How I use “progress” to stay motivated

How do you motivate yourself at work?

I get asked this question a lot because I spend the majority of my working week at home. People wonder how I stay motivated when there are so many other things that could distract me.

As someone who has worked productively from home on and off for several years, I find this question odd. But it did get me thinking about what motivates me, even when I’m working on tasks that I don’t naturally enjoy.

On reflection, one thing that gives me great satisfaction is a sense of “getting stuff done.” And, while this doesn’t sound very scientific, psychologists Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer have recently found that recognising the progress you make on your work is a great motivator.

Amabile and Kramer wrote about this research in their 2011 book, “The Progress Principle.” They asked more than 200 people from a variety of organisations and teams to keep a diary of their emotions and their motivation levels while they were at work. They also asked them to highlight the one event that stood out for them every day.

When Amabile and Kramer analysed these diaries, they found that people were more engaged, productive, creative, and motivated when they recognised even small progress on their most important work.

So, how can you use their research to recognise your own progress, and boost your motivation? Here are six strategies that I use:

1. Set specific, achievable daily goals

Most people I know like to work from a to-do list, and I’m no different.

However, the key to my daily to-do lists is that they always consist of several achievable tasks that contribute to my longer-term goals. That way, I get to tick them off as I complete them to get that all important sense of progress.

The important thing here is to break down big goals into as many small tasks as is sensible – the more tasks I can cross off throughout the day, the more progress I feel.

2. Prepare resources and support in advance

I find that I lose that sense of progress if I have to stop work on an important task to say, download some software, or find a specific piece of research.

So, where possible, I make sure that I have the resources, knowledge, and support in place to do a task before I begin working on it.

3. Learn from things that don’t go as planned

There are always those frustrating days when problems crop up and I don’t get as much done as I’d planned to.

This is why it’s so important to look for the positives even when I don’t get much “physical” work done – if I can focus on something that I’ve learned from the experience, which I can apply again in the future, then I will feel that I’ve made progress that day.

4. Celebrate progress

For me, celebrating progress just means taking a couple of minutes every day to look back at what I’ve achieved.

To do this, I keep a record of every task that I’ve worked on that day. But you can also keep a daily journal, or use an application like iDoneThis.

5. Set aside time for important goals

Amabile and Kramer’s theory says that we need to feel progress on our most important goals if we want to feel more motivated.

However, it’s often the urgent tasks that take precedence over the “slow-burn” tasks that contribute to our longer-term, important goals.

This is why I set aside time most days (often first thing in the morning) to work on those slow-burn tasks. (Amabile suggests that we set aside at least 20 minutes a day for this.)

6. Find the meaning in work

I find it much easier to see a task as important when I can see the meaning in what I’m doing.

This often means looking for the “human element” in my work – how is what I’m doing making a positive difference to others?

This is actually quite easy to apply in most job roles. For instance, even if your job doesn’t benefit people directly, you likely do important work that helps others in your organisation do their jobs more effectively.

Over to you…

Does progress motivate you? How do you recognise the progress that you make?