The Ultimate Guide to Motivation

by on May 17, 2010 | posted in Marketing

“I’m looking for motivation”. “You’re so motivating!”. “I don’t feel like doing this right now.” I see this said a lot, online and off. But why do we say this? Isn’t there something to be said for questions and statements like this, and making strides towards never having to say them again?

Yes. Yes. No. Just kidding, yes.

We don’t start with why enough. So frequently, we have a problem, and don’t take steps to solve the problem, and it constantly reoccurs. Stop, please. Ask why this happens, and how you can correct it. And then take the steps to do so.

This guide is the answer to your motivation “why”.

The Four Pillars of Motivation

There are four pillars of motivation that dramatically influence how much you feel like doing something. There are several inherent subtleties within these pillars, but beyond all else, these four concepts are the greatest contributors towards whether or not you’re willing to do something. They all interrelated, but are diversified enough to be worth their own pillar.

The four pillars are Health, Fear, Self-Actualization, and Timing.

I. Health


The most straightforward pillar, but seemingly most ignored, is health. If you’re sick, hung-over, or have any other mental impairment, your ability to do something effectively is significantly reduced.

Getting past the large health crutches that will affect every human from time to time, comes the constant, amazing benefit continual health can be to your ability to get stuff done.


Jonathan Fields does a great job of addressing this in his recent post How to Grow New Brain Cells and Outwit Competitors. In it, he describes the awesome benefits of being in shape:

“..a fit, able body becomes bio-chemical, structural and emotional support system that allows you to work harder, longer and more intensely than most others around you. Your “physical” abilities actually translate to an increased ability to develop your intellectual capacity.”

As Fields describes later in the article, there is increased body of scientific research that proves the positive benefit exercise has on your cognitive decision making. Here are just a few of the points the research makes:

  • Exercise doubles late-day efficiency – Those who exercise maintain a near 100% efficiency in the last two hours of the workday, while those who didn’t saw almost a 50% drop.
  • Fit bodies mean fit brains – In general fitness measurements, those kids who exercised scored higher in math and reading than their less fit classmates in statewide standardized tests.
  • Exercise has immediate benefits to mood and productivity — On the day of exercise, workers saw increased efficiency at their jobs, measured in time management, output, as well as mental and interpersonal performance.


Sometimes linked to Exercise, Happiness allows for a state of mental focus and awareness. If we’re discouraged by the state of our lives, whether that means with friends, family, our significant other, or some other extraneous factor, we will find ourselves distracted and unable to truly dive into whatever project or task we need to undergo.

To maintain happiness, it’s important to truly understand what creates it. Tal Ben-Shahar, a Psychology Lecturer at Harvard, recently offered five of the best ways to become happier, immediately.

  1. Accept painful emotions. Ben-Shahar says that the paradox of this thought is that when we give ourselves the permission to be human beings and experience the full range of human emotions, we open ourselves up to the positive emotions as well.
  2. Spend more time with people you care about. According to psychologist Tim Kasser, time affluence is a good predictor of well-being. Time Affluence, as described by Ben-Shahar, is “the feeling that one has sufficient time to pursue activities that are personally meaningful, to reflect, to engage in leisure. Conversely, time poverty is the feeling that one is constantly stressed, rushed, overworked, and behind.”
  3. Workout. Research shows regular exercise, three times a week for 30 or 40 minutes, is equivalent to some of our most potent psychiatric drugs for dealing with depression or sadness or anxiety.
  4. Cultivate gratitude. We don’t appreciate our treasures of happiness nearly often enough. Only when we see the failures in happiness do we truly appreciate them. Research shows that if we keep a gratitude journal, and each night before bed write at least five things for which we are grateful, those people are more optimistic, more successful, more likely to achieve their goals, physically healthier – and the result of all of these things – much happier.
  5. Simplify. We try and cram more and more things into less and less time. Because of this, everything suffers. Work suffers. Relationships suffer. Our sense of time affluence drops. By switching off our cell phones for a few hours, checking e-mail less often, or by simplifying even slightly, we can make significant improvements to our productivity as well as happiness.

II. Fear


Undeniably, the biggest motivator in life is fear. This runs parallel with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The other pillars are founded at the top of the hierarchy, but for an item to be a truly large motivator, its inspiration must be founded at the bottom of the hierarchal chart.

If you’re stuck underwater and can’t breathe, your desire and passion to get above water will be unmatched. If you hear your daughter is in danger, your desire and passion to find her and help will be unmatched. If you know that this work project will be the difference between your family having food on the table or not for the next week, your desire and passion to do your best on it will be unmatched.

