How to Stay Insanely Self-Motivated, According to Science

It is easy to set a goal — we do it all the time. Staying motivated to achieve those goals, well that’s a different story.

Take New Year’s resolutions, for instance — while 93% of people set them, only 8% of them actually find the inner-drive to follow through.

However, motivation is a better predictor or of career success than intelligence, ability or salary — so we’d better get it right for ourselves and for our teams.

Many are surprised to learn that although I own a finance firm, many of my team members are from very “un-Wall Street” backgrounds. The reason behind this is that a smart, motivated person can accomplish nearly anything. Even if they haven’t learned it before, they’ll have the drive, determination, and willpower to get it done. While a less-motivated veteran Wall Streeter might initially hit the ground quicker, I’ve found that willpower is a bigger determinant of long-term success.

The good news is that contrary to popular belief, self-motivation can be changed, and it isn’t some innate, God-given trait. Research shows that there are some proven ways you can become self-motivated, even when the going gets tough.

Read on to learn what you should (and shouldn’t) do to become self-motivated:

The crux of the issue behind most people’s self-motivation.

Staying motivated is not something that happens naturally all the time. Rather, we need to be intentional about our behaviors to be sure we are staying on the right path.

Unfortunately, people often take the wrong direction in finding motivation — they blindly tie it to huge goals that are unattainable and use all of their energy to attempt to power through it all and get it done. In reality, a lot of this leads to burnout and waning willpower.

I’ve seen it time and again in entrepreneur groups I join: they’ll be motivated by some huge desire — to become the next Steve Jobs or disrupt the airline industry — yet do nothing to stoke their inner flame in the meantime. For instance, if your goal is to open a store, you will only feel a sense of accomplishment when that store actually opens, and then burn the midnight oil and wear yourself out trying to get there. But this could take years and be too difficult.

Instead, start by being specific and making it a challenge.

According to the American Psychological Association, people who set goals that are both specific and challenging, are 90% more likely to achieve what they’ve set their mind to. When we set goals that are broad and general our motivation is lessened since we don’t have realistic and measurable milestones to check off along the way. For instance, if you want to increase your sales, and leave the goal at just that, you could technically accomplish it with one more sale (or be left in permanent limbo as your sales increase more).

As I always tell my team, goals are dreams with deadlines. Here’s a more motivating and achievable example of the above:

“I will increase sales by 5% in the next six months by engaging with clients on a weekly basis, requiring my direct reports to do the same and by tracking our progress on a monthly basis with the entire team.”

Being realistic with what you can achieve in a given amount of time is crucial to your success and for the morale and motivation levels of your team. While it is important to aim high, it is equally as important to encourage yourself and your team by hitting goals along the way. Each time we hit one of these goals a burst of dopamine is released — this allows us to train our brain to crave achievement and push towards the next item on our list.

Another key here is that you don’t want yourself (or possibly the team) to feel scared of setting challenging goals and not reaching them. Setting those type of challenging goals is a major ingredient for success (even if you miss a lot of them). That’s why I encourage reach goals; which hit the Goldilocks level between realistic and slightly out there. That changes the paradigm of missing goals, because you didn’t fail, you simply reached higher than you did before.

Own it.

Having control and ownership of what we are doing makes us more motivated to actually do it. Gaining autonomy over your work and allowing your team to do the same can create a vibrantly productive environment.

Psychology Today explains how this phenomenon even showed up in the form of a Betty Crocker box in the 1950s. During this time General Mills launched a Betty Crocker brand of “instant cake” — all you had to do was add water! To their surprise, the launch failed miserably.

How could it be!? After bringing in a team of psychologists they discovered that their new instant cakes were not selling because women felt a lack of ownership in the process; they preferred taking a few extra steps to feel like they were contributing to the success of the project (or the cake in this case). So what did General Mills do? They added an egg! Yes, by simply adding an egg, and lengthening the process, the sales of the instant cake soared.

So how can we implement this with our teams or in the office? In your next staff meeting (or ask a manager) try handing over the mic; have each member report on what they have been working on and what they have achieved in the last few weeks. You may quickly start to notice that when people are given a chance to brag on what they are working on they will work harder for a successful result.

Celebrate the little wins.

Like most entrepreneurs, you probably have major — even audacious — long-term goals that you’re tackling. But as you probably know, these huge aspirations won’t get accomplished overnight.

That’s why you should find the time to make a symbolic fist pump every day, instead of waiting to reward yourself solely at the finish line. As Tech.Co co-founder Frank Gruber put it, “This is a journey — a hard one — and the only way to make it sustainable and bearable is if you actually acknowledge your small successes along the way.”

Granted, sometimes it might be hard to see something as a win when you hate doing it (like a boring Excel file). In these cases, it’s great to look at any broader impacts it might have (such as its ability to help your firm with an exciting mission), or to focus on the fact that once you’re done with it, you can move on to bigger and better things (if it’s necessary). For example, whenever I have to do less than-ideal-paperwork for my business, I celebrate and focus on my mission to empower people financially.

By celebrating those tiny wins, you’ll find a much-needed daily dose of motivation.

Reap the rewards.

“By fighting the small battles. I get joy in overcoming obstacles, and by celebrating after a small win. This includes rewarding myself for a job well done. You can get overwhelmed by focusing too much on the big picture.”
— Will Curran, President of Endless Entertainment

Just because we are all grown up now, doesn’t mean that we no longer react positively to rewards. The next time you meet a goal or milestone treat yourself to something you have been eyeing or haven’t had the guts do for yourself without an excuse.

Motivation expert Bob Nelson says, “you get what you reward” — and the same goes for your team. Studies show that when employees are continuously rewarded they are more likely to feel valued, stay with the company, invest in the company and feel committed to the company.

While raises and promotions do have their time and place, I’ve found that tiny ones are necessary too, and they can be just as rewarding. So take the time to say thank you, cater lunch, let out (or leave) early on a Friday; don’t forget to treat yourself and others!

Be accountable.

“Peer to Peer Accountability. This is a crucial step I take. Look for another business owner in the same or totally different profession that you can talk to on a weekly or daily basis if possible to discuss ideas, challenges, and triumphs. This is a great way to keep both parties accountable.”
— Adam Martin, Founder of Laabn Social Haircare Inc.

An important part of goal setting and staying motivated is holding yourself accountable. Research shows that after setting a specific goal, 70% of individuals who sent a weekly update to a friend were successful in meeting their achievements (met either halfway or fully), compared to the other 30% that did not.

I’ve found that mentors can be worth their weight in gold for not only providing that much-needed accountability, but also for suggesting next steps/viewpoints on what to do if those goals aren’t met. They’ve already been in your shoes, after all.

Think about motivation as a mindset; the goal or task you are working towards doesn’t change, but the way you see it and think about it does. If you need to, reframe the scope to something manageable, find a way to manage it yourself (even if it was delegated), hold yourself accountable and remember to treat yourself when you achieve it.

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Elle Kaplan is the CEO and Founder of LexION Capital. Learn more about her company and investing here, or leave a comment below to share your tips!


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