The Truth about Motivation - The Neuroscience School
The Truth about Motivation

The Truth about Motivation

What do you use to increase your motivation? Do you use visualization, mantras, declarations, or other self-help advice? The truth is that these techniques rarely work. They may make you feel better in the moment, but they don’t often lead to more work. In fact, they may make you feel worse in the long run.

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Key Takeaway

The single best way to increase motivation is to make progress in meaningful work, no matter how small. Motivation leads to greater creativity and productivity. And making progress (being productive and creative) leads to motivation which leads to more work. This is the progress loop, where progress and motivation fuel each other in an upward spiral.

I want to tell you about how small progress can lead to big wins. Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer studied 7 companies, both new and old, large and small, for between nine and 38 weeks. Their sample consisted 238 employees in 26 teams. The employees were asked to keep a daily diary describing one event from the day that stood out in their minds, regardless of the type of event, as long as it was relevant to the work or project, and they completed a daily questionnaire on that event. The questionnaire asked them about the basics of the work day, their own work and motivation, the team and its work, their perception of the work environment, and their emotions. In total, they collected 11,637 diaries.

They read all of the diaries many times which led to their development of the inner work life system, the ways in which inner work life influences performance, and the progress loop. Here is how they defined inner work life. It consisted of:

  • Perceptions and thoughts: Making sense about workday events
  • Emotions & Feelings: Reactions to workday events
  • Motivation & drive: Desire to do the work and the primary source of influence​

From all of the diary entries, they found that the single best predictor of inner work life was progress in meaningful work, no matter how small. Positive inner work life, and remember that motivation is the biggest influencer, leads to greater creativity and productivity. And making progress (being productive and creative) leads to positive inner work life. This is the progress loop, where progress and inner work life fuel each other in an upward spiral. Of course, setbacks can lead to negative inner work life and a downward spiral.

And to be meaningful, your work doesn’t have to have profound importance to society. What matters is whether you perceive your work as contributing value to something or someone who matters (even your team, yourself, or your family).

But when they asked managers what motivates employees, progress did not come up. In fact, a 2009 McKinsey survey on motivating people at work yielded the same story - progress was completely absent from the results. It’s so simple, really: give people a chance to make some progress in meaningful work and you increase their motivation.

Let me say this again: the single best predictor of motivation was progress in meaningful work, no matter how small.

What can we learn from this research: to find our motivation, we only need to start with something small and simple that we can succeed at. This small progress increases motivation, which leads to even more progress in an upward spiral. It’s really that simple.

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