Every entrepreneur I know has goals—and they have a lot of them. As a whole, we tend to be very driven people, full of aspirations and highly motivated to achieve our dreams. But inevitably, in pursuit of our goals, we run into roadblocks that stall our motivation and make it much more difficult to reach the places we want to go.
Stop for a minute and think about some of your larger goals for life, the kind that take years or even decades to achieve. How many of them are you actively working toward right now? How many have you started, but have been pushed to the wayside, where you tell yourself you’ll continue to work on them when you have time, but you never seem to get around to it? Perhaps you’ve lost motivation on those projects, or find it hard to maintain motivation long enough to make the necessary progress. You may even have perfectly good excuses in place, like being too busy with other things—in other words, your motivation is in other areas right now.
Many people think of motivation as something within you that, if you can manage to control it, will keep you working hard on whatever you need to do. It’s a feeling that sparks action. And while these things may be true, the way we generally go about managing motivation isn’t very effective.
If you want to motivate yourself—or your child, or an employee—to do something, the first thing you’re likely to think of is offering a reward. There are two types of motivation: intrinsic (internal), and extrinsic (external). In an attempt to control intrinsic motivation, we create extrinsic motivators. And these can be effective in creating action, especially because we’ve been trained our entire lives to work for external rewards.
So if you’re struggling to get started on something, you might create a reward system for yourself. Maybe you get a favorite food item when you’ve finished a task you dislike doing, or you plan a vacation for when you’ve finished a long and difficult project. Does the reward at the end make you want to do the task any more than you already did? No, of course not. It just gets you to take action. You’re not doing the task for the sake of doing the task—you’re doing it to reach the reward at the end.
Many studies about motivation have shown that rewards are extremely ineffective at producing motivation. Nonetheless, they’re the most commonly used tool to create motivation. In studies where participants are asked to perform a task, those who are told they’ll receive a reward generally perform poorer than those who are not. When you’re offered a reward, there’s now something at stake. It inhibits creativity because you’re less likely to take risks with something on the line. Your focus shifts from what you’re doing to what you’ll receive for doing it. It kills intrinsic motivation, because you’ve changed the why for the task from something that’s worth doing in and of itself to something you’re doing because of what you’ll get out of it, which is inherently much less motivating.
So if rewards aren’t an effective way to create and maintain motivation, what is? It might seem natural to focus on fostering intrinsic motivation, but that will inevitably fail as well. Motivation is just a feeling, and feelings don’t last. It’s impossible to maintain motivation long-term. You may feel extremely motivated to begin work on a new goal, but by the time you’ve been slogging away at it for days or weeks or months, you simply don’t wake up with the same amount of enthusiasm. That’s natural, and that’s okay.
It’s better to understand the fact that you’ll eventually lose motivation for your goals, even if it’s just on a day here or there. When you understand that motivation cannot be manipulated from the outside, you can create systems to help yourself through those times of low motivation.
Because motivation is just a feeling, you can feel extremely motivated toward a goal and still not get anything done. You might spend all your energy thinking about what you will do without ever getting around to it, or you may just never find the time to take the actions you’re motivated to take. Without strong systems, motivation won’t get you anywhere.
Rather than trying to control your motivation, try managing your focus instead. While it’s not possible to create a habit of motivation, you can create a habit of sustained focus. What drives action is the ability to sustain a thought. The longer a thought stays in your head, the more likely you are to do it. It makes sense. If you’re not thinking about something, of course you’re not going to do it. People who struggle with productivity often do so because they’re challenged by distractions and have trouble maintaining focus on the actions they need to take. The more often you think about a certain action, the more likely you are to take that action.
Focus is a powerful tool. It’s much easier to manipulate your focus than it is to create motivation. Think back to one of those goals you thought of earlier, one you’re not making much progress toward currently. Then begin making a plan to manage your focus around that goal.
Make a habit of entering a deep focus mode to work on each of your goals. You likely already do this with some things in your life, but it’s important to do for those items you struggle to maintain motivation for. Getting into a deeply focused state becomes easier with practice, and you’ll be able to sustain it for longer the more often you do it. However, your brain has a limited capacity to deeply concentrate each day, so it’s important to prioritize how you use that mental energy.
Protect your focus time. Block it out on your calendar and keep interruptions out entirely. Set up systems to keep you from getting distracted. Distraction is the enemy of motivation. That might mean turning off your phone or handing off tasks like answering emails or questions to an assistant.
Creating a habit of focus in your life as a whole can help you create better productivity and maintain motivation for all of your goals. It can be extremely helpful to eliminate unnecessary mental clutter created by small distractions such as social media. If you don’t absolutely need your phone, don’t bring it with you. If there are certain websites you find tend to suck your time or mental energy—not just during the workday, but even during your free time—set up blockers to keep yourself away from those distractions. Find ways to free up mental space in your head for sustaining thoughts that are important to you. You might even find it can make you happier by giving you more focus for things like family and hobbies.
Rather than trying to keep up a feeling of motivation that will ultimately die, put systems in place to manage your focus. Focus is a powerful tool to make progress toward your goals, small and large, and creating a habit will help you see results that may even result in a sense of motivation to drive you further. Remember, your actions create results.