Nine Strategies For Awakening Your Motivation

Posted on April 12th, 2012

Book: Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us ISBN: 1594484805 Go to Amazon

Give Yourself a “Flow Test”

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi did more than discover the concept of flow. He also introduced an ingenious new technique to measure it. Csikszentmihalyi and his University of Chicago team equipped participants in their research studies with electronic pagers. Then they paged people at random intervals (approximately eight times a day) for a week, asking them to describe their mental state at that moment. Compared with previous methods, these real-time reports proved far more honest and revealing.

You can use Csikszentmihalyi’s methodological innovation in your own quest for mastery by giving yourself a flow test. Set a reminder on your computer or mobile phone to go off at forty random times in a week. Each time your device beeps, write down what you’re doing, how you’re feeling, and whether you’re in flow. Record your observations, look at the patterns, and consider the following questions:

  • Which moments produced feelings of flow?
  • Where were you?
  • What were you working on?
  • Who were you with?
  • Are certain times of day more flow-friendly than others?
  • How could you restructure your day based on your findings?
  • How might you increase the number of optimal experiences and reduce the moments when you felt disengaged or distracted?
  • If you?re having doubts about your job or career, what does this exercise tell you about your true source of intrinsic motivation?

First Ask A Big Question

In 1962, Clare Boothe Luce, one of the first women to serve in the U.S. Congress, offered some advice to President John F. Kennedy. A great man, she told him, is one sentence. Abraham Lincoln’s sentence was: He preserved the union and freed the slaves. Franklin Roosevelt’s was: He lifted us out of a great depression and helped us win a world war. Luce feared that Kennedy’s attention was so splintered among different priorities that his sentence risked becoming a muddled paragraph.

You don’t have to be a president of the United States or of your local gardening club to learn from this tale. One way to orient your life toward greater purpose is to think about your sentence. Maybe it’s:

  • He raised four kids who became happy and healthy adults.
  • She invented a device that made people’s lives easier.
  • He cared for every person who walked into his office regardless of whether that person could pay.
  • She taught two generations of children how to read.

As you contemplate your purpose, begin with the big question: What’s your sentence?

Then Keep Asking A Small Question

The big question is necessary, but not sufficient. That’s where the small question comes in. Real achievement doesn’t happen overnight. As anyone who’s trained for a marathon, learned a new language, or run a successful division can attest, you spend a lot more time grinding through tough tasks than you do basking in applause.

Here’s something you can do to keep yourself motivated. At the end of each day, ask yourself whether you were better today than you were yesterday. Did you do more? Did you do it well? Or to get specific, did you learn your ten vocabulary words, make your eight sales calls, eat your five servings of fruits and vegetables, write your four pages? You don’t have to be flawless each day. Instead, look for small measures of improvement such as how long you practiced your saxophone or whether you held off on checking e-mail until you finished that report you needed to write. Reminding yourself that you don’t need to be a master by day 3 is the best way of ensuring you will be one by day 3,000.

So before you go to sleep each night, ask yourself the small question: Was I better today than yesterday?

Take A Sagmeister

The designer Stefan Sagmeister has found a brilliant way to ensure he’s living a Type I life. Think about the standard pattern in developed countries, he says. People usually spend the first twenty-five or so years of their lives learning, the next forty or so years working, and the final twenty-five in retirement. That boilerplate timeline got Sagmeister wondering: Why not snip five years from retirement and sprinkle them into your working years?

So every seven years, Sagmeister closes his graphic design shop, tells his clients he won’t be back for a year, and goes off on a 365-day sabbatical. He uses the time to travel, to live places he’s never been, and to experiment with new projects. It sounds risky, I know. But he says the ideas he generates during the year off often provide his income for the next seven years.

Taking a Sagmeister, as I now call it, requires a fair bit of planning and saving, of course. But doesn’t forgoing that big-screen TV seem a small price to pay for an unforgettable and un-get-backable year of personal exploration? The truth is, this idea is more realistic than many of us realize. Which is why I hope to take a Sagmeister in a couple of years and why you should consider it, too.

TED Profile

Give Yourself A Performance Review

Performance reviews, those annual or biannual rituals of organizational life, are about as enjoyable as a toothache and as productive as a train wreck. Nobody likes them, not the giver, not the receiver. They don’t really help us achieve mastery since the feedback often comes six months after the work is complete. (Imagine Serena Williams or Twyla Tharp seeing their results or reading reviews only twice a year.) And yet managers keep on hauling employees into their offices for those awkward, painful encounters.

