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It's hard to motivate yourself. It's even harder to motivate yourself when you're living amidst a global pandemic, which often means fitting newsfeeds in between your tasks, working hunched over your PC and keeping up with your fitness regimen three feet from your couch.
Thankfully, there are behavioral scientists who dedicate their life's work to figuring out what makes us do what we need to do — and one of them at Harvard has great advice for sticking with a task.
In an article she published in the Harvard Business Review, Ayelet Fishbach urges readers to "design goals, not chores."
She says setting specific goals that are intrinsically motivated is your best bet for finishing up what you need to get done. Goals that are too broad are easy to ditch by saying you've done enough or by forgetting about them all together. And goals that are motivated by external rewards are easy to drop because you decide the work outweighs the reward, especially if that reward isn't 100% assured — like the praise of someone else or a high score on a certification test.
So, rather than taking up the mantra "I really need to work hard today at work so my team recognizes how hard I'm working and says something about it" and assuming that will get you through the day, say instead: "I need to complete these three tasks today and share the results with my team because I value teamwork and these tasks are helping me achieve this broader career goal that I have."
In her research, Fishbach found that external goals can be helpful in some cases, especially when a task is onerous.
But when rewarding yourself, be sure you aren't undermining your goal or rewarding the most efficient behavior in lieu of the best behavior. For example, rewarding yourself for a day of healthy eating by eating double dessert may diminish the positive feelings you have about your initial achievement and keep you from dedicating yourself to the good behavior again. Or, rewarding yourself with a night off for rushing to finish your work projects during a condensed workday may encourage errors and require you to do (stressful) follow up work the next day.
Make sure your rewards are measured, supportive of your initial goal and reward good work, not just the accomplishment of tasks.
If you need help finding intrinsic motivation for your goals, inspirations from others can help.
Fishbach says "listening to what your role models say about their goals can help you find extra inspiration and raise your own sights." She says the most useful people to talk to for motivation are "folks who share a big-picture goal with you: close friends and family or mentors. Thinking of those people and our desire to succeed on their behalf can help provide the powerful intrinsic incentives we need to reach our goals."