Mastering motivation

Jul 03, 2018
Our drive to move forward changes daily – sometimes hourly! How do we get a grip on our motivation when it sometimes seems easier to do nothing at all?

By Paul Price

Last week, it took you one hour to read a thirty-page document, and you easily retained all the key points. Today, a similar document takes all morning and you retain almost nothing. Why? What is it that fuels our concentration? And why, even at times when we know we ‘have to’ perform, does it evade us?

This seemingly fickle ‘fuel’ that drives our concentration is called motivation. Coined as the ‘master aptitude’ by Daniel Goleman, motivation is, perhaps surprisingly, the part of EQ that is most manageable. But, before we set about trying to master our motivation, let’s first get a better sense of what it is. 

What motivates us?

Motivation is a combination of drive and effort; passion and commitment. It is what propels us towards our goals. Plato likened it to a chariot pulled by two horses, one spirited and wild, the other trained and noble. If we are to harness our passions we first not only need to gain awareness of them, but we also need to understand them. This is part of our continuing quest to expand our self-awareness.   We are, of course, also motivated by external factors. The most obvious one being financial reward. At work, salary increases, bonuses, share options, and promotions can be strong motivators until our physiological and safety (survival) needs are fully satisfied. In the long run, however, it is intrinsic motivators, those fuelled by our passions, that will sustain our performance. Positive intrinsic motivators include the six Cs: challenge, curiosity, control, cooperation, competition and commendation. Also, there are negative intrinsic motivators we should watch out for, including: fear, shame, guilt, envy and others. The watch-word for these is: ‘have to’; whenever we notice ourselves saying we ‘have to’ do something, we should examine our motivations. 

Know your reasons for doing what you do

It’s important to start paying attention to your experiences. Try to gain an early understanding of what inspires you and what makes you happy. These moments will help you discover your core values. Learning what you truly value in life will help you to do things for the right reasons. Simply knowing you’re doing what you want do rather than what you have to do will strengthen your resolve.

How to tweak our motivators

Let’s look at the simplified maths of motivation and performance: 

performance = ability x motivation 
where motivation = desire x commitment 
 and ability = aptitude x learning
where learning = cognitive change x motivation.

We recognise that the common denominator of almost every aspect of performance is motivation, and motivation we can master. Even aptitude and desire, which seem fixed by nature, can be modified over time by moving to a job that suits us better, a job we enjoy, a job in which we can actualise our potential and find what social psychologists call ‘flow’. 

Taking this into account, the motivation equation can be tweaked as follows: 

Optimal work performance = 
right fit x right attitude.

Find the career that fits

Finding a job that truly suits requires matching our aptitudes and desires with what we do. Done purposefully, this solves half the motivation equation. But finding such a match will likely require some measured experimentation. Try to discover early what makes you happy at work and create a career plan to maximise those aspects. As a young accountant, I tried insolvency and corporate finance in public practice before a stint in financial reporting finally led to venture capital, where I found a job I loved. 

Share your career aspirations with your employers and confide in professional mentors and peers. Let them help you in this process. 

Know your passions, stay committed

Doing a job you love certainly makes commitment easier. Charles Handy, an organisational behaviour expert, recommended that organisations replace their mission statements with ‘passion statements’. To excel as individuals, I believe we should do the same. However, shaping our career path to align with our values does not ensure that we will stay consistently positive. That requires special discipline and, of course, some self-compassion. Consider yourself a work-in-progress, always noticing, always learning. 

Top tips to help keep you motivated

  • Engage fully with tasks, stay emotionally present and open to others;
  • Seek connection, nurture affiliation and celebrate others’ achievements; 
  • Be curious, seek feedback and learn continuously;
  • Pursue information to reduce uncertainty;
  • Notice ways to improve; innovate, be entrepreneurial and take calculated risks;
  • Act purposefully and be ready to make reasonable sacrifice to reach important goals.
  • Celebrate your own successes too and, above all, always retain a sense of humour.