The Psychology of Motivation: How To Get Stuff Done, Even When You’re Not “On”

Do you know someone who seems like they’re an unstoppable productivity machine?

Me: How’s your day going?

Friend: Pretty good. Met with Person X this morning, wrote four blog posts, finished up a client project, cleaned my house and sent in my Q3 estimated taxes.

Me: [Exhausted from listening, day is ruined because a) I’m insanely jealous and b) I realized I forgot about my taxes.]

Friend: Okay, gym time, gotta go!

I can’t operate at 100% every minute of every day.

And if you can’t either, good news: you’re normal.

But just because you’re not always “in the zone” doesn’t mean you can’t be productive and get things done.

How? By using science.

It's science time.

It’s science time.

B.J. Fogg is a Stanford psychologist and the founder of the school’s Persuasive Technology Lab.

He created a concept called “the motivational wave.”

The idea is that motivation isn’t constant; it happens in waves.

Most of the time, our motivation is pretty low.

motivation wave

During that time, doing hard things is, well, really hard.

But sometimes, because of a number of factors — maybe you read an inspirational story, had an uplifting talk with a mentor, or just woke up feeling amazing — our motivation spikes.

motivation 2

And that’s when we can do just about anything.

Okay, great. How do I use this to be more productive?

The mistake that many of us make when we’re at peak motivation is that we try to do everything.

Small tasks, big tasks, easy tasks, hard tasks; we run through our to-do list with reckless abandon, get a whole bunch of stuff done, and then go back to our normal productivity level when the motivation subsides.

Instead, Fogg says, we should be harnessing that motivation to do the things that structure future behavior.

What does that mean?

In his presentation (this is from a talk at health technology seminar), he talks about someone trying to get fit: instead of simply doing extra workouts, they should harness peak motivation to do the things that will make working out easier when they’re not as motivated. For example, buying running shoes or hiring a personal trainer and scheduling sessions with them.

We can apply the same principles to productivity.

For me, the hardest part of creating blog posts isn’t writing them; it’s the research and outlining that I do first.

So if I’m extra-motivated, instead of spending my day writing four blog posts from start to finish, I’ll research and outline ten posts. Then when I’m not as motivated, I can do the easier work of writing the content.

Do this now: think of one really hard thing that you can do that will make your job or life easier to do moving forward.

Next time you’re at the top of a motivation wave, you’ll have the “to-do” that’ll keep you productive long after the drive goes away.

(If you’re interested, I highly recommend watching Fogg’s entire presentation here. While it’s on the topic of health tech, there’s a lot of great psychology insight that can be applied to productivity, life and business.)

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  • Andrew Horder

    Interesting Len – I find that I get motivated by the achievement of writing the blog posts (or for that matter, anything that allows me to live my ‘core process’, Encouraging Potential). But often I don’t feel like starting – motivation is low, and I have to: think of the topic, research it, etc, as you say, so I find some nice displacement activity instead. And I’ve noticed that if I have a few ideas unfinished in my writing folder, I find it a lot easier to pick one up and get it done, even if I’m on a low wave. Taking this approach will allow me to create the resources when I’m on a roll, and use them to create the achievement that will increase my motivation when I’m not.

    I find I’m not unusual in finding that achievement creates motivation, as well as the other way around, most of my clients have been able to use the technique too. Must go find out if there’s any research that confirms why … when I’m next on a wave 🙂

    • Len Markidan

      Thanks for the note, Andrew!

      I’m with you: small achievements help me snowball productivity in a big way. There is actually some really interesting research about this:

  • Justin March

    Cool Idea will give this a go and see how it works, I think that there are days when you just get stuck, at the end of the day you seem to have worked like a dog but achieved little. Hopefully this will help.

  • Ameera Bousaid

    Very interesting explanation! Thank you for posting this! Motivation has two factors, the external and internal factors. External motivations are required efforts, do some research about your goals, what to achieve, how it should be done. Then proceed with internal motivations. Internalize everything. These stuff has been posted by Moustafa Hamwi – the passion guy. His blog has motivational stories and posts like this. Thanks!