More Research on Staying Motivated

I read an article in Scientific American the other day (Nov 2012, Daisy Yuhas) that I thought I’d share. I talk a lot about motivation primarily because I think it’s an interesting concept, but also because I’m always trying to find it and hold onto it myself. The article outlines three elements identified by research that are important for sustaining motivation. I figure they’re worth knowing, so I’ll share them here:

The first one is Autonomy. This one was interesting to me because I had never really thought about it before. I talk a lot about the importance of finding or developing an intrinsic vs. extrinsic payoff for sticking with a task – which I still believe to be true – but I’ve learned that that’s not the whole story. It turns out that regardless of whether you engage in an activity for the internal or external reward, the more important thing is that you feel a sense of control over the task. You need to feel that you’re in charge.

The second element, according to the article, is Value. This one wasn’t a surprise: I think it just makes sense that the more you believe in or value something, the more willing and able you’ll be to see it through.

The final element mentioned is Competence. To me this speaks to the cultivation of an intrinsic reward system: the better you get at something, the more rewarding is to do it. And the more rewarding something is, the easier it is to stick with it. We all like doing things we’re good at; the key is doing something long enough to develop a sense of mastery over it.

Think about the elements outlined above, and how they might apply to you and your own motivation. How can you gain a sense of autonomy in everything you do? What parts of the task can you identify that align with your values and beliefs? When you’re feeling unmotivated, can you remind yourself that the better you get at it the easier it will become to stick with it?

The important thing to remember, though, is that things like Autonomy, Value, and Competence are just words until you really make the effort to discover, create, manipulate, and use them successfully wherever you need a motivation boost. Often times this means creating a shift in perspective and being willing to see things in a new way. It’s about digging, stretching, and seeing the bigger picture. Every action you take, whether a one-time thing or a sustained effort, adds up to something bigger. Also know that this will always be a work in progress and that motivation has to be reinvented every day, with every endeavour.

Making Changes

We all think of making changes in our lives; but making the decision to move forward and shake things up isn’t always easy.

I wrote an article some time ago about motivation and goals; the premise being that you don’t necessarily have to be motivated to act. I still believe this to be true, of course; but we also know that motivation isn’t the only reason we fail to move forward with things.

Self-imposed fear and doubt are also big reasons we fail to act; and we really have to work on overcoming these in order to be successful and happy in our lives. But there is also another, often unnoticed reason we should pay more attention to: the habit of telling ourselves that “it’s not the right time.”

I’m sure we all know on some level that there never really is an ideal time for anything; but we continue to use this excuse anyway because it’s so believable: “I can’t change jobs until I find one that offers the same security”. Or “I can’t buy the house (start the family, build the business plan…) because I don’t have the time or money right now”.

It’s easy to fool ourselves with this line of thinking because it sounds so logical. It can also be very helpful at times when fear and doubt is the underlying driving factor: we don’t have to take the chance and risk failing.

It’s true that our current circumstances often do present legitimate-looking barriers to our desired future. But what we have to remember is that taking action actually changes our circumstances. Once we actually do something, the situation we thought was holding us back is no longer our situation. We suddenly and automatically find ourselves in a new place with a new set of opportunities and challenges.

Of course it’s always an option to wait it out and hope that the stars align just right; but chances are we’ll be waiting a long time. As Albert Einstein once said, “Nothing happens until something moves.”

“It’s not the right time” is neither a logical nor self-empowering argument for staying still. The time to act on our goals and dreams will never be perfect; and we really can change our circumstances by changing our actions. To truly live our lives means having dreams, setting goals, and taking risks. It means learning to understand what’s really within our control, and not being afraid to make choices and take charge our own destinies.

How to Make Good Decisions

If you’re thinking about how to make good decisions in your life, you might want to explore some strategic planning models.

Truth be told, I don’t know a lot about strategic planning – but the one thing that’s always stuck with me is this: “The cardinal rule is to take the path that allows you to change course if your initial decision proves wrong”.

