Managing

How to stay motivated when projects are no longer shiny and new

Bri Williams /

I always find myself amused when I walk past this driveway. I call it the ‘driveway to nowhere’, because standing right in front of that shiny new slab of concrete is an old tree trunk. 

Could there by a more apt metaphor for how business or personal projects usually go? We get excited, spend money preparing ourselves for the journey ahead, maybe even tell people how great it’s going to be, then hit a roadblock.

Surviving the bit after the start

Whether you are running a project for work or trying to change personal habits, the challenge is to survive the bit after the start.

In Stanford University professor BJ Fogg’s language, we need to prepare to ride the motivation wave, with the high invariably being followed by a low. 

Tips for projects and teams

1. Do the hard stuff first 

At the commencement of a project, when the team is most keen to impress each other and make a mark, that’s the time to do the heavy lifting. Run longer-form workshops if you need them, assign work to individuals and team, and require they report back to the group.

Get the tasks people don’t like doing (often setting up the systems and processes) out of the way, being careful to balance it with some activities where people can start to share their vision for the project.

2. Short and shallow lulls

Once the honeymoon period is over, the team may start getting distracted by other shiny objects and greener grass.

Suddenly, people don’t attend meetings or submit what they promised. Time to get some fun back into the group to re-energise the project. Bring them back to what they personally want to achieve and say lull-a-bye!

3. Create your good news and bad news cadence

Short-term bias means people will be more interested in the immediate timeframe. Not only that, they’ll be motivated by good news in the short term and want to defer the pain of bad news till later.  

Work with this natural rhythm by prioritising frequent, short and intermittent rewards over bigger, more distant payoffs. For example, organise free coffees for everyone, a guest speaker to share ideas, or simply write a nice note to team members, rather than just planning a celebration when the project wraps in 12 months time. 

On the flipside, batch bad news so they are not constantly reminded of it. Losses hurt more than gains feel good, and we get over bad news faster if we experience more of it once rather than smaller amounts more often.

4. Never ever ignore the work people have put in

The fastest way to deflate an individual or team is to ignore their efforts. As researchers have discovered, it’s as damaging to motivation as destroying their work in front of their eyes.

As busy as you might be, always acknowledge their contribution, even if it cannot be used. In this case, explain why and give them an opportunity to share what they learnt with the group so they don’t feel it was wasted effort.

Tips for habit change

1. Do the hard stuff first

As with running a project, capitalise on your peak motivation at the start by doing the hard stuff.

Set up your environment to support your new behaviour, which might mean distancing yourself from people who don’t share your goals and/or clearing out a spare room so you can do your planned yoga without having to find and pay for a class.

2. Anticipate roadblocks

Known as ‘implementation intentions’, anticipate you will encounter roadblocks and plan how you will respond when they happen.

It’s as simple as jotting down some ‘if, then’ statements. For example, ‘if I am invited out with friends, then I will drink sparkling mineral water and tell them I am on a health kick’, or ‘if I am travelling for work, then I will order my vegan dinner from a meal delivery service’.

3. Focus on process, not progress

We can quickly get demotivated if our progress isn’t what we hoped. You see this all the time with people on a diet who chuck it in as soon as the scale doesn’t represent their efforts.

Instead, focus on the process that will ultimately get you to your desired outcome. If weight loss is your thing, focus on eating a good dinner and moving every day rather than measuring how your body changes on the scale.

Measure the consistency of your effort rather than the outcome.

NOW READ: Shame on you: Can you change behaviour by making your customers feel ashamed?

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Bri Williams

Bri Williams is an authority on behavioural economics applied to everyday business and personal effectiveness.

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