Understanding Motivation: How to harness the power of consistent workplace productivity

How do you find the motivation to do what you need to do each day? Why do some days feel like you woke up with an IV full of caffeine while you can barely get out of bed on others?

Whether it’s a Monday morning, a late night work session, or any given Tuesday, motivation can often feel scarce. But like many of the internal struggles we face during the workday (like procrastination, creative blocks, distraction), finding motivation isn’t out of our control.

When you feel motivated, it’s so much easier to stay productive, focused, and do more meaningful work. And while motivation is a complex subject, with the right tools, strategies, and mindsets, you can manufacture enough of it to get through just about anything life throws your way.

So if you want to make the most of each day, this guide will cover everything you need to know about how to get (and stay) motivated, from the main sources of motivation, to how to set goals and create daily habits and routines that motivate you.

Before we dive in… RescueTime is a productivity tool that keeps you focused and motivated by blocking distracting sites, giving you in-depth reports on how you (actually) spend your time, and helping you set goals and build better habits. Try it for free

Understanding Motivation: How to harness the power of consistent workplace productivity

1. The science of Motivation: what it is, where it comes from, and why you’re lacking it

How to get motivated at work

Strategies for staying motivated no matter what

1. The science of Motivation: what it is, where it comes from, and why you’re lacking it

Motivation - hard work

Why do we do the things we do? At a philosophical level, this is one of the biggest questions you can ask. However, it’s equally as important during the workday.

Why do we spend hours in our inbox when we know we should be fixing those bugs? Why do we put off writing that blog post and instead check Twitter for the 12th time this morning?

To understand the choices we make—both good and bad—we need to understand how human nature guides and influences motivation.

“The way nature gets us to do what it wants is by making it a pleasure.” – Psychology Today

Human beings are pleasure-seeking machines. Our minds and bodies are specifically designed to make us want to do things that bring us pleasure and hate things that don’t. Makes sense, right?

The problem is that not everything in life is enjoyable. Especially at work.

In fact, when we surveyed hundreds of RescueTime users, we found that, on average, people say they’re just 60% motivated to do their daily work.

So how do you fight our natural tendency to lack motivation at work?

What is motivation? The 2 main types of motivation and how they impact your work

What do we mean by motivation? Psychologists describe motivation simply as “the desire to act and move toward a goal.” However, this simple sentence hides the complexities of what motivation really is and how it affects us.

When we think about motivation at work, what we’re most concerned with is “the act”—doing the work, beating procrastination, putting in the effort. But in order to act, we need to understand what impacts our ability to do so.

First, there’s the desire. What is it that makes you want to act?

Researchers have spent years exploring the rewards that motivate us to act and have broken them down into two camps:

  1. Extrinsic motivation: Being motivated by external rewards like pay, praise, or fame.
  2. Intrinsic motivation: Being motivated by internal rewards like a sense of accomplishment, internal drive, or enjoyment.

However, motivation isn’t just about what drives you. There’s also the goal. What are you working towards? 

The word “motivation” shares its root with “emotion” (both coming from the Latin word “motere” – meaning to move). But that’s not all they share.

Motivation, like procrastination, is an emotional problem that most of us try to solve through purely logical means. We think if we have the right desire we’ll be motivated. But our goals are just as important when it comes to finding and sustaining workplace motivation.

Why money and passion aren’t enough to keep you motivated

So what types of goals will help actually boost our motivation? Let’s think about those two types of motivation again—intrinsic and extrinsic.

If you’re not doing work that intrinsically motivates you (not too many people get self-satisfaction from filling out spreadsheets), then you probably feel like you rely on extrinsic rewards for motivation. You tell yourself to just get through it because you’ll get paid and can buy a new ukulele or go out for a nice meal.

To an extent, you’ll be able to ride the wave of motivational highs that come from these rewards. But eventually, the novelty of a new ukulele wears off and you’re back where you started.

Psychologists call this the Hedonic Treadmill—where the more success we find, the harder we have to “run” just to keep up with it. We adapt to change quickly, and those temporary boosts of motivation and happiness from a good event are just that: temporary.

Hedonic Treadmill example

(What’s even crazier is that this idea also applies to money. According to research from psychologist Daniel Pink, money is only a motivator until your basic needs are met—shelter, food, safety. After which, an increase of money can actually decrease motivation!)

So money’s no good. Then it must be all about passion! Do what you love and you’ll always be motivated, right? Not quite.

Feeling passionate about your work can have some dangerous side-effects. As we wrote in our Guide to Overcoming Perfectionism, when you connect your identity too much with the work you’re doing, failures or a lack of progress at work (which are the cornerstone of personal growth) suddenly become personal failures, leaving you feeling defeated, unmotivated, and stressed.

