Self-efficacy: A psychological trick to ‘hack’ your focus and motivation

What’s the first thing you blame when you can’t focus? Emails and chat messages blowing up your laptop? Distractions and interruptions that won’t leave you alone? The irresistible pull of Twitter?

These are all valid reasons. But what if you’re missing a deeper, more fundamental focus-killer? Confidence.

Self-efficacy is a psychological concept that refers to your confidence in successfully navigating a situation and overcoming potential obstacles. In other words, how much do you believe that, when faced with a challenge or unexpected change, you can successfully work through it?

Self-efficacy affects every aspect of our lives. From believing we can drive our car to work to sitting down and working through a deep problem once we arrive.  Yet few of us recognize the power it commands.

However, once you learn to systematically develop your self-efficacy at work, you can chart a path towards more confidence, focus, and motivation. 

Jump to a section:

What is self-efficacy? 

Psychologist Albert Bandura coined the term self-efficacy in 1977 to describe a person’s belief in their ability to overcome obstacles and find success in a given situation. 

Unlike confidence, which is a general quality of our personality, self-efficacy relates to a specific task or topic.

When you have high self-efficacy, you’re more likely to set challenging goals and stay motivated through unexpected setbacks. You’ll be more likely to view difficult tasks as something to be mastered rather than avoided. 

As Dr. Bandura explains, high self-efficacy produces personal accomplishments, reduces stress, and even lowers vulnerability to depression. 

Whereas low self-efficacy causes procrastination, makes you more likely to give up when you hit issues, and causes you to blame yourself for the failure.   

Higher self-efficacy in your work almost guarantees your success. Luckily, there are some clear steps you can take to develop it. 

How does self-efficacy impact your ability to focus at work?

From the description above, it’s clear how self-efficacy can help boost your motivation and persistence. But how does it impact your ability to focus? 

As we’ve written in the past, procrastination, motivation, and even focus are emotional issues. The reason you avoid work, feel unmotivated, or distract yourself is out of fear and uncertainty.

With low self-efficacy, you’re more vulnerable to looking for distractions or self-interruption. When you feel you won’t be successful or can’t work through problems, you’ll go out of your way to find something else to do. 

But with high self-efficacy, you automatically avoid 50% of your daily distractions (the internal ones). This helps you to focus more deeply and for longer periods of time. 

In fact, Dr. Bandura wrote that high self-efficacy “fosters intrinsic interest and deep engrossment in activities”. In other words, self-efficacy leads to flow–a state of deep focus that can be up to 500% more productive. 

The 4 elements that build your self-efficacy at work and help you ‘hack’ your motivation and focus

Despite the title of this post, there’s no real way to hack your self-efficacy. 

Instead, you need to understand the core elements of how you build self-efficacy in your work tasks and then add more of them to your day.  

1. Mastery experiences

Small wins are the building blocks of self-efficacy. 

The more you complete small yet difficult tasks, the more confident you’ll become in that area. 

If you’re ever played a video game, you’ll understand this concept. Most games start with a series of very simple levels or tasks designed to show you how to play. Those small wins snowball into more confidence in your abilities and more fun as you work through harder challenges.

As Dr. Bandura writes:

“After people become convinced they have what it takes to succeed, they persevere in the face of adversity and quickly rebound from setbacks. By sticking it out through tough times, they emerge stronger from adversity.”

How to use this: Deliberate practice. Tackle small elements of a new skill in a systematic way to continually improve your ‘mastery’. 

If you want to learn to play guitar, practice a few chords each day and build on your confidence. If you want to build self-efficacy in designing logos, start by recreating popular ones each day to get a feel for how they were made. 

2. Vicarious experiences (i.e. role models) 

Seeing other people succeed by sustained effort raises your belief that you can do the same. This is especially true when the people you’re observing are ‘like’ you.  

Role models and mentors do more than just show you that what you want is possible. By observing them in action, you learn how to react to the demands of the task and pick up skills and strategies that would otherwise take years to learn on your own. 

How to use this: Find mentors, guides, or examples.

If you don’t know anyone with high ability and self-efficacy in a skill you’re interested in, look for examples online. Read the stories of how others worked hard and succeeded. Finding similarities between their struggles and your own will help you gain positive beliefs about your own abilities. 

3. Social persuasion (i.e. feedback) 

Hearing that you’re doing a good job while you’re in the midst of a difficult project can help convince you that you have the skills to succeed. For example, when a manager says you’re on the right track during a one-on-one for your latest project. 

However, false feedback–like an overly positive parent–can ultimately deflate self-efficacy when you don’t see the results you were expecting. 

How to use this: Create more opportunities for feedback earlier in projects.

