Five ways to sustain your career motivation

content carrot career motivation

Our motivation for our work is rarely constant. It’s natural for our motivation to be lower on some days, weeks or even months. Thankfully, psychological research tells us that it is possible to feel more motivated – both in the short term when you need to get work done, as well as over the years of your career.

1. Write about your future identity

Psychologists led by Mesmin Destin at Northwestern University found that students who wrote about their future lives experienced several benefits. The students demonstrated immediately improved posture, which psychologists use as a proxy for the extent to which people feel ready to take action. The students also performed better on an academic test than other students who did not do the same writing exercise.

In order to boost your action readiness and performance, imagine yourself a few years after you have finished your studies. How will your living situation change from what it is right now in terms of your finances? How do you think your greater earning power and/or status will affect or influence how you will be perceived by others? Now spend a few minutes writing about the life and career you hope to achieve, describing all of the thoughts and feelings that come to mind.

2. Help others to help yourself

Worrying about your work and motivation isn’t actually very helpful. Merely allowing yourself to feel anxious or wonder why you are not more motivated may actually lead to a vicious cycle of reduced happiness and even lower motivation.

A research article in Journal of Counseling Psychology suggests that taking action may give you more of a lift than simply focusing on your worries and lack of motivation. In a series of experiments, a team led by Purdue University’s Blake Allan encouraged employees to focus on helping others in the real world. One group of employees was asked to do five new things to help other people on just one day of the week (which happened to be a Tuesday). A second, control group of employees was asked to do something new each day to help other people, so that these employees also did five things over the course of the week.

Allan and his colleagues found that those employees who did five new things to help others got a more significant boost to their sense of meaningfulness about their work. Taking just one action a day for five days was less beneficial.

So, if you want to feel a greater sense of meaningfulness in your work, pick an occasional day to be helpful. Find five ways – even if they are relatively small actions – to help others. By doing so, you will likely help yourself to feel more motivated too.

3. Set yourself a deadline

Recently, researchers led by Maayan Katzir at Tel Aviv University wrote a scientific paper in top journal Cognition entitled ‘Cognitive performance is enhanced if one knows when the task will end’. As you might guess from the title, Katzir and her colleagues found that people were motivated to work harder when they had a specific deadline for their work.

The way to harness this effect then is to set yourself deadlines for your work or studies. For example, imagine that it’s seven o’clock on a Monday evening and you want to do some studying. Rather than simply seeing how much you can get done before you get tired, set yourself an initial deadline: perhaps you will work at least until 8.30pm. When that initial 90 minutes is up, you might decide to take a break then and continue – or you may decide to stop entirely.

The research by Katzir and her collaborators suggests that you could be somewhat more productive in that 90 minutes with the deadline than without. When you have no deadline and believe that you have an unlimited amount of time to work, you are more likely to be less focused and more easily distracted.

Remember: when it gets to 8.30pm, you might decide to carry on working or stop. The choice is yours. But the point is that by setting yourself initial deadlines and then monitoring your progress against the clock, you may be able to concentrate more intently on whatever you need to do.

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4. Redesign your job

Psychologists have found that employees can often boost their own job motivation through an activity known as job crafting. By crafting or changing aspects of your work, you may be able to create a healthier, more motivating work environment for yourself.

Researchers led by Machteld van den Heuvel at the University of Amsterdam found that employees who engaged in job crafting were able to boost their feelings of confidence and mood in only four weeks. To craft a better work environment for yourself, consider two major questions:

  • In order to allow you to do your job better, what resources could you draw upon? Resources could include training courses, advice from colleagues, clearer instructions from your line manager, the opportunity to shadow or observe colleagues, and so on. However, avoid simply wishing that you had more resources. Instead, consider how you could ask others for these resources so that you can do your work more effectively.
  • To make your job more interesting, what further challenges could you take on? Employees who keep doing the same tasks over and over tend to experience lower motivation; in contrast, employees who are learning and mastering new skills tend to experience higher motivation. If you feel under-utilised, ask your line manager or other stakeholders for more interesting work that you could realistically take on. Perhaps you have observed colleagues doing certain tasks and you now feel that you could do that kind of work, for example. The point here is to look around you at things that would interest you – and to ask to be involved rather than merely hoping that someone might give them to you.

The process of job crafting requires actually making a plan and then following through with the actions on the plan. Simply reading the two questions is not enough. To create a better, more motivating work environment, set aside time to reflect properly on the questions. Write down possible actions that you might take and turn your actions into a project plan. Then, over the course of several weeks, make sure to take those actions that will help you to craft a more fulfilling job for yourself.

5. Seek intrinsic rewards

Over the years of your career, it’s worth thinking about the two types of motivation identified by psychologists: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is defined as the feeling of doing an activity to attain a separable outcome such as a financial bonus or the status among others that comes with having achieved something. Intrinsic motivation is defined as the feeling of doing an activity for its inherent satisfaction – for example, for fun or challenge rather than because of external rewards or pressures.

Most people need to work for extrinsic reasons – they need money to pay their rent and buy the things they need to live. However, studies show that the most successful people tend to experience a great deal of intrinsic motivation from their work. When people enjoy their work, feel curious about it and challenged by it, they find it easier to perform well and achieve success.

As a result, be careful not to chase larger jobs purely for the financial or other extrinsic rewards. A larger salary is, of course, attractive to many. However, people who work with little intrinsic motivation may struggle to sustain a high level of performance over time.

The better long-term strategy may be to pursue work that more genuinely interests you. If you enjoy working with clients, for example, then seek out more client interaction in your next role. But if you enjoy creating financial models, then look for more opportunities to do this in your next job.

When you feel more intrinsically motivated by your work, you will feel less emotionally drained; in turn, this may allow you to perform better and achieve career success in a more sustainable fashion.

Author: Dr Rob Yeung is an organisational psychologist at leadership consulting firm Talentspace

This article was first published in Student Accountant in July 2022 | Get the SA app now

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