As Brad Stulberg writes in The Cut:

“Every step backward or in the wrong direction and your ego, your literal sense of ‘self,’ takes a hit. When someone speaks poorly about your company or dislikes your work, they aren’t attacking an object or an output; they are attacking you.”

Real success takes hard work.

It takes long hours of concentrated effort without the promise of reward or relying on a never-ending stream of passion. Yet too many of us ignore this and believe that enough low-hanging fruit will sustain us.

But as we’ll uncover, it’s not about getting motivated to do the work, it’s about doing the work to get motivated.

Action vs. Motivation: The life-changing magic of “just starting”

One of the biggest myths about motivation is that we need to feel motivated before we can do anything. Psychologists call this the motivation trap:

“Motivation does not precede action, action precedes motivation.”

If this seems confusing, think about it this way. How many times have you been intrinsically motivated (i.e. had a desire to act based on self-satisfaction and not external rewards) before actually starting something?

In most cases, it wasn’t until you actually started doing the task that you felt motivated to stick with it. This threshold is hard to pass, but also where the power of workplace motivation comes from.

Nearly all the friction towards doing something comes at the start. It’s the same with procrastination. As the writer and AI researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky writes:

“On a moment-to-moment basis, being in the middle of doing the work is usually less painful than being in the middle of procrastinating.”

It might seem overly simplistic, but there’s a point where we need to start working before we feel motivated to. Motivation almost always follows that initial push through to get work done. And “just starting” is one of the most powerful motivation strategies you can use.

Not only does starting take you out of the grip of procrastination. But seeing progress is one of the most powerful ways to boost both your motivation and mood.

RescueTime helps you stay focused by blocking distracting sites, giving you in-depth reports on how you spend your time, and more. Try it for free

2. How to get motivated at work

writing motivation lead

Now that we understand some of the complexities around why it’s hard to find motivation, let’s get tactical. What does it take to get motivated at work every day? How do we “just start” when we don’t feel like it? What are the techniques and strategies you can use to get and stay motivated every day?

Let’s dig into each of these and find more ways how to get motivated at work.

How proper goal-setting motivates you at work (no matter what you’re doing)

In our initial motivation definition, we said it was “the desire to act and move toward a goal.” And while we’ve already talked quite a bit about how to understand and optimize your desire to work, the goal is equally as important.

What you’re working towards will often dictate how motivated you are to do it.

Are you slogging through the first draft of your novel because you dream of being a published author? That’s probably a goal you can get behind. Trying to get through that beast of a spreadsheet so your boss won’t yell at you? Probably not as motivating.

So, if workplace goals aren’t as easily motivating, how can we change that?

As we wrote in our Guide to Effective Goal-Setting, it’s more important to build a habit around the process than to focus on the outcome of your goal. Not only are habits self-motivating, but they flip your desire from outcome-focused (extrinsic motivation) to process-focused (intrinsic motivation).

In other words, you become motivated by the act of doing the work, not what it will potentially give you.

This is still a little high-level (and we promised tactics!) So to get started, make sure for each of your workplace goals you’re able to do these three things:

  • Know your “why” (and connect it to your core values). It’s much easier to build a habit if it connects to something you care about. This isn’t the same as “passion”, but rather knowing your core values and making sure what you do aligns with them. Take a minute and write down 3-5 core values that resonate with you and find how they connect to your goals. For example, knowledge, creativity, leadership, or compassion.
  • Create a step-by-step action plan: Vague, high-level goals are easy to put off. Instead, schedule your motivation for specific times and know exactly what you’re going to do. We’ve written before about the importance of breaking your goals down into smaller chunks. This is just taking that a step further and planning specific times and places to tackle those pieces.
  • Be able to track your progress: Once you start working, seeing progress is what will keep you motivated. Whether this is crossing off items on your to-do list, using a project management tool, or tracking your time in RescueTime, find the way that is easiest for you.

The importance of identifying your intrinsic rewards

Before we move on, let’s dig into that first tip from above. Understanding your “Why” and defining core values can be a lot to ask when it comes to projects at work. If it feels too complicated or confusing, let’s look at it another way.

What we’re really asking here is to find your connect your intrinsic rewards—the things that motivate you outside of the “I’m only doing this because I get paid to do it” mentality.

In his book Drive, author Daniel Pink defined the 3 basic qualities of intrinsic rewards:

Autonomy: We all have a desire to be self-directed. When we have the ability to choose what kind of work we do or we know there is an openness to change and growth in our environment it increases our engagement and our motivation.

Mastery: We feel good as individuals when our skills grow. Money is a fantastic motivator when the tasks are repeatable. But once some level of conceptual thinking is involved, it’s important we feel motivated to get better at it.

