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Triggering Productive Behavior: Motivation Tips for Work

When productivity wanes, the most effective solution is to get motivated. However, this is easier said than done. Motives might be deep-rooted, but once uncovered, they can trigger productive behavior. Neuroscientific research links motivation to self-sustaining productivity.

Jordan is a strategic designer who uses behavioral economics, cognitive science, and information design to create engaging experiences.

Finding motivation is an age-old struggle for professionals of all kinds. But it’s particularly poignant for people who choose an alternative to the traditional office environment. People who work remotely conduct business primarily outside an organization’s location, from places like home offices, coworking spaces, or coffee shops around the world.

Alongside benefits like flexibility and freedom, remote work brings its own set of heightened challenges. A simple Google search of “staying motivated remote work” returns a total of 81 tips on the first page alone. We clearly need answers.

Here, we explore how to establish a habit of productivity based on personal motives. Scientific research shows that visualizing a vivid image of a reward received for hard work can trigger neural chemicals that boost productivity, which jumpstarts the “productivity addiction loop.” Clearly defined rewards are key to this process. The motivation mojo model provides a framework to identify an authentic reward, or purpose, for each project or daily task. Put everything into motion with our five motivation tips for work that’s productive and purposeful.

Get Addicted to Productivity

According to Buffer’s 2019 State of Remote Work report, 99% of respondents would like to “work remotely at least some of the time for the rest of their careers.” Professionals are making an intentional decision to shift the way they work. This purposeful choice is often made with an end goal in mind, such as having a flexible lifestyle or developing a set of diverse skills.

When you understand why you’re doing something, it’s easier to picture the end result. For instance, on a smaller scale, if you have to finish a project before jetting off on a two week vacation, flicking through photos from travelers who’ve visited before can give a boost of productive energy.

Research has found that the act of imagining the feeling of a potential reward can motivate immediate action. The stimulus triggers a release of dopamine in the brain. This happy chemical has long been associated with heightened arousal and increased attention. It’s often associated with motivation psychology because of its fast-acting response—when we hear the ping of a notification, we instantly reach for the phone as we predict the reward of the message we will swipe to read.

Researchers have found that dopamine is linked to two states of decision-making: what to do right now and what to do later. Think of a routine trip to the mall. You turn a corner and get a whiff of freshly baked cookies. You follow your nose to the kiosk, all the while imagining the chocolatey taste of the cookie. You wait in line, hand over some money, and receive your reward—and it’s delicious. The journey was worth it. Next time you’re at the mall, you can already imagine the taste of the cookie. So you seek the scent, find the kiosk, and taste your sweet victory. Dopamine is part of the system that motivates all of this behavior—the immediate reaction to the smell and the motivated repeat behavior at the next trip to the mall.

The productivity addiction loop: motivation tips for work

Upon receiving the final reward, the brain can decide if the effort was worth it. Was the journey through the mall, the time spent in line, and the monetary cost worth the taste of the cookie? Dopamine contributes to the decision and, if the work was worth the reward, trains the brain to remember the sensations that will motivate it again in the future. The brain begins to learn what behavior is required to reach that reward.

Research has found that the act of imagining the feeling of a potential reward can motivate immediate action.

Each time that reward is predicted and then received, the neural pathways become stronger. Repeat behavior builds a worn path through the brain, like a dog who runs the same route in the backyard, deepening the path with each sprint. The passing of dopamine from one neurotransmitter to the next forms a habitual pattern in the brain.

“When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making.” Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, explains that the brain strives for maximum efficiency, so the routine of habitual behavior eventually requires little energy to set into motion. To get to the point where the brain is essentially addicted to the rewards of productivity and automatically sets itself into a productive state, a motive must be set.

Define the Purpose to Find Motivation

Simon Sinek preaches the power of “why” and its transformative role in defining the purpose of an individual’s career. “Once you understand your WHY, you’ll be able to clearly articulate what makes you feel fulfilled and to better understand what drives your behavior when you’re at your natural best.”

It’s easy to see that a well-defined WHY can bring a sense of purpose to your work, but it can be hard to find its relevance in the day to day minutiae. Rewards for hard work can sometimes be elusive or too far off into the future. Sometimes the reward is outweighed by the work required to reach it. Productivity wanes when there is a glacial gap between the task in front of you and long-term career goals.

Defining a more immediate, attainable, and satisfying reward can jumpstart the release of dopamine and boost motivation. Consider the framework of the motivation mojo model. It provides an approach to finding a tangible purpose for a project that ultimately relates to a larger, future goal. The model is like a stepping stone to a desired future.

The motivation mojo model: motivation psychology

The motivation mojo model is inspired by the universal human desires articulated in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. They are transformed into needs relevant to progressing any career, no matter the WHY. When you’ve identified the WHY for your career, a similar question can be asked to address a single project. Simply ask: What is the purpose of this project and its tasks? Each answer falls into one of these categories:

Secure a Lifestyle

Behavioral scientist Raj Raghunathan says “human beings have a deep-seated desire for certainty and control.” This can come in many forms, such as peace of mind about the future and its uncertainties, or as stability in a few areas that allow for uncertainty and spontaneity in others. It’s common for people working remotely to use projects to reliably support things like a family-focused lifestyle or one of travel and adventure. Work hard now, play hard later. Figure out what “play hard” means to you and you’ll have a source of motivation.

