3 Motivational Mind Tricks Designed To Power Progress

What building a Lego figurine, frequenting coffee shops, and "deliberate practice" teach us about completing the task at hand—happily.

Progress is untapped power. It fuels our motivation and performance like no other incentive yet is broadly overlooked by managers.

To gain that integral sense of progress, you need to know when you’ve moved forward. The trouble is that most of the time, our work doesn’t yield the easy clarity of progress that a farmer sees in the number of bushels harvested.

That just means we have to try harder.

Understanding how we react to progress is crucial to capitalizing on its power to motivate and engage us with our work. Ignoring it costs day after day of losing steam, running to and fro with carrots and sticks, and losing interest from what feels like an endless run in a hamster wheel.

These three mind tricks of progress serve employees and managers alike to break free from hamsterdom and actually get somewhere.

Mind Trick No. 1: Seeing progress boosts your performance.

Simply seeing your progress really makes a difference.

Take one of Dan Ariely’s studies, where students were paid to build Lego figurines called Bionicles. Every additional figurine earned a decreasing amount of money. Group one participants saw their Bionicles dismantled as soon as they were built. While told that their work would be disassembled at the end of the study, group two students placed each completed Bionicle on a desk before continuing onto the next one. Group two out-built group one, eleven to seven.

Seeing the visible indication of progress of accumulating Bionicles drove group one to keep building, even with diminishing monetary returns and knowledge of their Bionicles’ eventual disassembled fates.

Countless game, app, and website designers grasp this potency of visible progress. Managers can leverage that motivating effect by communicating progress to their team and showing how their work interacts to move the needle. Everyone gets a boost by showing their work, keeping track of and recording their accomplishments.

Take time to reflect on and acknowledge how your work has progressed. All it takes is a pause to get the satisfying sight of all your own kind of accumulating Bionicles rather than letting them slip past you, unrecognized sources of fuel.

Mind Trick No. 2: Even the illusion of progress spurs motivation.

Your motivation surges the closer you are to reaching your goal. Something about seeing the finish line lights a fire, even when you’re not always on the right track. Take those loyalty cards from coffee shops. As a Columbia University study found, the closer you are to earning a free coffee, the more frequently you’ll purchase a cup.

The funny thing is that even the illusion of progress causes the same accelerating effect. In the same study, one set of coffee shop customers received a 12-stamp loyalty card, with two pre-existing bonus stamps, while the other got a regular 10-stamp card. Who purchased 10 drinks faster for their free coffee? The 12-stamp cardholders, by three days.

The flip side of this “illusory goal progress” is that motivation and performance slow down right after a goal is achieved. Understanding that it’s toughest at this stage of “post-reward resetting” to gain momentum allows a better handle on any frustration, confusion, and slowness that occurs at post-goal phases. Managers can help by being extra-alert to removing obstacles to help get the ball rolling.

Get that bonus stamp effect by thinking through and planning out first steps to move faster toward your goals. Also, shift your frames of reference by aiming for shorter-term yet still meaningful goals, thinking dashes and sprints in a relay race rather than one long solo marathon.

Mind Trick No. 3: A lack of progress isn’t the end of the line.

Progress isn’t a continuous ascent to a peak. Sometimes you get stuck on a flat bit somewhere in the middle, for any number of reasons—becoming bored with your work, thinking you’ve reached your limit, feeling like you’re not getting anywhere, or even feeling smug about where you’ve arrived.

How do you avoid this trap? According to psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, the solution is deliberate practice, the kind of intensely focused, introspective practice that results in mastery, expertise, and virtuosity. What’s fascinating about this kind of practice is that it doesn’t require that you drive yourself into the ground. The best violinists, for example, practice no more than four-and-a-half hours a day and otherwise prioritize rest and rejuvenation.

Instead, the critical factor of deliberate practice is intention. Your goal itself must be improvement—achieved through a combination of knowing your weaknesses, self-monitoring, analysis, study, and experimentation. Ericsson found that the best chess players possessed the largest library of chess literature and spent three to five hours in daily solitary study, analyzing chess moves, positioning, and sequences.

Work gets so mundane and bound up in habit that we lose sight of the progress of our skills. When even an activity as quotidian as typing can be improved by slowing down to note shortcomings and practice improvements, deliberate practice can be quite valuable in the work context.

Managers can encourage deliberate practice by offering constructive, frequent feedback. Drawing from experience, provide suggestions on how to stop repeating the same mistakes and support learning. The core of deliberate practice, as with that of productivity and creativity, is having peace of time and space for solitary study; help create that protected setting.

Cultivate deliberate practice by adopting that improvement-centered mindset and taking the time to admit and tackle your weaknesses, whether it’s time management, public speaking, writing, or managing others.

The thing about these flat-line plateaus of progress is you have no sense of where you stand or how high to aim unless you look up. Challenge yourself, embrace failure, and try new things. Growth is usually uncomfortable, but at least it’s made easier and more effective with proper breaks to recharge.

Sure, progress makes us feel good. But by digging into how the progress-based point of view affects our motivation, our path, and how fast we move upon it, we can encourage and even inspire ourselves to flourish and reach greater heights.

Janet Choi is Chief Creative Officer of iDoneThis, an email-based productivity log. Follow her on twitter at @lethargarian.

[Image: Flickr user Lindsay Holmwood]

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3 Comments

  • Daniel Holke

    Good practical thoughts here. I would love to hear some examples used in the corporate world to show progress, or using the illusion of progress technique. I know there are better examples than the typical rising thermometer, or undressing the female owner in the Major League movie. For a food drive supporting a local shelter, we built a pyramid of the donated items, and only if we hit the ceiling by a certain date would we give it to them. Of course we met that, and although it was in a corporate setting it was not tracking our work progress. Anyone offer examples?

  • Walter Chen

    kickstarter is a platform that shows the power of progress/perceived progress.