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Motivation has been in short supply the last few years. The pandemic left us with a condition called “languishing”. Something the New York Times referred to as “the blah you’re feeling”. Writer Adam Grant described it as a sense of stagnation and emptiness:

“It wasn’t burnout — we still had energy. It wasn’t depression — we didn’t feel hopeless. We just felt somewhat joyless and aimless.”

I feel like that languishing feeling hasn’t really gone anywhere. I feel like we’re all still feeling a bit depleted, even if it feels weird to admit that a few years on.

Depending on what study you read, just 15% of the global workforce feels motivated at work (this is according to Gallup). Which would lead you to believe a whopping 85% of people don’t.

I feel like it’s hard to pin down an accurate figure showing how motivated people truly feel at work, because it probably changes on a daily basis. As you might guess, when people are feeling motivated at work they’re generally more productive, profitable, helpful to others, less likely to resign, and overall cool to be around.

There have been plenty of studies done on motivation and performance at work that suggest motivated people enjoy greater job satisfaction, increased performance, and a general willingness to succeed which can be infectious. Obviously, this is super beneficial for organisations and the teams that operate within them. But motivation is fickle. It fluctuates. And that’s not normally an option at work.

What motivates us appears be changing: staying in one place your whole career and working for a pay cheque seems to be lower down people’s list of priorities. We seem to be actively avoiding toxic leaders, unsupportive cultures, and glass ceilings. Preferring to join brands with purpose, businesses that give something back or try to change the world for the better. These are the kinds of company that will have a long term edge in not only attracting talent but retaining people as well.

What is motivation?

As with many things – happinessimpostorismtrust – you probably don’t need a definition for motivation spelled out for you. Motivation is feeling energised, hungry, driven. You know it when you feel it. It’s almost harder to pin down feeling unmotivated. Because it’s the absence of those feelings: a sense of disengagement, lethargy.

You know when you can’t seem to get the energy to exercise?

Once you get started, you know you’ll ease into it, you might even get carried away and enjoy yourself, and by the end you’ll probably feel really good you did it. But for some reason, no matter how much you try to psyche yourself up, you’re sitting still on the edge of your bed, looking at your phone, not moving.

Motivation is similar. It takes a lot of mental energy to unpack the contents of your head before you can even start moving forward. Here’s what’s going on in your brain when you feel motivated (or not as the case may be):

When you complete a task your brain usually produces a hormone called dopamine – a happy chemical. You feel good about completing the task, and if you complete another one, your brain knows you’ll get to enjoy the same feeling again.

“…dopamine has a crucial role in motivational control – in learning what things in the world are good and bad, and in choosing actions to gain the good things and avoid the bad things.”

Sounds like a nifty little system doesn’t it? And for the most part, it is. The problem is, if you’ve been stuck in a relentlessly challenging period – like living through a global health crisis, war, the burgeoning cost of living – if the payoff you get from completing tasks or that sense of fulfilment you feel at work isn’t what it used to be, it can be really hard to whip up some motivation from nothing.

You’re sitting on the edge of your bed again when you should be out running.

Staying motivated

You assume you’ll receive a piece of advice, hear a motivational speech, read an inspirational quote and that’s it: you’re motivated. Immediately and permanently, job done.

If only. Motivation, like almost any other feeling, is fleeting and temporary. It takes daily practice and care to maintain. People often refer to “burning” passions or having “fire in their belly” or some other kind of flame-based imagery. And it really does help to picture a fire.

You can’t just light it once and it blazes forever. It takes concerted effort to maintain and control, a continuous supply of fuel, a stable environment, optimal conditions, consistency, care and protection to keep going.

Author and entrepreneur James Clear says motivation often comes after starting a new behaviour, not before. So waiting for it to occur naturally might mean you’re waiting a while:

“Motivation is often the result of action, not the cause of it. Getting started, even in very small ways, is a form of active inspiration that naturally produces momentum.”

“You don’t need much motivation once you’ve started a behavior. Nearly all of the friction in a task is at the beginning. After you start, progress occurs more naturally. In other words, it is often easier to finish a task than it was to start it in the first place.”

Speaking to a Sanctus Coach about motivation

Today we’re sitting down with Dr. Albert Viljoen, Coaching Practice Lead at Sanctus, for a round of big questions, quick fire style, on everything you need to know about motivating yourself and people around you. Let’s go.

How does motivation work?

“I tend to look at it in quite a simplified way: you can either be driven by a push or a pull. When you reflect on what makes you feel motivated, the answer may be quite negative. ‘I don’t want this outcome’ or ‘I want to avoid these consequences’. ‘My career will be in jeopardy if I fail’ or ‘my family will struggle if I’m not successful’.”

“This helps people map where their focus and drive is. Most of us are more susceptible to negative motivators, the threat of pain, or fear – these are among the strongest motivators of all.”

“In my experience, negative motivators don’t necessarily create lasting results. It’s just not sustainable: you’re constantly running on adrenaline, trying to run away from something. But when you’re running towards something, there’s more of a pleasurable outcome at the end of it, a feeling of achievement, rather than just another temporary moment of relief.”

