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How to stay motivated in 2024


We all have a burning desire to be good at something – to show others that we’re good at something. This ‘profound motivation’ drives our desire to perform but it can also make us procrastinate.

Princeton University’s Nic Voge, a senior associate director at the McGraw Center for Teaching & Learning at Princeton University, talks about why this happens in his Ted Talk: ‘Self Worth Theory: The Key to Understanding & Overcoming Procrastination’.

I caught up with him to ask why our feelings of self-worth can make us procrastinate and to find out what we can do to overcome this to achieve what he calls ‘productive engagement’.

Motivation meets procrastination

A common pattern of procrastination Voge describes to me is this: “we think about a task – and very often have an instantaneous, an emotional reaction,” which is “uncomfortable” and triggers “a physiological reaction, something like dread, fear, or anxiety”. Voge says we will do anything to avoid these feelings. We might reach for our phone, take a sudden interest in kintsugi, anything other than the task at hand. “What these things are doing is alleviating, or reducing, the physiological state, the emotional state that we were in,” he says.

But we also have to remember that “we have mixed motivations nearly all of the time”, Voge says, and that just because “we are not motivated right now that doesn’t mean we’re not, it means it is how we feel, which is different”. And so he says we shouldn’t fall into the trap of questioning our motivations all the time, accusing ourselves, saying “I’m not acting, so I must not be motivated”, which he says “follows from people having very simplistic ideas of what motivation is, that it’s uniform and unilinear.”

An emotional rollercoaster

Back in his student days, taking a class by Professor Martin Covington, the creator of the self-worth theory of achievement motivation, Voge learned that for students: ‘a central part of all achievement is the need to protect a sense of worth’. So when doing something that might negatively impact on their sense of self worth “feelings of very powerful avoidance” are not so hard to understand.

“If you have framed the task in a way that your sense of self is being evaluated, then that’s a very high stake, my sense of self and my sense of worth is on the line,” says Voge. “If I procrastinate, if I sabotage my performance, then I have a ready explanation. It’s like a pre-emptive inoculation from the consequences from possible failure.”

An equation he shares with his students to explain the dynamics is: Performance = Ability = Worth (P=A=W) and he tells them it’s an “equation that has been reinforced hundreds of thousands of times” by our “society, families, our work, our schools.”

“This is a hard thing to change,” Voge says. “But that is not to say that we can’t.”

Entrepreneurs

Our sense of self – who we are, is something we value deeply – but when we attach it to our ability to perform at work we can run into difficulties. If we say: “I am my work, my worth is equivalent to my work,” then our thinking, Voge says, is “shaping actions, emotional responses, decision-making” that is based on this framing. And so just like those students opting for a pre-emptive inoculation of procrastination, self-protection becomes a motivation.

Two things are at stake here for the entrepreneur or innovator, Voge says, self-worth and the innovation or product, which will probably be “less transformative” as self-protection “narrows our point of view, it narrows our thinking”.

Reframing

To overcome this, Voge says, it is important to develop a healthy relationship with risk and failure.

“If you can embrace failure, the Steve Jobs way: fail forward fast, great, but the people I am speaking to are not embracing this idea, they are reframing failure. Edison said: ‘I haven’t failed a thousand times, I’ve figured out a thousand times how to get better’. That’s a classic example of reframing. We think differently about it, so we feel differently about it, and it evokes different motivations around our framing and beliefs about the role experimentation and exploration play in our work.”

Pricing in some risk is also important.

“We can frame risk taking as something we seek out, recognising rationally that it is a component of innovation. In recognising I can’t avoid it, it helps limit the desire to avoid it. If I can see it as an essential step, then I can say it’s a necessary step, to experience these feelings of risk and fear.”

This is a mindset that can fuel growth.

“If you’re afraid to do it, and you still want to do it, that’s the perfect scenario. You have an opportunity to get outside yourself and for me some important growth is motivated by a certain amount of fear.”

Social innovators

There are also entrepreneurs, like those leading Refugee-led organisations (RLOs) – an area of innovation we have been covering, where lives are on the line. What additional impact can this have?

“Here there is something else, which could be deeply connected to our sense of worth: a moral, an ethical imperative; a responsibility not only to myself but to others; and so my performance has on the line these consequences. If I make a mistake, it could have big consequences because we’re risking failure, not only to those who we are responsible for,” in the case of RLOs and social innovators but “we are also risking our sense of self”. So we “might circumscribe” and avoid risk, even if “to be transformative you will likely need to take risks.”

Overcoming procrastination

One way of boosting your motivation levels, Voge says, is to stop addressing the fear and try addressing “the other side of the balance sheet”.

“I can try and lift up the other motivations and magnify them, increase them, tap into them, feel them,” Voge explains. “I can stack up these motivations – I call this motivational stacking. It means the fear shrinks in relation to the positive, so what happens then, is I just don’t notice it basically.” Voge says these “intrinsic motivations” are “deeply internalised, very powerful motivations” that have “almost no downsides”.

