When you experience setbacks at work—and every ambitious person inevitably does—you tend to lose motivation. When that new client falls through at the last minute, for example, or when you don’t hit your quarterly goals. Or when your boss gives you “constructive feedback” on a project that you’ve spent weeks perfecting.
You may not even realize that these stumbling blocks are affecting your performance, but they are. Maybe it’s a little harder to get out of bed in the morning. You may not have as much energy to go to the gym or meet friends after work. Perhaps you finding yourself procrastinating on projects.
I used to believe that I simply needed to power through—use whatever energy I had left to keep working and hope for better results. But, finally, exhausted and unsatisfied with the results that I was achieving, I turned to behavioral psychology to learn how to get “unstuck” and perform at my best.
I’m going to cover the psychology behind how rewards influence our behavior and offer some techniques that you can practice to get and stay motivated.
Why We Crave Rewards
Alexander Rothman’s theory of behavior maintenance suggests that your ability to maintain a positive behavior or habit is dependent on your perception of the benefits:
Decisions regarding behavioral initiation are predicted to depend on favorable expectations regarding future outcomes, whereas decisions regarding behavioral maintenance are predicted to depend on perceived satisfaction with received outcomes.
However, challenging and ambitious projects don’t always provide immediate rewards. Sometimes you even get negative feedback for prolonged periods.
When we receive positive feedback, we become more motivated. And when our motivation increases, we perform better. It’s a cycle that feeds on itself.
If we perceive the rewards resulting from a given behavior as insufficient, or if we receive negative feedback, we lose motivation. This lack of motivation might manifest itself as procrastination or a lack of energy. We experience this because our brains are telling us to stop investing energy in something that is not helping us.
Douglas Lisle, a psychologist who specializes in motivation, describes moods and emotions as “feedback systems” that can indicate the effectiveness of our actions. He says that anxiety is actually an important and valuable emotion:
Anxiety is generally a useful guide—signaling us that our proposed endeavor may require our very best effort to succeed and, in fact, may require talent beyond our current abilities… The survival value of anxiety is obvious—if you are contemplating a trek across dangerous terrain, you had better be anxious. You had better consider carefully whether this is an intelligent undertaking. And, if it is, your anxiety will help to facilitate careful planning, checking and rechecking of supplies, the rehearsing of potentially needed skills, worrying about things that could go wrong, and so forth.
Anxiety is a signal that we may need to rethink our strategy. When you are overly anxious, you won’t feel motivated or energized. The lack of motivation hinders your ability to perform, which hinders your ability to achieve goals.
When you’re in this negative feedback loop, it’s difficult to get up off the couch and get to work. You just want to sit around and do nothing. You can’t seem to cross items off your to-do list, even though they’ve been there for weeks. But as you begin to take action and pick up small wins, you start feeling less stuck.
After making more progress, you’re still not quite at your peak level of performance because there’s still some uncertainty about your ability to succeed and achieve results. You still have some degree of stress, but it’s healthy stress that’s enough to motivate you to keep taking action. As you continue to gain momentum, you reach a state of optimal motivation and performance, before reaching a new plateau.
How We Measure Success
Behind most of the decisions we make is a cost-benefit analysis. This analysis may be done consciously or unconsciously. We compare the benefits that we expect to receive to the costs that we expect will be required.
While money is one of the most obvious forms of benefit, rewards can come in many forms. Humans also seek social status and positive feedback from peers. Rewards validate your cost-benefit analysis. It’s evidence that gives you more confidence that you’re moving in the right direction.
For example, say that you decide to start freelancing on the side because you’re confident that you can make some extra money and build your portfolio. When you get positive feedback, in the form of a new client, your cost-benefit analysis gains validation. Your initial hypothesis, that you can start a freelancing business, is more likely to be correct.
As a result of the monetary reward from closing the new client, your cost-benefit balance further tips toward motivation (the left side of the graphic above). The benefits outweigh the costs, motivating you to continue freelancing.
Conversely, if you were to spend months trying to find a freelancing client but never manage to land one, your brain may interpret freelancing as a poor return on investment. This would limit your energy for seeking clients.
If your brain doesn’t understand both the costs of inaction and the benefits of action, you won’t feel very motivated.
Some people are more motivated by fear. Rather than moving toward something—such as a freelancing business—they are motivated to move away from something else. They may be motivated to get out of student debt or quit their day job. It’s important to think in terms of the desired action (freelancing in this case) as well as the undesired action or the status quo. If your brain doesn’t understand both the costs of inaction and the benefits of action, you won’t feel very motivated.
This may seem straightforward, but it gets more interesting when you consider that we don’t always do a good job of interpreting feedback. Many people don’t internalize the rewards they receive. Some may even be succeeding but actually believe they’re failing.
