Scientists find it interesting to figure out what motivates people. That’s beneficial for us, since we can use their findings about the general population to know what we personally suits us the best.
Let us look at some of the major findings on motivation from science and how we can turn them into practical actions to help us get more done with less friction:
1. USE INTRINSIC MOTIVATION TO DO CREATIVE WORK
There are two types of motivation: “extrinsic” and “intrinsic”. If you become very motivated to tidy your house when you know there are visitors coming, that’s extrinsic motivation. If you spend time on your days off doing something simply because you like to, then that’s intrinsic motivation.
Research has found that “if, then” rewards lead to worse performance in tasks requiring creative thinking and innovation.
Extrinsic motivation is often used in a work context with “if, then” rewards. When your boss tells you, “if you hit this deadline, then you’ll get a bonus,” that’s an “if, then” reward. It’s providing you with an external incentive to work hard.
This can work well to increase how hard you work—only in particular contexts. These are tasks that are simple and require mostly physical effort or time. Things not involving creative thinking are a perfect candidate for this type of motivation.
However, this approach fails when we look at tasks that require innovation and creative thinking. In those cases, researchers have found that “if, then” rewards lead to worse performance. In some cases, the higher the reward, the worse the participants performed on their tasks!
Extrinsic motivation isn’t our best bet when we’re working on something creative. It narrows our thinking by focusing us on getting the task done so we can earn the reward. In creative work, that’s the opposite of what we want. We need broad thinking, so we can come up with innovative ideas and see new connections.
Put this into practice: Focus on the three elements of intrinsic motivation. If you’re working on a simple, mechanical task, try using “if, then” rewards to increase motivation. Save a fun task to do later as a reward, or a break, a snack, or a short time playing a game.
When you’re doing creative work—writing an article or thinking for a name for your new business—try not to use “if, then” rewards. You will most likely find it difficult to do your best work if you’re using extrinsic motivation.
Instead, focus on what author Dan Pink says are the three elements required for intrinsic motivation:
These three factors—autonomy, mastery, and purpose—are all also critical for job satisfaction. When you have all three in your line of work, consider yourself lucky.
2. KNOW HOW YOUR WORK HELPS OTHER
When we know that what we will make an impact to another person, it makes us work harder.
Put this into practice: Talk to the people who benefit from your work. Try approaching the people your work affects directly. These people are probably not your boss or your colleagues. They’re your end customers or even their customers. They might not be people you interact with daily, but putting in effort to connect with these people could increase your motivation to work hard. You could occasionally ask customers to fill out a satisfaction survey or informally request feedback directly.
If you’re curious about whether it will work for you, try tracking your work results before and after speaking to people, since you might not become aware of the effects yourself.
3. GIVE YOURSELF SOMETHING TO LOSE
There are two parts to this finding that relate to motivation. The first is a cognitive bias called “loss aversion.” For example, if you found $20 on the ground, you’d be pretty happy. But if you had $20 in your wallet and lost it, you’d be really unhappy. Loss aversion refers to the fact that we feel stronger emotions about losing something than we do about gaining the same thing.
The second related finding is about ownership. The “endowment effect” states that we rate things as having higher value if we own them.
Put this into practice: Motivate yourself externally using loss aversion. You can use this psychological principle by putting something at stake when you feel unmotivated.
Whether it’s money, a right to something, or a physical object, make sure you choose something you feel ownership of and a way to hold yourself accountable, such as a friend or colleague. If you feel like it’s not yours in the first place, you won’t feel as much pain to part with it, and its power to motivate you will be lessen. Remember, this is an external motivation mechanism, so it’ll work best for simple, mechanical tasks rather than creative work.
Without motivation, it’s hard to hit deadlines and even harder to do your best work. These approaches aren’t foolproof and won’t necessarily work for everyone. But the best way to find out what motivates you most is to try different approaches and measure your performance. Just remember to match the type of motivation to the task at hand.