By Kara Dennison, SPHR
Motivation is what inspires us to take action and go after goals. It can be either intrinsic (originating from within oneself) or extrinsic (driven by external factors), but it’s essential if we’re to achieve what we set out to do.
What, then, if you’re feeling unmotivated? Burnout, failure, rejection — any number of things can rob us of our direction and our motivation, especially when it comes to our careers. But all is not lost! There are ways to get and stay motivated, and it starts with understanding the factors that drive motivation in the first place.
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Motivation is crucial for success, driving us to accomplish goals, overcome obstacles and stay focused and committed. It can help us find fulfillment. Without motivation, we struggle to find energy, passion and enthusiasm, which can lead to procrastination or failure.
While it’s powerful, motivation isn’t magic. Feeling motivated depends on specific factors for its existence; specifically, biological, psychological, social and environmental factors.
Knowing that multiple factors influence motivation, it’s important to capitalize on ways to increase motivation in each area.
For neurodivergent individuals, motivation can get held up by task initiation or executive dysfunction. This can lead to a lot of anxiety, fear and feelings of low self-worth. It’s almost like a roadblock to being the high achiever you are at heart.
As a high-achieving leader with ADHD myself, I have figured out the following hacks for finding and boosting biological motivation.
1. Trigger the achievement-dopamine cycle. Taking action on something will usually trigger the dopamine hit I need to increase my pleasure and adrenaline centers, leading me to want to repeat the achievement-dopamine cycle. If you’re staring at a list of things to do and can’t find the energy to get started, pick the easiest or quickest task to complete. Alternately, you can set a 10-minute timer and do an unrelated task to get started. Or you can even write down a task you already accomplished, and cross it off the list to trigger that feeling of accomplishment.
2. Work the rewards system. Biologically, getting a reward triggers that dopamine hit. This is why crossing things off lists feels so good! I like to set myself up with a reward I can look forward to on particularly tough days. This could be a favorite dessert after dinner, an episode of my latest Netflix binge or quality time with my spouse.
3. Work with your body, not against it. We all have a finite level of energy each day. A while back I audited my daily tasks to better understand and manage my energy levels. I implemented a regimented morning routine based on feeling my best, which allows me to have higher energy levels throughout the day. The takeaway? Address the tasks you have the energy for, and plan for tomorrow.
4. Set yourself up for success. I find that setting personal deadlines days or weeks in advance of due dates is critical for low-energy days, as it creates extrinsic tension and motivates me to complete tasks.
When we’re excited about a project, it can be easy to get started because the passion is the driving force behind our motivation.
It’s also possible for anxiety to motivate us, as anyone who’s had a deadline knows.
Emotions, in other words, can build motivation. But the kind of emotion we leverage matters. Negative emotions might help motivate in the short term, but they can cause a reverse effect in the long term. Why? Because we start associating fear and anxiety with accomplishing tasks.
To counteract negative emotions and increase motivation psychologically, adding relaxation techniques such as yoga, deep breathing and meditation to your daily routine can help reduce anxiety.
Personally, I’ve adopted a meditation routine each morning. This allows me to really think through my tasks for the day and understand why I’m feeling anxious about a particular task before I attempt to start it.
Adding therapy and coaching has allowed me to understand the reasoning behind my fears and anxieties. From there, I can work through them and heal in a safe and supported environment. If you find anxiety and fear are stalling your motivation, it couldn’t hurt to get some professional insight.
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What you value (your “why,” in other words) is the most critical factor in getting motivated.
When it comes to tackling something on your to-do list, ask yourself why you’re doing it and how it aligns with your values. In fact, creating a list of your core values will help you make connections to your list of tasks and build motivation to accomplish them.
If your task is doing the dishes, for example, maybe something you value is your family. Visualizing the love you have for your family can help drive your desire to complete the task.
Having accountability partners will also help build extrinsic motivation. This is why coaching is helpful for so many people. Asking friends or co-workers to check in with you after a certain amount of time also works. The desire to share your accomplishments can increase motivation to start checking things off your lists.
Our environment and resources can play a big role in building motivation. If you walk into your workspace and feel overwhelmed, for example, it might be time for change. Take a look around to audit which things inspire you and align with your values, and which things leave you feeling overwhelmed. Get rid of things that negatively impact you so that your environment aligns with and supports your work.
From there, ask yourself whether you have the right resources. If not, what tools, education, training, mentoring or coaching could benefit you? Getting the right support and resources will help eliminate distractions, increase your focus and give you the ability to increase your personal motivation.
In my office, I’ve added ambient music and lighting to get me in a good headspace. I also use the Do Not Disturb function on my phone to minimize distractions.
For those of us who are neurodivergent, and even for those who aren’t, the INCUP method is effective at building motivation.
INCUP stands for interest, novelty, challenge, urgency and passion. These five areas can help with task initiation, and they can drive meaning behind motivation:
1. Interest: Take on tasks in areas of interest. For example, if you love numbers, working on your data or financial tasks first can help drive motivation. If you’re creative, working on projects that feed your creativity can help build motivation momentum.
2. Novelty: Make a boring or routine task different and new. For instance, try conducting an ongoing job search from different coffee shops with free Wi-Fi. Or create different playlists to listen to while doing administrative tasks.
3. Challenge: Adopt a gamified approach to projects by setting small and large milestones and then creating goals and rewards. Write them down and check them off to increase your confidence and feel empowered.
4. Urgency: Boost your consistency and motivation by creating a project plan with actionable daily tasks that have deadlines. This makes it easier to show up for yourself. It might even help you complete your task or project ahead of schedule!
5. Passion or play: Shift from “I have to do” to “I get to do” by engaging in activities that make you feel passionate or excited. Add in elements of fun or play if needed, to increase your happiness and alignment.
In the end, motivation is dynamic and requires self-awareness and effort. The right tools, rewards, environment and techniques to get motivated and stay motivated will be different for each person and will depend on your environment, your values and your emotions. But if you put in the time to understand what best motivates you, and you work according to that knowledge, you’ll not only accomplish more, but you’ll do it in a way that aligns with who you are.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kara Dennison is a certified Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR), an executive career and Leadership coach and a Forbes contributor. She’s the CEO of Optimized Career Solutions. Her dream job is helping high achievers and leaders live authentic lives, starting with their careers. When she’s not writing for University of Phoenix or coaching high achievers and leaders, you can find her hanging out with her husband and two black cats or swinging in the hammock out back in her small, remote town in Tennessee.
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