One example is the 30/90 method. This is where you ask for high-level feedback at 30% completion and then more tactical and specific feedback when you’re facing the last 10%. This helps avoid getting the wrong type of feedback early on (which can kill your belief that you can power through). 

4. Your emotional/psychological state

Finally, self-efficacy relies on a positive emotional and psychological state. It’s much harder to believe in your abilities if you’re struggling with too much anxiety or hitting burnout

As Dr. Bandura explains:

“Positive mood enhances perceived self-efficacy, despondent mood diminishes it.”

However, a higher self-efficacy can even change the way you perceive stressful situations. As you gain confidence and motivation, stress and anxiety often get reframed as excitement and help push you through rather than hold you back. 

How to use this: Change your inner voice. If you find yourself getting overwhelmed or stressed try to understand why.

What stress triggers are you hitting? Can you remove them or lessen them? We put together this guide to workplace stress to help you get your self-talk and emotions under control.

Self-efficacy example: A practical guide to building motivation and focus

Self-efficacy is something you build and maintain over your lifetime. But what does it look like when it comes to your work tasks? 

Let’s say you’ve just been hired as a junior designer and tasked with creating a landing page. This is your first time doing a project like this and you’re feeling slightly overwhelmed.

A person with low self-efficacy is more likely to feel self-doubt and start ‘productively procrastinating’. (I.e. spending too much time ‘finding inspiration’ or waste all day answering ‘urgent’ emails and chat). 

But a high self-efficacy individual will know they can finish the task. Even if they hit obstacles or need to learn new skills along the way.

We all want to be the person that believes they can take on challenges and succeed. So how do you hack your self-efficacy to give you the confidence to stay focused even when you hit an inevitable roadblock? 

  • First, break your goal into smaller tasks. Mastery and confidence both happen when you can clearly say ‘I finished this properly’. Instead of thinking about the finished landing page, start with a rough sketch or prototype. Then, work on choosing colors or typefaces. Each step will get you closer to the end and help build your confidence along the way.
  • Next, track your progress. It’s not enough to just have small tasks, you need to know what you’ve completed and see your progress. This could be as easy as listing out each step on your paper to-do list and crossing them off. Or, you could use a tool like RescueTime to track your time spent on important tasks each day. 
RescueTime shows you exactly how long you spend on apps and sites down to the minute.
  • Set up clear milestones for feedback. Ask for the right feedback early and often. This means approaching your team leader in the early stages and asking for help with the page structure. Or, connecting with a coworker later on to get their thoughts on visual elements.
  • Ask questions and reach out for guidance. The workplace is a powerful opportunity for vicarious experiences. As you start working, ask to shadow a colleague or look for opportunities to watch them work. 
  • Check-in with yourself along the way. During the project, make sure you check-in daily to keep your stress and doubts at bay. Do you need to change your schedule to give you more time for deep work? Or deprioritize another task while you work through this one? 
  • Finally, celebrate your wins and reflect on what worked. In the rush to move onto the next project, don’t forget to take time to recognize what you’ve accomplished. This small ritual will help you continue to build your self-efficacy. 

Essentially, self-efficacy comes from working with intention. The more you break down your large, scary tasks into manageable pieces, track your progress, and look for feedback and support, the more confident and successful you’ll become. This same process can work for anything from coding features to running one-on-ones with your direct reports. 

If you think you can do it, you might be able to. If you know you can do it, you will.

Self-efficacy is one of those concepts that feels like it should be more complex than it is. But really, all we’re talking about is bringing more intention into your work and life.

By being purposeful with how you work and where you look for feedback and support, you’ll naturally build your confidence, motivation, and focus.

Jory MacKay

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


  1. Hi. Despite continually performing well in assessments, I always feel that I’m going to fail them and, when I pass, I’m always amazed – i.e, mastery experiences don’t seem to help my low self efficacy. Nor does the positive feedback from tutors. What’s going on?

    1. Identify what your criteria for success is prior to the assessments. Then ask yourself the question, “Is this criteria based on an ideal that I have established for myself based on extrinsic data or information or is it based on intrinsic beliefs/opinions of myself?” Be very honest when answering the question and write it down. Once you establish that concept, then look back over the last 30,60, 90 days and measure your progress/success based on where you were 30,60, 90 days ago and where you are now and be specific and honest regarding that examination.

  2. Just sent this quote from the article to my champion Irish dance class.
    We have a major competition in 15 days, so I send them quotes daily to keep their head in the right space. Thank you

    Self-efficacy comes from working with intention. The more you break down your large, scary tasks into manageable pieces, track your progress, and look for feedback and support, the more confident and successful you’ll become.

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