?  They apply here too.  Record each step in the process and measure the outcomes.  Make adjustments as needed to keep the process running smoothly.

Play it in reverse

Do you struggle to stay motivated?  Then look at your how, your what, and your why, in that order.  View rules and obstacles as allies rather than adversaries.  Try to keep your original vision in mind as well as you did the day you started.  Maximize feedback as much as possible every step of the way.

Above all things, try to enjoy the process. But if you've followed all the advice in this article, maybe it's time to reconsider.  After all, you have more than one possible future self.