Motivation and workplace goals

29 July 2021

Setting goals in the workplace can help to define exactly what you want to achieve, and give you a sense of accomplishment when you get there. But all too often, we start out well and our motivation fades over time.

Why do we lose focus like this? It happens to the best of us, and it’s not due to a lack of strength of mind. Here, we’ll look a bit more closely at how motivation works, and give some tips you could use to motivate yourself and your team.

Making a behaviour ‘automatic’

Scientists have described our brains as working with two different systems:

  • reflective (‘slow thinking’) – your conscious beliefs, intentions and plans
  • automatic (‘fast thinking’) – your unconscious responses, drives and habits

Meeting a new goal means changing how you act. Our brains need time to turn a new ‘reflective’ behaviour that you’ve chosen to do into something automatic, that we do without thinking .

Six tips for staying motivated towards a goal

  • 1. Keep your initial goal simple

    It can be tempting to make a whole host of changes all in one go, but that puts a lot of pressure on the reflective part of your brain. This means that you’re more likely to slip back into your automatic habits. Instead, try to make just one change at a time, and make that as small as possible. That could be learning a new skill, for instance, or changing a small element of how you work.

  • 2. Repeat, repeat, repeat

    Repetition creates shortcuts in your brain. The first time you do something, it has to create a brand new pathway in your brain to make that behaviour happen. The more times you do something, the stronger this pathway becomes. If you repeat something often enough, the behaviour becomes automatic. This could mean, for example, giving presentations regularly if you want presenting to come more naturally to you.

  • 3. Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation

    There are two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. If you are intrinsically motivated to do something, that’s because you enjoy the activity itself and have an in-built drive to do it. Extrinsic motivation relies on external rewards – whether that’s praise, recognition or financial incentives. Try combining the two – aim to make a change that you, or your team, are really driven to do, and plan how to reward yourself when you’ve achieved it. For example, you might organise a team lunch once you’ve reached your goal.

  • 4. Focus on the process

    One issue with working towards a long-term goal is that it can feel very far away, and your progress can feel insignificant in comparison. This is especially true for behaviours we don’t find intrinsically motivating. It can take a long time to see the results of a change, which can lead people to give up before the habit has a chance to form. It’s important to focus on the process of building the new behaviour into your routine, rather than just on the outcome you’re hoping for.

  • 5. Adjust how you think about yourself

    You can get pleasure from your new behaviour if it lines up with what you believe about yourself. By seeing yourself as the kind of person who does your new behaviour, it becomes part of your identity. For instance, recognising yourself as a leader if you’ve begun a management role can help you to act in the way you want to.

  • 6. Change how you think about failure

    Do you give yourself a break if you mess up? If you do, that’s great because people who have more self-compassion are better able to cope with setbacks and regulate their goals. If you’re less self-critical, you’re more likely to pick yourself up and carry on after a slip up. It’s also important to remember that failure can be one of our best opportunities to learn and improve.


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  • 2. Feil K, Allion S, Weyland S, et al. A Systematic Review Examining the Relationsip Between Habit and Physical Activity Behavior in Longitudinal Studies. Front Psychol 2021; 12:626750. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2021.626750
  • 3. van der Weiden A, Benjamins J, Gillebaart M, et al. How to form good habits? A longitudinal field study on the role of self-control in habit formation. Front Psychol 2020;11: 560. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00560
  • 4. Fischer C, Malycha CP, Schafmann E. The influence of intrinsic motivation and synergistic extrinsic motivators on creativity and innovation. Front Psychol 2019;10:137. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00137
  • 5. Miyagawa Y, Taniguchi J, Niiya Y. Can self-compassion help people regulate unattained goals and emotional reactions toward setbacks? Personality and Individual Differences. 2018; 134: 239-244

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