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5 ways to keep motivated during a task

5 ways to stay motivated during a task

5 min read
  • Motivation, Resilience & Growth Mindset

Lots of people will be looking for ways to stay motivated as best as possible at the moment. At InnerDrive, this made us think about a problem we are often faced with when it comes to students, teachers, parents and athletes. A lot of the time we hear about people losing motivation halfway through a task. They are motivated at the start. And knowing the end is near certainly helps. It’s just the middle bit that’s the trickiest. So why does this happen?

Motivation levels at the start of a task

When people start a something, they tend to be very motivated. This can help to mobilise effort and focus our attention. However research suggests that having this performance based motivation is only effective in the short-term. This means that the motivation to complete the task can drop off very quickly (one of the reasons gyms make so much money in January each year). In addition, a lot of people start a new habit or project using the motivation that it is ‘the right thing to do’. However, research again suggests that this is very short lived and wears off quickly.

Motivation levels at the end of a task

So, what happens when we near the end of a task? Well, it turns out that people are often really motivated at this stage too. For example, one study found that towards the end of a task, students learned at a faster rate, achieved a higher performance, and took shorter breaks. The researchers suggest that this is because ‘knowing the end is near enhances motivation’.

As well as this, people tend to procrastinate less and put more effort in when they know that the end of a task is near. This begs the question, what happens in the middle of a task that can cause us to lose this level of motivation?

Motivation levels in the middle of a task

It turns out, that people tend to lose motivation in the middle of a task. This has previously been called the ‘U-Shaped Motivational Curve’ and it typically looks something like this:

Graphic explaining the dip in motivation in the middle of a task

What causes this drop in motivation?

As we previously mentioned, a lot of the types of motivation that people have for doing a task wears off very quickly, for example thinking about performance and doing the right thing.  What sparked the motivation initially isn’t enough to sustain the fire. We need daily habits to push us through, not some momentary flash of inspiration.

Another explanation as to why the middle is so tough is the ‘Planning Fallacy’. This states that most people underestimate how long a task will take to complete. This means that if your motivation is based on seeing yourself achieve in the short term, it may be hard to be motivated if the task takes longer than initially expected. 

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Why is this relevant?

Given that most people will have new projects to take part in or new routines to uphold due to isolation, we wondered how we can ensure that people keep motivated in the middle. In the current climate we don’t know when the end is so we can’t rely on that to motivate us, therefore we need strategies to stay motivated until we do.

5 ways to stay motivated during a task

1. Learn from the Planning Fallacy

As mentioned above, the Planning Fallacy states that people often underestimate how long a task will take. This can be a reason why people’s motivation drops during a task. To help make sure that you don’t underestimate tasks and maintain your motivation, we think you can do two things:

  • Have short regular deadlines that are part of the larger project or goal – This helps you gain a sense of achievement whilst completing small parts of the project and making sure you stay on track.
  • Draw from previous tasks you have done that were similar, to identify obstacles that might stand in your way. Again, this will help you make good progress and have a clearer idea of what you need to do.

2. The motivational trap     

The Motivational Trap refers to the myth that in order to do a task, you should wait to be motivated first. Our favourite quote on this is from Dr Rubin Khoddam who says, “The problem is that if you’re always waiting for motivation to hit, you may be waiting your whole life. While you’re waiting on motivation, motivation is waiting on you. Because committed action comes first, and motivation comes second.”

To us, this says that motivation doesn’t precede action, instead action precedes motivation. Therefore, instead of waiting to find your drive, get going with the task at hand and you’ll soon forget about the lack of motivation in the first place, or find it along the way!

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3. Motivational contagion

Motivational Contagion refers to how motivation is spread from one person to another, almost through a form of osmosis. This means that you can both catch and spread motivation to others. To give yourself the best chance at this you should:

4. Keep your goal in mind 

Given that we have already covered how doing a task or project because it is ‘the right thing to do’ doesn’t supply much motivation in the long run, making sure that you have a crystal clear goal in mind is highly important. This can mean either:

  • Having a clear reason why you are doing what you are doing.
  • Having a clear target to hit, and then breaking it down into smaller process goals that show you when you are making progress.

5. Keep calm and carry on 

A big motivation buster is stress as it can cause people to think and behave differently. For example, people start to think very narrowly and stop seeing the bigger picture, people start to talk to themselves in a negative way, or people start to procrastinate instead. All of these reduce our motivation and resilience. Three simple yet effective ways to help you deal with stress are:

  • Be proactive – Don’t wait for things to just happen to you. Focus on how you can effect positive change.
  • Think of what you stand to gain and not what you stand to lose – This will also help reduce stress. For more tips to help you deal with stress, check out this guide.
  • Get a good night’s sleep – Everything is easier when we feel more rested and focused .

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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