“If I’m powerfully motivated by the value of altruism, for example, maybe helping a community I feel has experienced injustice – these are strong motivations. If I feel I have a unique knowledge or skillset I can contribute to the world that has benefit, again very powerful motivations: deeply internalised. If I’m fascinated by the process of change and creating organisations, interested in how to do it, these are all positive motivations: approach motivations.”

Voge says when he lacks motivation, he asks himself: “What’s interesting to me about this? What can I learn by doing this task?”.

“At certain moments approach motives are in ascendency, at others not, and some of the strategies are simply to know there’s this balance, it’s not to misinterpret it. But when we need to, we can take steps to tip the balance towards action, towards productive engagement”.

Divided attention

Sometimes though our attention drifts to things that are outside of our immediate control, aspects which might evoke fear and trap us into a Gordian Knot of inaction: the antithesis of “productive engagement”.

“When we work on a task, a complex task, and we’re thinking, not about the work itself, say thinking through a plan, or writing code, or drafting text – if we’re not thinking on that task but we’re thinking about its completion, when it’s due, how it will be evaluated, these are outside our immediate control, they are uncertain, and are likely to evoke fear – so we have a divided attention.”

And for RLOs and social innovators the divisions might multiply.

“If I’m also thinking about harming people and not the procedures to get the crops put in the ground, then I’m not thinking about putting the crops in the ground because I’m divided, my mental resources are not on creating the economic model or designing a health intervention. So there is an element where it is helpful to have your ‘eyes on the moment’ more than your eyes on the prize.”

Motivating factors

Adopting “different strategies at different times in the innovation process” is vital for optimising productivity.

“There are times in the process when you might want to narrow your thinking but not in the ideation phase, or in the development. It is best to learn to modulate our motivations; to use different types of motivations at different junctures in the process,” Voge says.

He suggests keeping these motivations handy, creating in-the-moment motivational lists, as well as one on your mission, which can act as a useful ‘booster shot of motivation’.

“Take time to articulate your mission. I’d encourage people to do this in relation to particular values they have,” says Voge, who is motivated by values of altruism, which can be seen in the dedication he has to his students. “I have my own personal mission – I wrote it out and I read it frequently. These motivational to-do lists, or this motivational stacking, is something we can really tap into.”

Cognitive and physiological interventions

Other ways to “tip the motivational balance towards action” can come from developing cognitive and physiological interventions.

“I can think, rethink, cognitively reframe, use some self-talk. I can intervene at the cognitive level. I can talk to myself in different ways,” adds Voge. So we might say “this is only going to take 15 minutes, I’ll do it on Sunday, or instead we can say: this is only going to take 15 minutes, let me do it now so I don’t have to do it on Sunday. Both are true but if I’m working on taking action, on getting started, the second is clearly better”.

We can also intervene at a physiological level. “I can breathe in particular ways, to essentially dial down, to reduce my physiological activation.”

Voge adds: “Because it is very difficult for me to say I want to feel something different, then do it. I can think something different, intervene at the cognitive level and that can change my emotional state and therefore my motivational state. Or I can intervene at my physiological state and that will change my emotional state, allowing me to use my cognitive faculties.”

He says a good understanding of human biology helps.

“One thing I really emphasise is how knowledge of human beings, human organisms, human thoughts, human beliefs, human motivations is really useful. One thing to know, for example, is that human emotions don’t last long – relatively speaking, so learning to accept and tolerate them can be easier when we know this. And so maybe we can have some techniques for tolerating them: mindfulness, or meditation perhaps. It is not about pushing down the emotions it’s about finding a way to get past them.”

Human qualities

Something that might also help us, Voge says, is to remind ourselves that our worth is linked to our human qualities of kindness, compassion, vulnerability. He encourages us to look to the people we love dearly and think what it is we value in them.

And Voge adds that we always have as a source of motivation, our North Star – our inspiration.

“We don’t say, I’m going to grab it, we’re not going to it, but it provides direction. It’s not its attainability but its relation to our values. And if we can understand how all these different aspects of motivation operate we can combine them in different ways to keep ourselves moving towards our North Star.”

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New Voge Academy launches

If you want to delve deeper into some of these ideas, you can also check out the new Voge Academy,.

“I have launched a platform, a course on procrastination. The Ted Talk was 20 minutes. I used that to introduce self-worth theory but this focuses on procrastination and gives an analysis of each dimension, or layer, and says: here are some strategies to work at that layer.”

The first course: Overcoming Procrastination is available now.

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For more on these topics, read about some of the novels bibliotherapist Ella Berthoud recommends for beating procrastination.

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Written By

Iain is a creative writer, journalist and lecturer, and formerly an editor of two international business publications. Iain is now editor of Innovators Magazine, as well as the strategic content director for OnePoint5Media.

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