Does motivation affect performance?

“Even when people feel a strong intention, or really value the standard of their performance, they won’t actually perform their best if they don’t have motivation. So in many ways, there’s a direct correlation between motivation and performance.”

“People can still perform well with low motivation, but there’s only so long you can push yourself. Long term, a lack of motivation will reduce performance levels and could lead to things like burnout much more easily.”

How can you increase your motivation?

“It’s like saying: how do I fall asleep? You don’t!. You can’t really make yourself fall asleep as and when you want to. What you can do is set the conditions for it, and then hopefully, it happens naturally.”

“Motivation is similar: you can’t necessarily force yourself to feel more motivated. But all of us have certain conditions that allow our motivation to be ignited. We just have to be aware of what those are, and crucially, what isn’t working for us.”

Can too much motivation be a bad thing?

“A person might have really strong motivation. But their motivations may be quite narrow. They don’t necessarily take care of themselves. They’re all drive, drive, drive, and might neglect their health, wellbeing, or relationships.”

“Sometimes our motivation needs to be tempered. Are you sure you really want to get up early every day this week and be busy from the moment you wake up to the moment you stop? I mean, you could. But should you? Should you run 10k before lunch every day or do you need a break?”

“Even if you feel motivated by the outcome, or motivated by the result, we have to bear in mind we’re organisms, not invincible machines.”

How to find what motivates you

“This is sometimes a bit tricky, because we’re not always sure. What is it about my situation that is giving me energy? With work, we might think it’s the money or the status, but we need to reflect on it, and that’s where coaching really helps.”

“Forget motivation for a moment and ask yourself simpler questions: Where do I get my energy from? What makes me feel excited? What are my values?”

How to stay motivated

“Very often, it’s the adrenaline rush we get from already doing and achieving things that keeps us going. A big part of motivation is the physiological response: your body boosting your feel good hormones. It doesn’t matter whether the thing that drives you is winning a game of football on the beach or playing the stock market. It’s the same thing with different outputs. Then it’s just about chasing that feeling.”

What to do when your motivation is low

“Low or no motivation is often a case of people forgetting about or losing touch with what gives them energy, what makes them feel alive. It’s useful to think back to when you did feel motivated. What was it about that moment? What were the conditions? What was it that didn’t just get you out of bed in the morning, but kept you going?”

“Someone might say ‘my work motivates me’. But when we ask ‘what about your work motivates you?’ it’s less clear. It’s not always obvious what it is about our jobs (or our lives) that we like, until we lose touch of it.”

“What can often help as a first step to reigniting motivation, is taking the pressure off of having to be motivated. Which sounds counterintuitive, but sometimes the reason we don’t have motivation is because we should just not do as much. There’s a cultural pressure to always want to be productive when we might be exhausted or overwhelmed or on the verge of burnout – and what we really need to restore our motivation and energy is simply a good solid period of recovery.”

How to motivate someone with little/no motivation

“Getting in touch with what we like and what we want, what we enjoy, what excites us is really important. Give that person time and space to rediscover their spark, however small it is. Remove the threat of negative consequences and the fear of failure and encourage them to just try stuff. Experimenting with things gives us an opportunity to feel energised and excited and think: ‘oh, this actually gets me moving’.”

How coaching helps motivation

Coaching doesn’t claim to give you all the answers or spoonfeed motivation to you. The way it works is by looking at all the different moving parts of your life, helping you see things more clearly, and thinking about your situation differently.

The key to a lot of the coaching process is to get connected to your true self, your inner strength and wisdom. So the first thing to do is work out what actually works for you. Forget motivation and drive for a moment.

Ask yourself: what gives me energy? Or excitement? What makes me feel inspired?

You might come to a Sanctus Coaching session wanting to talk about how you’re struggling with drive and motivation. But what you soon realise is you’ve actually got plenty of motivation – for a ton of different things – it just may not be channeled in the right way.

This is one reason working with a Coach is so useful. You’re more in tune with your environment, conscious of what gives you strength, energy, and drive, more in touch with who you are, and more understanding of what motivates you.

One thing I’ve found personally useful – as was the case writing this piece – is forcing yourself to start. Which is much easier said than done. I find a trigger for me losing motivation is when the task seems so enormous it doesn’t appear to be doable. I know once I get into it I’ll end up making progress and (eventually) getting it done. But I often have to say to myself: “I’ll just work on this for an hour and then see where we are”.

I usually surprise myself. And that makes it easier to carry on.

The other thing is what one Forbes article refers to as “chunking”. Which is to simply break big tasks into much smaller ones so they don’t seem as daunting. Hardly rocket surgery but sometimes the simple things are the most effective.

There are different approaches to cultivating and stirring up motivation. Different coaches use different approaches and techniques. And there’s no guarantee what works for one person will work for another. If you feel your motivation dwindling or fluctuating: it does that from time to time, so don’t worry. You might sometimes ask yourself: where has my motivation gone?

Rest assured it’s where it’s always been: in whatever makes you feel alive.