Create Connections

Success is never achieved alone. Connections and relationships are essential to advancing a career and moving toward an individual’s WHY. A project can have a work motivation approach of forging a new connection that is integral to your advancement. For instance, working on a particular team could lead to future projects that are more aligned to your WHY. It could make you more relevant to a potential mentor, combat the loneliness associated with remote work, or offer a personal collaboration or long term client relationship.

Enhance a Reputation

According to Forbes contributor Caroline Castrillon, “A personal brand is the unique combination of skills and experiences that make you who you are. It is how you present yourself to the world.” Humans have an innate desire to be recognized and valued for who they are. Certain projects can speak volumes to what you want people to think of you. The can significantly contribute to a sense of self-worth and esteem. An opportunity to demonstrate expertise and capabilities can have lasting effects and progress a career toward your WHY.

Learn Something New

Nothing stands still—technologies always change, new frameworks are created, and methodologies evolve. The essential skills needed to survive in any given field will always evolve, and it’s important to continuously learn in order to keep up—especially for people working remotely. Online education platforms like Udemy, Udacity, and Skillshare offer flexible learning opportunities.

Beyond the essentials, skills aligned with personal interests can help develop a more fulfilling career. A T-shaped person is one who is an expert in one area but also has a general understanding of others. According to Tim Brown of IDEO, this makes a person both empathetic and enthusiastic. So expand your knowledge into adjacent areas—e.g., if you’re in finance, read Hacker News. If you’re a developer, subscribe to Designer News. If you’re a designer, follow blogs like MIT Technology Review.

"Once you understand your WHY, you'll be able to clearly articulate what makes you feel fulfilled and to better understand what drives your behavior when you're at your natural best." – Simon Sinek

Passionately Contribute

Maslow determined that the greatest human desire is to reach our personal potential. “What a man can be, he must be.” This typically happens through personal growth and learning new things. In terms of the purpose of a project, personal potential is put into action when it aligns with a personal passion. Ikigai states that passion consists of what you love and what you’re good at. Reaching your potential in an area that you enjoy can have a profound effect on you and your work. It can contribute to your personal happiness, inspire a team, or positively impact the lives of others. Whatever the contribution is, your passion and expertise have the opportunity to be at full capacity.

Ikigai: Work motivation approaches for personal passions

Trigger Productive Behavior

When productivity is low, the motivation model can provide a clear direction toward an attainable reward. The simple act of imagining the reward puts the productivity addiction loop in motion, which can pivot behavior. Below are a collection of motivation tips for work habits that can trigger productive activity.

Set Small, Achievable Goals

When working remotely, it’s hard to stay focused on achieving goals—especially when distractions abound. When motivation is low, there is often a disconnect between the work required to finish a task and the satisfaction of the reward. There isn’t enough motivation to fuel the work needed to reach the end goal.

Break the task into smaller pieces to better match the reward. A task such as “create a presentation” might have a reward that is vague and hard to imagine. Break up the task into smaller pieces to make each one more tangible: 1. Build an outline that enhances your reputation; 2. Create content that allows you to contribute passionately; 3. Rehearse the presentation to hone a new skill. These smaller tasks encourage focus and provide a more succinct outcome that’s easier to imagine.

Defining a more immediate, attainable, and satisfying reward can jumpstart the release of dopamine and boost motivation.

Increase Levels of Dopamine

Exercise has shown to increase levels of dopamine and provide a boost of energy for productivity. Take advantage of the freedom of remote work and take a midday trip to the gym, go on a walk around the block, or do a few push ups in the home office. Additionally, there are certain foods that are attributed to the neural chemical. Foods that are high in protein and low in saturated fats have shown positive effects on dopamine levels—keep your fridge stocked with blueberries for snacking.

Stay Optimistic

In her book, The Optimism Bias, Tali Sharot explains that “anticipation of a pleasurable event seems to activate neural systems that are also engaged while actually experiencing the enjoyable event […] The more vividly we imagine an event, the greater the pleasure from anticipating it.” The more likely you imagine an event will happen, the more intense the anticipation will be. Take a moment to optimistically imagine how good it will feel to finish a task and you’ll have the motivation to push through.

Remind Yourself of Your Motives

Duhigg’s theory of habit positions the “routine” of a habit between a “cue” (a trigger that indicates which habitual action to perform) and a “reward” (the pleasing sensations of an end goal). “Over time, this loop — cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward — becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges. Eventually, […] a habit is born.” Strategically place cues of your reward around your workspace to prompt a prediction of what that reward will feel like.

The habit loop: motivation tips for work

If All Else Fails, Outwit Yourself

If you’re faced with a task that is particularly unrewarding and the struggle to get started is stronger than any feeling of accomplishment, set a very desirable prize at the end. Save your guilty pleasure or favorite indulgence for after the task is complete. Temptation bundling, or the motivation psychology of pairing a non-desirable task with a desirable immediate reward, has been studied with positive results. So whether you’re craving a freshly baked cookie or getting lost in the news, save it for after the task is crossed off the to-do list.

The Bottom Line

Working remotely poses a challenge to maintaining productivity. But with a better understanding of how the brain self-sustains productive behavior, it’s easier to establish the triggers that will set the behavior in motion. The productivity addiction loop demonstrates that the reward of work motivates the act of working. Imagining the reward will motivate action to reach it and reaching the reward will motivate future action to repeat the behavior.

The key is a more vivid understanding of the reward. The motivation mojo model provides a framework for articulating the purpose of a particular task or project so it’s easier to see in the mind’s eye. Spend time defining why you work, follow this set of motivation tips for work, and watch your productivity rise.