This is a very powerful statement I think, as it speaks to being proactive and thoughtful about our choices. Many of us (including myself for many years) are too passive about the decisions we make that determine where we end up. Granted, there’s something to be said for “going with the flow”, or trusting the idea that things will work out the way they should. But the problem is that when we take the time to reflect on our lives, we see that things don’t always turn out the way we had hoped they would.

They say that hindsight is 20-20, and unfortunately the choices we could have made are much clearer than the decisions we’re faced with at present. But if you believe that every little choice can alter the events of our lives in some way, you’ll agree that as hard as it is sometimes it would probably pay to be more deliberate with our decisions.

Whenever we’re faced with a set of circumstances that demands a decision between two or more courses of action, the first thing we need to do is get out of our own way. In other words, we need to truthfully examine our own anxieties, assumptions, and self-imposed limitations, and toss them aside. Decisions are easy to make if they’re based on fear: we simply choose the easy way out to avoid any discomfort. But this most often isn’t the best decision in the long run.

The second thing we need to do is examine the realities of the situation: “What’s really possible?” “What’s really the potential impact of this decision over the other?”

Then when we see a situation as clearly as we can, reasonably free from the clouds of subjectivity, we can return to the cardinal rule of strategic planning: “If I make this decision and it doesn’t go so well, how difficult would it be to course-correct and choose a different path?” Of course following this logic doesn’t automatically guarantee success – but if we do need to shift gears, we end up saving a lot of precious time and effort by having thought it through the first time around.

How To Set Goals

We hear all the time that setting goals is crucial to one’s success. But recently there’s been some backlash against this, arguing that goal-setting can be detrimental because we tend to set unachievable goals, as well as miss other opportunities because we are hyper-focused on achieving that one thing.

(But then there’s the opposite problem of becoming too flexible: changing course like the wind and following every shining ball that happens to bounce by…)

As with anything, there’s a happy medium. Of course setting goals is important: we can’t get to where we want to be unless we know where it is we’re going and how we’re going to get there. But on the same token, we know that the only constant in life is change and that circumstances are fluid.

The bottom line, then, is that we need to have a clear idea of what we want and how we’re planning to achieve it; but we also need to flexible and be willing to adjust along the way as we gather new information and fall upon unexpected experiences.

Said another way, the key to successful goal-setting and execution is to have a clear picture of what you want – while understanding that certain elements of that picture may look different by the time you get there.

You can develop this picture by being clear on your values, and by identifying how it is you want to feel. With every choice you’re faced with in life, check to see what aligns most closely to your values and how the decision is most likely to affect your quality of life. Then see how the decision fits into your overall goal and see what needs to be adjusted!

Your Leadership Development Plan

If you want to be a strong leader in any capacity, it would be wise to start crafting your leadership development plan.

Where do you want to be a better leader? Perhaps it’s at home with your kids. Or maybe you’re looking for a promotion at work. Or maybe you just want to be a stronger role model in your community… Wherever you want to be a leader, you can – as long as you’ve got the passion as well as the ability to reflect, learn, and grow.

Your leadership development plan begins with an assessment of who you are and who you want to be. When targeting areas for this step, try to just pick two or three to start with. Some actions we take will have a more broader-reaching impact, and will accelerate our growth more quickly than others. Choose a couple of areas that you really feel are priorities. You can always add on to the list and increase the complexity of your plan later.

As possible goal areas, consider any and all ideas that come to you through your ongoing self-reflection. And think about where you can begin to practice your leadership skills: what non-threatening situations can you identify to practice on a small scale? – It’s really about flexing the muscles and developing smaller habits that lead to new ways of being.

Also be creative when thinking about the supports you need to help with your leadership growth. Perhaps a manager or mentor can help create leadership opportunities for you. Maybe there’s a training course you can sign up for at work or in your community…

Remember that it’s important to be flexible in your thinking when creating and acting on your leadership development plan. In order to grow, we need to do some things differently than we have in the past!

Here are a few quotes I like to serve as food for thought in this regard:


“He that is good with a hammer tends to think everything is a nail.” – Abraham Maslow

“The most damaging phrase in the language is: ‘It’s always been done that way.’” – Rear Admiral Grace Hopper

“Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

“I am always doing that which I can not do, in order that I may learn how to do it.” – Pablo Picasso

“It takes a habit to replace a habit.” – Napoleon Hill


Here are some questions to get started. Answer them in as much detail as you can, and take as much time as necessary to make them clear and actionable:


What do you see as your major strengths?

