Simple, Science-Backed Ways to Motivate Yourself and Your Team

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We’ve all felt the slump of having no motivation. You drag your feet, slouch at your desk, find ways to procrastinate. Twitter, refresh, Facebook, refresh, refresh etc. Sometimes we just can’t find the excitement we need for those parts of the job that are grueling, thankless, or boring.

But for those times when the work has to get done, one way or another, it can be helpful to know how motivation works so we can harness it at the right time—and in the right way.

Understanding Motivation

Motivation essentially comes in two flavors. First, there’s external, or extrinsic motivation, which comes from outside yourself. It includes things like praise and respect from your boss, cash bonuses, or a promotion.

Then there’s Internal, or intrinsic motivation, which comes from within you. It’s the kind of motivation you never have to force, because it happens naturally. When you eat because you’re hungry, that’s coming from an internal source of motivation—hunger. When you work on a side project every night after work or hone a hobby every weekend, just because you enjoy the process, that’s intrinsic motivation. You’re naturally drawn to do those things without the promise of any external reward.

Different types of motivation are best for different types of work

It might seem like intrinsic motivation would be the best option, always. It is nice to naturally feel drawn to do things regardless of any external rewards—especially if there are no external rewards.

But external motivation has its place, too. In particular, external motivation is often a handy tool, put to use in something called an “if, then” reward. If you’re promised a bonus if you hit a particular target, for instance, that’s an “if, then” reward. If you promise yourself a treat if you get home in time for dinner every night this week, that’s an “if, then” reward.

These rewards can work very well in particular circumstances. For purely mechanical work, where the “if” simply requires more time and effort, “if, then” rewards tend to motivate us to work harder.

It’s when we look at creative work that this approach stops being so effective. For work that requires innovation and creative thinking, “if, then” rewards actually lead to worse performance. And in some cases research has shown that the higher the reward, the worse participants performed on creative tasks.

So it’s important to remember that different types of motivation work better for different kinds of work. If you’re trying to motivate someone (including yourself) to put together your office furniture faster, an “if, then” reward might be suitable. On the other hand, offering an “if, then” reward to developers building a new app could be a mistake. It’s unlikely to spur the kind of creative or intellectual juice your team needs to muster.

How to get motivated

If only it were as easy as “one weird trick to get motivated!” Alas, it’s not quite that simple, but there are some proven approaches you can try—both to increase your own motivation, and to motivate your employees.

Talk to people who benefit from your work

You might be working hard on something every day that benefits lots of people. But if you never talk to those people directly, you could be missing a great opportunity for boosting your motivation.

A study of a fundraising call center at the University of Michigan found talking to people who benefit from our work can make us work harder—without us even realizing it.

Students who had benefited from the center’s fundraising effort through sponsorships visited the center during the study and spoke to employees for 10 minutes. When the researchers followed up a month later, workers who’d spoken to the students were on the phone 142% more, and the center’s revenue had increased by 171% overall.

Perhaps most interesting, these same employees denied any difference in their work was related to the visit from students.

When you’re heads-down in the day-to-day responsibilities of running your business, it can be easy to forget who’s benefiting from all that work. Whether it’s your direct customers or even their customers, spend some time talking to the people who benefit most from your work to give yourself a motivation boost.

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Use your memories

Another surprising trick backed up by research is to recall doing something in the past that you’re avoiding now. If you’re lacking motivation to write your monthly report or file your taxes, for instance, think back to the last time you did that activity.

One study tried out this tactic by asking college students to reminisce about past experiences of exercising. Students were either asked to think about a positive memory of exercise, a negative exercise memory, or they were in a control group.

For those who thought about a positive memory of exercise, you might not be surprised to hear that they became more motivated to exercise in the future just by reminiscing. They were also more likely to act on that motivation and actually exercise more, even though the researchers didn’t actively encourage them to do so.

But here’s where it gets interesting: Even the group that remembered a negative exercise memory was also more likely to exercise more in the future.

The researchers concluded that it doesn’t have to be a positive memory for this technique to work. Thinking about any memory of doing that task in the past can make us more motivated to do it again in the future. Perhaps it’s because remembering that we’ve done it before reminds us that we’re capable.

Whatever the reason, it’s worth trying this tactic out next time you’re struggling to muster up the motivation to get through a dull task. Take a couple of minutes to remember the last time you did the same task—good or bad—and you may find it’s a little easier to get started this time around.

Rely on teammates

One of the benefits of being on a team is the motivation that naturally comes from camaraderie. When we feel like we’re part of a team, our performance tends to improve.

One study tested this effect by giving participants puzzles to work on. Half the participants were introduced to other participants and told they would be teammates before the study began. The other half were told they’d be working alone.

All the participants, in fact, worked on the puzzles alone, in separate rooms. Those with teammates didn’t see or work with their teammates as they worked on the puzzles, but they were handed handwritten notes and told they were from their teammates. The notes, in fact, were written by the researchers.


So everyone was working alone on these puzzles, but half the participants thought they had a teammate somewhere who’d sent them a note. It turns out, that was enough to develop a sense of camaraderie that made them work 50% longer on the puzzle. At the end, those who had teammates said the puzzle was more fun and interesting than those who believed they were working alone all along.

