Writing for the New York Times, Cameron Walker shares seven expert-backed ways you can find motivation amid burnout and challenges from the pandemic—or even just everyday slumps.
Stefano Di Domenico, a motivation researcher at the University of Toronto-Scarborough, says there are two kinds of motivation: controlled and autonomous.
Controlled motivation can be influenced by external forces, such as end-of-year bonuses, or internal forces, such as the desire to please others, Walker writes. In contrast, autonomous motivation is self-directed, driven by someone's "natural affinity" for a certain task or because they believe it's worthwhile.
According to Di Domenico, when people say that they've lost motivation, "what they really mean is 'I'm doing this because I have to, not because I want to.'" In other words, they are operating via controlled rather than autonomous motivation—and, when they feel they’re not in control, it's harder to stay motivated.
Walker writes that although rewards are not the best solution for boosting your motivation in the long term, several studies suggest that pairing small, immediate rewards to a task can improve motivation and make the task more fun.
For example, Lora Park, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Buffalo, used to run marathons before she had kids but now finds it difficult to find time to exercise before it gets dark. To motivate herself to work out on the treadmill in the evenings, she watches Netflix while she runs to make the experience more pleasant.
To build more lasting motivation, however, people have to move beyond small rewards, Walker writes. She cites Richard Ryan, a clinical psychologist who teaches at Australian Catholic University, who helped develop "self-determination theory," a well-known method to understanding motivation, which encourages people to take a deep look into their values to help them find lasting motivation.
According to Ryan, connecting what's important to you to what you need to do can make you feel more in control of your actions. To help you find your sense of purpose, Walker recommends asking yourself questions like, "What you love about your work?" and "What core value does it meet?"
When Walker considered her own values, she says a word that kept coming up was "connection," which she calls a "key part of motivation."
According to Park, the former marathon runner, social connections—whether it's family, friends, or just people in your community—are an important part of finding motivation, especially after the isolation many faced during the pandemic. "Without that fundamental connection, motivation just starts to wither," Park said.
So, if you're feeling "blah" at work, Walker suggests reaching out to colleagues to work together on a project, brainstorm together, or ask advice in an area that they are knowledgeable about—and she notes that reaching out also helps motivate others. "Letting someone know that you are thinking of them is enough to kick-start their motivation," Park said.
Another way people can motivate each other is through competition, Walker writes.
For example, she cites a 2016 study that found that students placed in competitive exercise groups exercised much more often than those in supportive exercise groups. Damon Centola, the study's senior author and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said people can use others' competitive influence to motivate themselves to exercise.
But Walker cautions that too much competition can cause stress and lower motivation.
Kristin Neff, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas-Austin, recommends treating yourself with compassion. According to Neff, self-compassion can help you stay focused on your goals, reduce your fear of failure, and improve your self-confidence—all of which can improve your motivation.
"The key thing about self-compassion and motivation is that it allows you to learn from your failures," Neff said.
Finally, Walker writes that as she worked to put the other steps into use, she realized what she really needed was to "pay attention."
As Walker went on a morning run, she noticed people all around her—dog walkers, maintenance workers, people commuting to work, and more—and imagined that they and others like them were also starting a new day, even if they didn't quite feel like it.
"The idea of all of us, trying and failing and trying again, carried me to the end of the run and to the end of this story," she writes. (Walker, New York Times, 7/28)
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