Try these three practical steps next time you need a quick motivation boost.
1. Relive past experiences
Thinking about the last time you did something you’re struggling with now can help you get motivated. Particularly if you remember a positive memory of that activity.
A study tested this by asking college students to either remember a positive memory of exercising, a negative exercise memory, or not asking them to remember exercise at all. These memory questions were embedded in an online survey “ostensibly regarding college activity choices,” so students wouldn’t realize the study was focused on their exercise memories.
The researchers didn’t actively encourage students to exercise more, but did follow up after the online survey to see how much students were exercising compared to before they completed the survey.
Students who had remembered a memory, whether it was positive or negative, tended to exercise more after the survey, despite not being encouraged to do so by the researchers. It seems simply thinking about the last time they exercised boosted the students’ motivation and the likelihood they would follow through and actually exercise more.
But while negative memories did boost motivation, the researchers said remembering a positive memory had the biggest impact:
Activating a positive motivational memory had a significant effect on students’ self-reported exercise activity even after controlling for prior attitudes, motivation and exercise activity.
Though researchers aren’t sure why it works, this research suggests positive memories can boost our motivation for that same activity. So next time you’re struggling to head to the gym or complete that boring annual report, try thinking back to a positive memory of doing that activity in the past.
2. Break your goals into small, achievable chunks
Some goals take a long time to reach, and along the way we tend to think about them differently. In the beginning, we have a “promotion” mindset, where we compare achieving the goal to where we started—before we’d achieved anything. We’re motivated by the idea of improving how much we’ve achieved by moving away from our starting point, which still feels close when we’re starting out.
But over time we shift to a “prevention” mindset, where we start focusing on how much time and effort we’ve put into reaching our goal. Our starting point starts to feel far away, and instead we start comparing our goal with where we are now—what we’ve achieved so far, rather than the lack of achievement we started with. At this point, we start to focus on not losing or wasting the gains we’ve made. We want to reach our goal in order to “save” the achievements we’ve made along the way, rather than to move away from the lack of achievement we started with.
This change in mindset can affect what kind of motivation works best at different stages. If you’re just starting out, dreaming about how different you’ll be when you reach your goal might be enough to get you going. But along the way, that motivation won’t work as well. Once you’ve made noticeable gains on the way to your goal, focusing on the time and effort you’ve put in and how it would be “wasted” if you didn’t reach your goal could be more motivating once you’ve hit that inflection point.
There’s another thing that changes as we get closer to reaching our goals: it’s known as the “goal gradient“, and it means that we tend to work harder to reach a goal that we’re closer to achieving.
Studies have proven this concept using coffee punch cards. When two groups of participants had to buy the same number of coffees to get a free drink, those who started with extra bonus purchases counted on their punch cards purchased coffees more frequently and more often to reach their goal. Both groups had to buy the same number of drinks, but for some participants that number of drinks was a smaller percentage of the entire number of punches needed on the card, so they felt like they were closer to achieving a free coffee. Being closer to reaching their goal made them more motivated to achieve it.
We can take these two findings and use them to our advantage by setting smaller goals, more often. While an ambitious goal can be exciting in the beginning, it doesn’t take long before we lose the motivation to stick with the long, hard road to reaching that goal.
But if we break one big goal into many smaller goals, we’ll hit the inflection point of “prevention” mindset more often, where we start to feel our gains toward our goal are valuable enough to motivate us to keep striving, in order not to waste those efforts. And we’ll run into the goal gradient, where we see the finish line and strive harder to reach it.
Without changing our behavior significantly, we can simply break up our goals into smaller chunks, and let our natural tendencies do the work of motivating us.
3. Spend time around high-achievers
Finding yourself among a group of motivated, high-achievers can be beneficial to your own goals in a couple of ways. One is simply old-fashioned peer pressure. When compared to a cash bonus, peer pressure tends to work better at creating lasting change.
A study in a Californian hospital explored what happened when the hospital was encouraged to improve the hand hygiene practices of all its staff. Mystery shoppers evaluated staff hand hygiene, and the team received an overall score—so everyone’s habits contributed to the hospital’s outcome.
Individuals were also rewarded for the hospital reaching a target performance level with a one-time cash bonus. But not all individuals were eligible. Because the hospital’s physicians weren’t actually employees of the hospital (due to restrictions in Californian law), they weren’t able to receive cash bonuses. But physician hand hygiene still contributed to the team’s score.
While some employees were motivated by the offer of cash bonuses, the physicians were encouraged to contribute through peer pressure. The hospital’s employees publicly praised physicians with good habits, and privately encouraged those who could improve to do their best to contribute to the team’s efforts.
The most interesting finding from this study came after the experiment was over and the cash bonuses were distributed. Over time, those who’d received cash bonuses let their improved habits slip to the same levels as before the study—or even worse. But the physicians who were encouraged through peer pressure were more likely to keep their improved habits well after the study was completed.
So while peer pressure can feel uncomfortable, it can also do a better job at motivating us long-term than something fleeting, like a cash bonus.
If you’re lucky enough to find yourself around people who encourage you to do your best and to push yourself more than you would otherwise, you may find that motivation has a lasting effect.
Another benefit that can come from spending time around high-achievers is noticing when they’re praised for their work. This might sound counterintuitive, but research has found that when we notice someone being publicly praised for an achievement that we’ve almost reached ourselves—but not quite—we’re more likely to work harder to achieve that same result ourselves in future.
For those being praised, there isn’t much motivation to do better, since they’ve already been granted the respect and appreciation of others. And this won’t work as well if you spend time with people who are well ahead of you. But spending time with people who are just a little way ahead of you can motivate you to strive a little harder to reach their level—so long as it seems achievable.
If you can, take notice of your friends or colleagues’ awards, recognition by peers and leaders at work, or even public praise from their family and friends. Overhearing praise for something you believe you could do with a little more work can sometimes be all you need to get going.
Sometimes when there’s a lot to get done, motivation is scarce. It happens to all of us. But having a few strategies like these up your sleeve can keep you prepared for those tough days.
What’s your favorite strategy for boosting your motivation? Let us know in the comments.