Staying motivated day after day on the job can be tough, even with the kind of work that challenges and pushes us. Striking just the right balance in your workday that keeps you both focused and motivated means understanding what drives our sense of motivation in the first place.
According to Daniel Pink, author of the book Drive, motivation is made up of three key components:
We want to feel in control of our workday and that we’re turning in the best work possible, while also finding greater meaning in what we do. “The single biggest day-to-day motivator on the job is making progress in meaningful work,” says Pink. “The days that we make progress are the days when we feel motivated.”
Fast Company spoke with Pink about what steps we can take to invigorate ourselves both daily and throughout our careers.
We’ve all experienced those days that fly by in a blur of emails and endless meetings. But often making progress isn’t so much a matter of fact as one of perspective. “On days when workers have the sense they’re making headway in their jobs, or when they receive support that helps them overcome obstacles, their emotions are most positive and their drive to succeed is at its peak,” writes researcher Teresa Amabile in Harvard Business Review.
The key words there are “when workers have the sense they’re making headway.” In other words, it’s not what you actually accomplish as much as how much you feel you’ve accomplished that drives your sense of motivation. In her research, Amabile analyzed nearly 12,000 diary entries written by people along with their daily rankings of motivation and emotions. What she found: “Making progress in one’s work–even incremental progress–is more frequently associated with positive emotions and high motivation than any other workday event.”
Channeling that sense of progress, however, is easier said than done. We’re not talking about fooling yourself into thinking you’re getting more done than you actually are, but rather simply letting yourself acknowledge what you have accomplished, rather than berating yourself for what you still have to get done.
To do this, Pink recommends establishing what he calls a “daily progress ritual.” At the end of each day, before heading home from work, take a minute to jot down what you accomplished that day. “We end up making a lot more progress than we think we do,” says Pink. “In the blur of all that we are doing, we just don’t see it.”
But by taking a minute to write down what you made headway on at the end of each day–small as it may be–you’re letting yourself focus on the progress, which is what will help you keep pushing forward. “People’s overall wellbeing goes up when they take time to write down three good things that happened that day, instead of just racing out and complaining about all the things they didn’t get done,” says Pink.
That also means reframing what you consider “progress.” Rather than constantly focusing on how far you are from the finish line of a goal or project, give attention to the incremental steps you’ve made in the right direction–small as they may be. “I have found a lot of the days that feel frustrating, you actually get more done than you think,” says Pink. “Hidden in the day-to-day maw of what we do is often more progress than we think.”
Try this exercise at the end of your next workday: Ask yourself, What problem did I solve? What contacts did I reach today? Take small steps toward a goal that might not seem reachable. Say, for example, you want a more flexible work schedule. Instead of bemoaning the fact that you aren’t able to work from home daily, find out if you can make every other Friday a day you work from home, suggests Pink. “A lot of times we don’t take small wins seriously enough,” he says. “Small wins often beget small wins, which beget small wins, which can lead to a big change.”
Accountability and positive reinforcement are important factors in feeling motivated in the workplace. But there’s no need to wait for a higher-up to come around for your yearly performance review or to feel like you can never get proper feedback if you work for yourself.
Instead, Pink suggests gathering a small group of people at your workplace or in your network for monthly meetings in which you essentially crowdsource performance reviews. For example, start each month with a meeting where everyone present sets a goal and then reports back the following month on their progress. This not only offers accountability and a community, it also gives you feedback and advice from your peers.
Nothing saps motivation faster than feeling like you’re on a hamster wheel, doing the same work every day. “If somebody does something really well, chances are they are going to be asked to do that something again and again and again,” says Pink.
It’s your job to find ways to make the mundane interesting and new to you. For example, if you’re a freelancer, taking on an assignment for a client that’s a bit of a stretch might require that you get paid a little less for the chance to learn something new, suggests Pink. Another strategy to making mundane projects more challenging is simply changing their circumstances. When Pink has a writing project similar to one he’s done countless times in the past, for example, he might challenge himself by doing a speed drill to see how quickly he can get it done.
Purpose comes in many shapes and sizes. Most of us aren’t out fighting fires or literally saving lives on a daily basis. But that doesn’t mean we can’t find small ways in which we help others. Ask yourself: “Did I do something that might affect someone else’s life?”
The key to feeling this sense of purpose is focusing not on the roadblocks of a project, but rather on the reason you’re doing it. “For every two struggles of ‘how,’ ask yourself why you are doing something in the first place,” says Pink. “When people know why they are doing something, they tend to do it better and with a little more zeal.”
If you’re continuously coming up short on an answer to this question of why, that might be a signal that you should explore other career options down the line. “Everybody has that reaction from time to time,” says Pink. “If that’s your answer over and over again for a long time, that’s a pretty strong warning sign that you should be doing something else.”