What do you see as your areas for growth?

Which skills related to your leadership is it most important for you to develop?

In what ways can you apply your strengths to more areas of your work and life?

How can you strengthen the weaknesses you identified?

What resources do you need to strengthen these skills?

How will you know when you are successful?


All of these questions are equally important, and they’re not easy to answer. They take a great deal of time and reflection, and they require complete honesty and candor. You will also need to revisit them regularly, and ask as many people as you can to answer them for you as well – and be prepared and willing to hear their answers.

Also take the time to revisit the last question until you have a crystal-clear answer: we can’t get to where we’re going until we know exactly where it is we’re headed!

What Do You Want Out of Life?

Before you can get anywhere, you need to know where you are going. It sounds simple, but when it comes to life goals or dreams, it’s not so clear. We think, “I want my business to be a success,” or “I want to be happy.” But ask 100 different people to define success, or to say what makes them happy, and you’re going to get 100 different answers.

That’s why when it comes to getting what you want, the first step is to decide – specifically – what you want in your life. Not in generalities, but in specifics. For instance:

NOT: “I want to be skinny,” but, “I want to wear a size 10 and have my BMI, blood pressure, and cholesterol in healthy ranges.”

NOT: “I want to be financially secure,” but, “I want to be debt-free and have $100,000 in the bank by the time I’m 50.”

NOT: “I want a new job,” but, “I want a job that allows me to work flexible hours from home, making $20 an hour, using my skills in word processing and business management.”


Specificity is critical in goal-setting for several reasons:

If you only have a general idea of what you want, you can only get a general idea of how to achieve it.

Being specific saves time. You will intuitively be able to sort through opportunities that are presented to you and know immediately whether they are in line with your goals or not.

Being specific helps your mind create a vivid picture of what you want. Once your mind can picture it, it’s much easier to achieve it.


If you’re having trouble specifying your dreams, here are some questions to ask yourself:

What does it look like?

How will you know when you’ve made it?

When do you want to achieve this goal?

What does it feel like, taste like, smell like?

What would a day in your dream life be like, from the time you get up until the time you go to bed?


Write these answers down and revisit them frequently to see if they’re still true, and to remind yourself of what you’re working towards.

Also remember that the only way to know if the goals you’re aiming for are the right goals is to figure out if they are your heart’s desire. Sometimes it takes some detective work to peel back the layers of societal and family expectations to get at what YOU really want.

There are clues all around you: If you fall asleep dreaming about something, wake up thinking about something, and find yourself perking up whenever you meet someone doing what you’d like to do, you’re on the right track. Meanwhile, if you get a sinking sensation when you pull into the garage of house with the white picket fence, or find yourself calling in sick to that six-figure job “everyone” would kill to have, then you may be in the wrong place… for you.

So what do you do if you find you’ve been chasing after the wrong dream? You readjust. You find ways to move your current life closer to the one you really long for. Maybe that means getting up an hour early to work on your mystery novel. Maybe it means spending your weekends teaching art to inner city kids. Maybe it means volunteering to do taxes at the senior center. Take a small step and see how it feels. Then take another, and another, until you know deep in your heart you’re on the right track. If you are, the momentum will carry you forward.

Goals and Dreams

We all have certain goals and dreams, but for some reason we often keep them to ourselves. Here are three great reasons why you should share them out loud:

1. Feedback:

First off, when we share our goals and dreams with others we solicit their feedback about them. This isn’t always helpful, of course, but it certainly can be. People often have very good ideas if we give them a chance. They might have a resource we could use to help get us closer to the goal, or they might have a suggestion that might make it easier to attain.

Even the negative feedback we receive can be of great help. I’ve known many people who did something because they were told they couldn’t: someone’s negative feedback caused a sense of anger that spurred them to succeed.