Purpose: We all want to do things that matter. Whether that purpose is because you like the people you work with and want to see everyone succeed or because you’re doing something beyond you (like work that benefits the environment or helps people in developing countries).

If you’re confused as to whether these qualities apply to you and your current work, here are a few simple questions to ask:

  1. Are you challenged?
  2. Do you feel a sense of curiosity?
  3. Are you in (at least some) control of how you spend your day?
  4. Do you have opportunities to collaborate or compete?
  5. Do you feel you’re getting enough recognition?

5 ways to combat a lack of motivation at work

Of course, setting goals and defining your intrinsic rewards won’t always get you out of a rut. As we said at the start of this post, motivation is an emotional problem.

Sometimes we just don’t feel like doing things. No matter how much the work connects to our values and provides us with intrinsic rewards. Here is where we need to bring out the big guns and learn how to get motivated even when we don’t feel like it.

Here are a few simple exercises and strategies for dealing with a lack of motivation at work.

1. Set up your work environment to be action-oriented

Crossing the action/procrastination threshold isn’t easy, and unfortunately, your workspace probably isn’t helping. We have a tendency to get influenced by the things around us. And a cluttered workspace means more opportunities to get distracted and unmotivated.

Instead, try using what Stanford psychologist BJ Fogg calls “designing for laziness.” For example, you might close all the tabs in your browser except the one you want to work on. Or block distracting websites like social media during the workday. Anything that will funnel your behavior towards the right actions.

2. Schedule your motivation

It’s easier to take action when you know exactly when it’s going to happen. And with enough planning, you can take the friction of getting motivated out of the equation.

Think about the tasks you want to get motivated to do. Now, set a specific time and place for when you’ll do them and put it in your calendar. For example, you might have “Write a blog post on motivation written on your calendar for 9-10: 30 am on next Tuesday .”

3. Use the 5-minute rule

When it comes time to actually do the work, sometimes scheduling isn’t enough. Instead, you need a strategy to get over the friction of just starting. One suggestion comes from Instagram founder, Kevin Systrom:

“If you don’t want to do something, make a deal with yourself to do at least five minutes of it. After five minutes, you’ll end up doing the whole thing.”

4. Use routines and rituals to kickstart motivation

Pretty much every prolific creator, from best-selling authors to CEOs, follows a number of routines and rituals. Your mind loves repetition. When it knows what it needs to do and can prepare and plan for it, it’s more likely to want to engage in that activity.

Not only that but rituals—small acts you perform before starting a new activity—are a great way of signaling your brain that it’s time to change its focus. Rather than get caught up and obsess over something you’ve stopped working on, a basic ritual like stretching or walking around the office is a clear sign that it’s time to move on.

5. Revisit your past successes

Fear is one of the great demotivators. And it’s easy to distract yourself when faced with a difficult task or something that you struggled with in the past. However, studies have found that recalling your past experiences with these kinds of hard tasks—both good and bad—can help boost motivation.

So next time you feel paralyzed by fear, try to remember another difficult task you got through. The memory can help break you free and show you that just starting is better than feeling stuck.

Want an accurate way to track your progress and stay motivated? RescueTime tells you exactly how you spend your time so you can connect efforts to outcomes. Try it for free

3. Strategies for staying motivated no matter what

Motivation - You got this

For most of us, the issue with motivation isn’t always at the start, but sustaining it throughout the day. We all go through productivity peaks and valleys during the day. And finding a constant source of motivation is tough. We get tired. Things get in the way. We get distracted and are vulnerable to giving up.

Here are a few final strategies to help you stay motivated throughout the day.

Get rid of the distractions trying to take away your motivation

As we said before, we all go through natural highs and lows of energy, productivity, and motivation throughout the day. You can think of these as productivity cycles—the times during the day where it’s easier for you to get things done and stay focused.

Researchers call this our Circadian Rhythm—a 24-hour internal clock running in the background of your brain that cycles between alertness and sleepiness. Each person’s rhythm is slightly different, but there are some common moments you probably recognize (like the post-lunch energy dip or the “Second wind” you get close to the end of the day).

Circadian Rhythm

The problem isn’t that we have these cycles. It’s that we leave ourselves vulnerable to distraction all day long. When you’re facing a natural decline in motivation and focus, why leave yourself open to something that will take that away?

Remember, the way nature gets us to do what it wants is by making it pleasurable.

