How to Keep Working When You’re Just Not Feeling It

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Motivating yourself is hard.

As Professor Ayelet Fishbachwrites in the November-December 2018 Harvard Business Review,“We all seem to have a natural aversion to persistent effort that no amount of caffeine or inspirational posters can fix.”

But effective self-motivation is one of the main things that distinguishes high-achieving professionals from everyone else.  So how can you keep pushing onward, even when you don’t feel like it?

To a certain extent, motivation is personal.  What gets you going, might not do anything for someone else.  And some individuals do seem to have more stick-to-itiveness than others.  However, after 20 years of research into human motivation, Fishbach and her team have identified several strategies that seem to work for most people—whether they’re trying to lose weight, save for retirement, or implement a long, difficult initiative at work.  If you’ve ever failed to reach an attainable goal because of procrastination or lack of commitment (and who of us hasn’t?), keep listening.  These following four sets of tactics can help propel you forward.

She starts with Tactic #1: Design Goals, Not Chores.

Ample research has documented the importance of goal setting. Studies have shown, for example, that when salespeople have targets, they close more deals, and that when individuals make daily exercise commitments, they’re more likely to increase their fitness levels.  Abstract ambitions—such as “doing your best”—are usually much less effective than something concrete, such as bringing in 10 new customers a month or walking 10,000 steps a day.  As a first general rule, then, any objectives you set for yourself or agree to should be specific.

Goals should also, whenever possible, trigger intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, motivation.  An activity is intrinsically motivated when it’s seen as its own end; it’s extrinsically motivated when it’s seen as serving a separate, ulterior purpose—earning you a reward or allowing you to avoid punishment.  Fishbach’s research shows that intrinsic motives predict achievement and success better than extrinsic ones do.

The trick is to focus on the elements of the work that you do find enjoyable.

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