2. Clarity:

The second good reason for sharing your goals and dreams out loud is that doing so fosters clarity. Our goals and dreams tend to stay very vague when they’re trapped inside our heads; but the act of telling someone about these goals and dreams means first having to make sense of and articulate them for yourself.

And the clearer your goals are, the more attainable they become: it’s when we can clearly understand and visualize our goals that we can start to devise ways to move toward them.

3. Making it real

Last but not least, stating our goals and dreams out loud makes them real. When we declare what it is that we really want, we’re forced to take our goals and dreams more seriously. And it goes without saying that we have a better chance of getting reaching our goals if we see them as something more than just a fanciful wish.


So whatever you want is yours for the taking. And you deserve it. Ask yourself what you really want from your life, and share your thoughts with anyone who will listen!

Intrinsic Motivation

Here’s a piece of research I came across that serves as a good reminder about the importance of clarifying why we’re doing what we’re doing, and what we want to get out of life:

Years ago Edward Deci conducted an experiment in his search for discovering why people do what they do. He asked each of the participants in his study to complete a puzzle: half were given a dollar for working on the puzzle, and the other half were offered nothing. At the end of the time allotted, Deci left the room and instructed the participants that they could continue working on the puzzle if they wished (or read a magazine, or do nothing). The participants who received no reward continue do work, while the ones given money ceased to work on the puzzle.

The point of this outcome is that our interest in a task fades when we’re being governed by external forces; even if it’s something we’d enjoy doing otherwise.

I often talk about building in reward structures if you need that extra boost to finish a task (i.e., work for two hours then treat yourself to a latte). This is still a good strategy, but just make sure the latte isn’t the primary reward: the research results above show us that external rewards don’t maintain behavior.

Let the latte be the driver of your behavior if that’s what it takes; but when you’ve reached the goal always go back to the reasons you engaged in the task in the first place. Focus not the immediate reasons: “because I’ll miss the deadline if it doesn’t get done”, etc., but on the big reasons: “because this task leads to this, which leads to this, which leads to the realization of my ultimate goals and purpose”.

So enjoy the latte that helped drive you to the goal. But do so with the conscious acknowledgment that you wholly deserve it. Acknowledge your ability to set and achieve goals, and how hard you’re working to realize your dreams and become more of who you want to be!

Planning For Life

Most of us plan reasonably well: we easily decide what to wear in the morning, what to have for dinner in the evening, what route to take to work. We also plan without too much difficulty the tasks of our jobs: how we prioritize our to-do lists, the most efficient ways to get things done…

But how much time do we spend planning for life?

Many of us fall short when it comes to taking a longer-term view of our lives. Granted, this doesn’t apply to everyone: some of us are better than others with this level of planning – but if you were to ask around (and people were completely honest with their responses), you’d likely find that a lot of us really are lacking in this area.

A friend of mine, who had worked in a nursing home, told me once that she had come to realize an important difference between the happy tenants in the home and the ones who seemed depressed: the unhappy ones failed to plan, she said. Not just financially, but in any way.

So what is your strategic and tactical plan for creating a fulfilling life? In other words, what is your long-term vision (for your health, your relationships, your financial situation, your legacy…) – and what goals do you need to set out to help realize that vision?

Operationally, what do you need to be doing now – what habits, skills, and relationships do you need to cultivate? What resources do you need to accomplish your goals?

And what is your control system (i.e., when you get off track, how do you measure your results and get refocused)? Do you have a contingency plan?

These questions may seem daunting – but as they say, “the devil (or God) is in the details”. How specific you get with your plan is entirely up to you: we all have different preferences and needs, and there’s no one right way to tackle this. You may set very clear 1, 2, 5, and 10-year SMART Goals for your life, for example; or you may stay at the visionary level and let the details take care of themselves (perhaps using a Vision Board as a tool).

Or better yet, you might use a combination of these approaches.

It’s very rewarding to find that balance between a disciplined approach to life and not taking the whole thing too seriously. It’s also empowering to be able to take control over what we can in our lives, while understanding the virtues of surrender. The creation of a flexible and evolving life plan helps us to honor and integrate these perspectives, as well as develop a clarity of intention and a stronger sense of purpose and hope.