We run through how to discover your own personal productivity curve here. Afterward, you can make a few small changes to keep you motivated all day long:

  • When you’re most likely to have low energy. You’re most likely to lose motivation when your energy is low and your brain starts to crave easier tasks (like scrolling through social media). At these times, it can be a powerful strategy to use a tool like RescueTime’s FocusTime to block distractions for a set period of time. (You can even schedule FocusTime sessions to happen based on your own behavior. For example, I have a 30-minute focus session that gets triggered if I spend 30 minutes on distracting sites before noon)
  • When your energy levels are higher. You also want to optimize your high-energy time to make progress on tasks and build that ongoing motivation.
  • When you need to take a break. Breaks are powerful tools for helping us stay motivated all day long. Look at when your energy levels dip and take a meaningful break (we offer some tips on how to do that here).
  • During your afternoon dip. You can’t just take breaks during low-energy times. Instead, schedule low-impact tasks like getting through your inbox, organizing tools, or cleaning up your work environment.
  • When you want to stay motivated. Motivation is all about action. By using your device’s Do-Not-Disturb mode at the start of a task, you ensure you can cross the threshold and get started.

Using the science of habits to stay motivated (and motivate those around you)

As we wrote before, the best thing you can do is turn motivation into a habit. To do so, you need to understand how actions become habitual and then craft your day around those specific moments.

As we wrote in our Guide to Building Good Work Habits, the chain reaction of a habit is caused by three things:

  • Reminder: The trigger than initiates the behavior
  • Routine: The behavior itself; the action you take
  • Reward: The benefit you gain from doing the behavior

So how does this work for boosting motivation?

bad habit loop

Let’s start with the reminder. The most important part of building motivation is getting started. And setting a reminder to start either through a ritual, visual cue, or actually scheduling it on your schedule can help push you to start.

For example, let’s say you want to get motivated to write a blog post. You might schedule it in your calendar, place a sticky note on your laptop, or go through your pre-writing ritual of making a nice cup of coffee.

Next, you need the routine itself. Motivation is a lot like physics. Once you’re in motion, it’s easier to keep going (as long as nothing gets in the way). Use the momentum of just starting and try to get into a state of flow.

Finally, the reward. In the context of work, the self-satisfaction and accomplishment of getting things done is a reward in itself. But to remind yourself of this, you need to see progress. This means doing the same action each time. Follow the same reminder and routine and track your progress.

Eventually, your work tasks will become so habitual you won’t even need to think about getting motivated.

How to get back on track when you lose all motivation

Unfortunately, there will always be times where you lose your motivation altogether. Maybe you’re feeling overwhelmed, burnt out, or simply just having a bad day. Whatever it is, there are ways to snap out of it.

  • Start with the smallest task possible. Motivation is all about action and sometimes simply crossing off a basic to-do can help shake you out of your funk. This can (and should) be ridiculously small. For example, “create new Google doc for blog post” or “copy outline from Trello into a doc.”
  • Go DND while you deal with your most important messages. Often we lose motivation because we feel overwhelmed by all the things we could be doing. When this happens, you need to stop the influx of messages and get through the most important ones. Again, progress builds momentum.
  • Challenge yourself. Sometimes we don’t feel motivated because our work isn’t challenging. Human beings love to be challenged and finding the sweet spot between anxiety and effort is how we get into a state of flow. If you have a lack of motivation and doing something easy doesn’t help then try the opposite. Pick a challenging problem or idea and commit some time to it.

If none of these work, you might be facing more than just a lack of motivation.

In extreme scenarios, a lack of motivation might be caused by feeling burnt out or working too much. If you can’t seem to find your “get up and go” it might be worth taking a moment to reflect on your current situation and what might have brought you to this point.

If you need more help, check out our guide on How to Deal with Burnout Syndrome.

Where to go from here

Want more advice on finding motivation, staying focused, and beating distraction? Here’s a curated selection of some of our top posts to help you:

How do other people stay motivated? Here’s what we learned when we asked hundreds of RescueTime users how they stay motivated to hit their goals

Love productivity hacks? Check out these 3 easy ways to boost your motivation each day

Motivation is a team sport. Here’s how to keep your team motivated and happy

Coming back to work? Learn how to stay motivated and beat the post-holiday blues

Have you heard of the procrastination equation? It’s the secret to actually starting (and sticking with) the tasks you’ve been putting off

When you’re too busy to feel motivated learn what to do when you’re feeling overwhelmed at work

Having trouble getting started? Here’s everything you ever wanted to know about how to overcome procrastination

Motivation’s only half the battle. Check out our Ultimate Guide to Workplace Productivity.

Progress is a powerful tool to stay motivated. Here are 5 ways to easily track your progress each day.

Not all days were made equally. Learn how to discover your personal productivity curve each day.

Sign Up for the Newsletter

Want to learn more about spending your time well and doing more meaningful work? Get our latest blog posts in your inbox every week.

Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.