Something about the feeling of not being alone in our struggles makes it easier for us to keep going when things get tough. While your employees already know they’re part of a team, try thinking of ways to increase their feelings of camaraderie on a regular basis. You might find those efforts lead to increased motivation to work harder and longer.

Threat of losing motivates more than promise of gaining

There are two concepts that combine to make this motivation method effective. The first is loss aversion, which is just the idea that we hate to lose things. In fact, we feel more strongly about losing the exact same thing than we would about finding, buying, or winning it. We get only a small jolt of happiness from receiving something, but if it’s already ours and we lose it, we feel a much bigger jolt of disappointment.

The second is the related endowment effect, which states that we think something is of higher value when we own it. Of course, this is not always a good thing. For example, someone trying to sell their goods secondhand will value the item higher than the buyer, simply because owning it makes it feel more valuable.

But combine these two ideas, and you can see that losing something you already own can be very painful. This relates to motivation in a very simple way: we can motivate our team members by giving them something (they’ll attribute more value to it once it belongs to them), then threatening to take it away if they don’t hit their goals. They’ll want to avoid that feeling of loss, and work hard to ensure it doesn’t happen.

It sounds harsh, but it can be an effective motivator. One professor tested this technique on two of his classes. Both classes had the same learning materials and subject. The experiment involved quizzes on the class throughout the semester.

For one class, the students could earn one point for each quiz they passed, and opt out of the final exam if they earned five points by exam time. If they didn’t earn the five points, the exam was compulsory.

In the second class, the exam was optional—that is, unless a student didn’t earn five points by exam time.

So in both classes, the quizzes were optional, and each was worth one point. But for the first class, earning five points earned them the right to opt out of the exam. For the second class, not earning five points would lose them their existing right to not take the exam.

Remember how I said earning something doesn’t make us as happy as how sad we get from losing the same thing? Losing the right to dodge an exam was a stronger motivator to earn five points through quizzes than earning the right to dodge an exam. For the first class, 43% of students earned the points needed to opt out of their exam. In the second class, 82% earned the points needed to save their right to an optional exam.

This technique is all about framing. If your team has some reward as a default, such as extra days off, or a team pizza party, you can then put that reward at stake when your team needs motivation. They’ll feel like they already own the reward, and won’t want it to be taken away, so they’ll work hard to ensure that doesn’t happen.

This method should be used somewhat sparingly and with caution, as taking away a bunch of your team’s goodies is a fast way to become the bad guy. But it can also be powerful motivation mojo.

Give your employees compliments and pizza

Speaking of pizza parties, behavioral economist Dan Ariely did an experiment that shows how different types of “if, then” rewards can work. Working with employees in a semiconductor factory, Ariely studied how the employees’ output changed based on three different conditions.

One group of employees was told they’d get a small cash bonus if they worked hard. Another was promised a compliment from their boss, and a third was offered free pizza. The final, unlucky group was offered nothing, and served as a control.


On the first day, the pizza worked as the best motivator, with the compliment very close behind. The results evened out over the week as the boost of motivation wore off, but the compliment came off best overall.

And the cash bonus? That was the worst motivator. It worked a little on the first day, though it trailed the compliment and pizza motivators, but on the second day the cash-motivated employees actually performed worse than the control group, who’d been offered no extra motivators. Again, the effect evened out across the week, but the cash bonus ended up resulting in a 6.5% drop in productivity throughout the entire week.

So if you want to use “if, then” rewards to motivate your employees, it seems that more creative rewards such as free pizza and compliments work far better than even cold, hard cash.

Offer gratitude to your team members

Just as pizza and compliments are simple, so is saying “thank you.” And yet, we don’t do it as often as we could. According to journalist and author Janice Kaplan, a survey of 2,000 Americans found that only 10% regularly showed gratitude to their colleagues.

On top of that, 81% of the survey’s respondents said they’d work harder for a boss who was appreciative of their efforts, and 70% would feel better about themselves if they got a “thank you” from their boss more often.


Kaplan says this is a problem, since gratitude is a strong motivator for employees. She quoted Wharton professor Adam Grant, who says, “A sense of appreciation is the single most sustainable motivator at work.”

This may be the single most simple technique on the list. Saying “thank you” is easy to do, but easy to overlook, as well. Automatic Happiness Engineer and team leader Jeremey DuVall says there are lots of small, easy ways to show appreciation for your teammates:

The important part isn’t the actual gifts; it’s the thought. One of our colleagues, Simon, buys postcards from various travels to send to coworkers. There are many ways to say “thank you” and “we recognize you’re a person outside of work too.”

If you’re trying to motivate your team, perhaps start with the most obvious approach, and thank them more often for the effort they put in. As Adam Wharton says, “Extrinsic motivators can stop having much meaning. … But the sense that other people appreciate what you do sticks with you.”

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Whether you need to motivate yourself or your team, understanding the right type of motivation for the work at hand is the first step. If it’s work that requires innovation and creative thinking, you’ll need to increase intrinsic motivation through techniques like thanking your team for their efforts, or talking to people who benefit from your work.

For mechanical tasks, however, you can rely on external motivation and “if, then” rewards—like compliments and pizza.

How about you? When do you really struggle to get motivated? How do you overcome that obstacle?


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