Motivation and workplace goals

07 January 2019

What new goals do you and your colleagues want to achieve? You may want to learn new skills, or make changes to how you work. Taking steps towards goals such as these can fill us with determination and enthusiasm. We usually start out well, but over time we may feel our motivation fade.1

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. Meeting a new goal means changing how you act, and our brains need time to turn a new behaviour into something we do well with ease. 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’

Researchers have described our brains as working with two different systems:1,2

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

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. Want to read a weighty manual on a new skill you want to learn? Set yourself an initial goal of just reading a few pages each day.

  • 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 enough, your brain will start automatically taking you down this pathway.3 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 inbuilt drive to do it. Extrinsic motivation relies on external rewards.4 Try combining the two – aim to make a change that chimes with your (or your team’s) passions and personal interests, while also being something you know you really should do. For example, you might treat yourself to your favourite coffee every time you sit down to tackle a challenging new task.

  • 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. As Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do.” By seeing yourself as the kind of person who does your new behaviour, it becomes part of your identity. For instance, if someone in your team beginning a management role begins to recognise themselves as a leader, this change in self-identity can become really positive for helping them act in the way they 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 those who are more self-compassionate are more likely to achieve their goals in the long term.5 If you are 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.


  • 1. Kwasnicka D, Dombrowski SU, White M et al. Theoretical explanations for maintenance of behaviour change: a systematic review of behaviour theories. Health psychology review 2016; 10(3), pp.277-296.
  • 2. Kanheman D. Thinking fast and slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; New York: 2013.
  • 3. Wood W, Neal DT. Healthy through habit: Interventions for initiating & maintaining health behavior change. Behavioral Science & Policy 2016; 2(1), pp. 71–83.
  • 4. Vansteenkiste M, Lens W, Deci EL. Intrinsic Versus Extrinsic Goal Contents in Self-Determination Theory: Another Look at the quality of academic motivation. Educational psychologist 2006; 41(1): 19–31.
  • 5. Mesmer-Magnus JR, DeChurch LA, Jimenez-Rodreiguez M et al. A meta-analytic investigation of virtuality and information sharing in teams. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 2011; 115:214–225.

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