Failures can generally be grouped into two categories: real and imagined. If you have ambitious goals, you will inevitably experience a real failure. You might shut down your business, take a loss on an investment, or get dumped by a partner. However, it’s far more often that your perceived failures are actually just small missteps moving you in the right direction. You simply need to reinterpret the feedback you receive.
Techniques for Boosting Motivation
Regardless of whether the negative feedback you’re getting is real or imagined, there are techniques you can use to regain or sustain motivation during challenging times. Imagined failure—in the form of overreacting to negative feedback or lacking appreciation for positive feedback—can be solved through changing the way you think about your work and results. You can overcome real failure by changing your strategy.
The techniques below can help break a cycle of negative feedback and get you back into a positive feedback loop.
Change Your Thinking
Oftentimes, feelings of failure are merely figments of imagination. In these cases, you don’t actually need more money or more pats on the back from your peers. Rather, you simply need to change the way you interpret your situation and internalize the rewards you’re already receiving.
- Set achievable goals. Studies have found that when people make progress toward goals, they are more motivated to continue. Progress reduces the perceived costs and increases confidence in future benefits. Achieving a goal also gives you data that indicates your cost-benefit analysis was correct and you are moving in the right direction. One strategy is to break big goals into smaller goals that you can achieve on a consistent basis. Your long-term goal may be to sell your company for $1 billion, but that will take years. Without some smaller wins along the way, you may lose motivation. Consider setting a weekly goal, such as shipping a new feature, or publishing a piece of content. Accomplishing shorter-term goals will keep you motivated to achieve your longer-term goals.
- Acknowledge intangible rewards. According to a study by researchers at Princeton, money can make you happier, but you reach diminishing returns once you make $75,000 per year. Your biology is more concerned with simply surviving than climbing up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and realizing your full potential. Rewards such as supporting your community or increasing your financial safety net are still important. But you won’t necessarily gain a dopamine hit of motivation from these things like you will from landing a new job that pays $75,000 a year. You’ll need to remind yourself of the less tangible rewards you are receiving.
- Change your interpretation of failure. When you fail at something, you lose motivation. Your brain tells you to stop investing time and money in an opportunity that might not lead to success. However, failure is also a learning opportunity. Now that you’ve failed, you know what doesn’t work. You can try something new that’s more likely to work. When you fail, don’t identify it as a failure. Instead of telling yourself, “I’m a loser,” tell yourself, “I lost this time, but I’ll win in the long run.” Also remember that there’s an element of chance in most pursuits. The loss may not have even been a result of your performance.
- Upgrade your definition of success. When you decide to start a business, your goal is probably to achieve profitability, or perhaps to sell it. However, there is a high degree of chance in starting a company. Sometimes even the most talented and hardworking entrepreneurs fail. You don’t know how the economy will change, what new regulations will affect your market, how consumer preferences will shift, or what new competitors may appear. Instead of letting your motivation depend on factors outside your control, define success in terms of making good decisions and executing them to the best of your abilities.
- Increase the cost of inaction. When you win at a video game, your brain thinks you’ve just done something beneficial, but you really haven’t. Remind yourself that climbing to the top of the World of Warcraft leaderboard is not as rewarding as getting healthier, closing your next deal, or starting that nonprofit. In fact, spending too much time playing video games will only make it less likely that you will achieve your most important goals. Remind yourself that inaction has a cost and try to deprive yourself of the rewards you receive from inaction.
Change Your Behavior
Many personal development articles encourage suppressing negative emotions and forcing yourself through whatever comes your way. And, from a psychological perspective, it’s easier to push through hardship than it is to accept that you are falling short. Suppressing negative feedback, though, allows you to avoid reconsidering your strategies and priorities. You may actually need less hustle and more strategic thinking.
- Take on a new challenge. If the rewards you’re receiving are not meeting your expectations given your perceived abilities, they may not be motivating. Lisle writes that “people sometimes become depressed because their lives no longer require their very best efforts. Consistently operating at significantly less than your full capacity may save energy, but it often doesn’t feel good.” Find an opportunity to take on a new project at work or start a side project that challenges you.
- Change your strategy. If you’re unsatisfied with the results of your efforts, consider why you are not achieving sufficient rewards and what you can do to improve. It may turn out that you are working on the right project or pursuing a great opportunity but simply need to change the way you are doing it. For example, if your blog hasn’t grown the way you’d hoped, you may need to shift from writing short articles frequently to more in-depth articles less frequently. Or you may need to learn or improve a skill that can help you succeed, such as SEO or Facebook ads.
- Choose the right opportunity. The cost-benefit analysis that you ran to determine what you should be working on didn’t pan out as expected. This is common because it’s difficult to predict the future. If you determine that you are accurately measuring your results and changing your strategy is insufficient, it may be best to shift your focus to something new. While this realization may bruise your ego, it would be foolish to deny the reality that you are not achieving the results you are capable of. Consider your strengths, weakness, and values—and find your next big opportunity.