Maybe there’s a better way. Maybe, as Douglas McGregor and others have suggested, we should give ourselves our own performance reviews. Here’s how. Figure out your goals, mostly learning goals, but also a few performance goals and then every month, call yourself to your office and give yourself an appraisal.

  • How are you faring?
  • Where are you falling short?
  • What tools, information, or support might you need to do better?

Some other hints:

  • Set both smaller and larger goals so that when it comes time to evaluate yourself you’ve already accomplished some whole tasks.
  • Make sure you understand how every aspect of your work relates to your larger purpose.

Be brutally honest. This exercise is aimed at helping you improve performance and achieve mastery so if you rationalize failures or gloss over your mistakes instead of learning from them, you’re wasting your time.

And if doing this solo isn’t your thing, gather a small group of colleagues for regular peer-based do-it-yourself performance reviews. If your comrades really care, they’ll tell you the truth and hold you accountable. One last question for bosses: Why in God’s name are you not encouraging all your employees to do this?

Get Unstuck By Going Oblique

Even the most intrinsically motivated person sometimes gets stuck. So here’s a simple, easy, and fun way to power out of your mental morass. In 1975, producer Brian Eno and artist Peter Schmidt published a set of one hundred cards containing strategies that helped them overcome the pressure-packed moments that always accompany a deadline. Each card contains a single, often inscrutable, question or statement to push you out of a mental rut. Some examples:

  • What would your closest friend do?
  • Your mistake was a hidden intention.
  • What is the simplest solution?
  • Repetition is a form of change.
  • Don’t avoid what is easy.

If you’re working on a project and find yourself stymied, pull an Oblique card from the deck. These brain bombs are a great way to keep your mind open despite constraints you can’t control. You can buy the deck at follow one of the Twitter accounts inspired by the strategies, such as:

Move Five Steps Closer To Mastery

One key to mastery is what Florida State University psychology professor Anders Ericsson calls deliberate practice a lifelong period of … effort to improve performance in a specific domain. Deliberate practice isn’t running a few miles each day or banging on the piano for twenty minutes each morning. It’s much more purposeful, focused, and, yes, painful. Follow these steps over and over again for a decade and you just might become a master:

  • Remember that deliberate practice has one objective: to improve performance.
  • People who play tennis once a week for years don’t get any better if they do the same thing each time, Ericsson has said. - Deliberate practice is about changing your performance, setting new goals and straining yourself to reach a bit higher each time.
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat. Repetition matters. Basketball greats don’t shoot ten free throws at the end of team practice; they shoot five hundred.
  • Seek constant, critical feedback. If you don’t know how you’re doing, you won’t know what to improve.
  • Focus ruthlessly on where you need help. While many of us work on what we’re already good at, says Ericsson, those who get better work on their weaknesses.
  • Prepare for the process to be mentally and physically exhausting.That’s why so few people commit to it, but that’s why it works.

Take A Page Form Webber And A Card From Your Pocket

In his insightful book Rules of Thumb, Fast Company magazine cofounder Alan Webber offers a smart and simple exercise for assessing whether you’re on the path to autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Get a few blank three-by-five-inch cards. On one of the cards, write your answer to this question:

What gets you up in the morning?

Now, on the other side of the card, write your answer to another question: What keeps you up at night?

Pare each response to a single sentence. And if you don’t like an answer, toss the card and try again until you’ve crafted something you can live with. Then read what you’ve produced. If both answers give you a sense of meaning and direction, Congratulations! says Webber.

Use them as your compass, checking from time to time to see if they’re still true. If you don’t like one or both of your answers, it opens up a new question: What are you going to do about it?

Create Your Own Motivational Poster

Office posters that try to motivate us have a grim reputation. As one wag put it. For the last two decades, motivational posters have inflicted unimaginable suffering on the workplaces of the world. But who knows? Perhaps the first one was a thing of beauty. Maybe those cave drawings in Lascaux, France, were some Paleolithic motivational speaker’s way of saying, If you know where you’re going, you’ll never take a wrong turn. Now you’ve got a chance to fight back (or perhaps to reclaim that ancient legacy). Thanks to a number of websites, you can create your own motivational posters and you no longer have to settle for photos of kittens climbing out of baskets. You can be as serious or silly with this exercise as you like. Motivation is deeply personal and only you know what words or images will resonate with you.

Try any of these sites


Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

Questions or comments? Send me an email