Within these scenarios you will undoubtedly be at 100% of your motivational capacity, until you are no longer physically capable of maintaining it. Fear, then, is a scenario where your motivation is at its peak, and stays that way until you either conquer the fear, or are no longer physiologically capable of maintaining your peak motivational state.

III. Self-Actualization

Harvard Business Review recently released a study of 600 managers from dozens of companies, done so to rank the impact of five factors that are commonly seen as significant for motivation: recognition, incentives, interpersonal support, support for making progress, and clear goals. These managers ranked “recognition for good work (either public or private)” as number one.

They were wrong.

Progress, the aspect ranked dead last by these managers, was the #1 factor. When people have a sense they’re making progress in their jobs, see themselves making a difference, and receive support that assists them in overcoming obstacles, they are the most driven to work harder and succeed in the workplace. When nothing’s going right, when it feels like they’re in a dead end position, and when their wheels are spinning on a project, their feelings are at their worst, and productivity plummets.

Progress is the move towards self-actualization. Self-actualization, the final tier on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, is described as the final level of psychological development that can be achieved when all basic and mental needs are fulfilled and the “actualization” of the full personal potential takes place.

When we do anything, much of our aim in doing said thing revolves around reaching this mark in our personal development cycle, whether that’s conscious or unconscious. Without this belief, our motivation flounders. We are motivated at our jobs when we get promoted – not necessarily because of the small monetary bump, but moreso because it signals a step forward in that climb towards self actualization.

IV. Timing

The middle portions of task completion have little to do with the project getting done, although they are the most time intensive part of the action. The sections where timing most comes into play are at the beginning and the end of a task, not the other 95%. The third and final area where timing comes in to play is the actual hour of the day, and how it relates to your internal clock.

Prelude & First Steps

The first step is always the most important. Peter Bregman talked about this intelligently in a column at Harvard Business Review. We can spend hours prepping for those first five minutes, the most important of even the most enduring of activities. You have not actualized the item until somewhere in the five minute mark, when you have tuned in. It’s possible to step out then step back, but when you fully get into the rhythm, around that five minute mark, it’s done. This depends on the activity, and sometimes “I’m in” can happen as early as ten seconds in – but every task is different.

The Final 5%

When you’ve reached the end of the task, your motivation goes one of two ways – either to the max of physiological ability, or close to the basement of your capabilities. Each direction has its own unqiue activator.

Eyes. If you have eyes on you, your final 1% will be at the maximum of your capabilities. This is because you want to be seen as a person of respect, worth, and competence (see: Esteem Needs). If you lay off in this moment, the viewer will potentially see you differently, and this majorly impacts your need to put the foot to the floor. This happens commonly at the last wind sprint of conditioning in athletics, the last 1000 feet of a marathon (even though you’re in 50th place), or on the final drive of a football game. This can apply to any to other areas where eyes are on you for the last 1-5%.

There is an accepted social standard wherein the former 99% is not expected to be at the maximum of your abilities (although this is never explicitly stated). In this closing 1 to 5% end point, we are unanimously expected to go 100% because of the perceived impact it has on the conclusion, although, scientifically, we know its impact is of the exact same importance as every other portion of the contest. Because of this societal influence, it is our nature to exude complete effort in this final 1-5% portion. Some people might say otherwise, but the reality is that the last 1% is no more important than the other 99%. The only real difference is that our maximum effort in that 1-5% can’t negatively impact any other portion of the contest due to fatigue (unless it goes to overtime).

Seeing the finish line. If we are outside the sphere of societal influence, the final 1-5% can trigger a complete jump to the other side of motivation. When we see the end of the project, we release our energy and see working hard as not as much of a necessity anymore – namely because we do not see the benefit our increase in productivity will have on reaching the finish line, because it’s such a short stretch. If we work extremely hard, our benefit of exuding 20% more effort is minimal, and stressful, so there is more enjoyment to be had coasting to the end.

Also, this finish line approach also triggers a reflection on our accomplishment, wherein we relish our achievement and effort although we have not yet completed our task.

The consequences of this action, generally, are that the task takes longer time to achieve, or has 1-5% done at substandard levels, which can effect the overall quality of the project. For the former, we can cite a five mile run. For times where the project suffers, we can cite an eight hour shift where a worker is intimately connected to getting off work – or on a broader scope, the last four hours of a Friday on a five day workweek.

Hour of the Day and Your Internal Clock

The next important timing factor for motivation is the hour of the day. If you’ve just woken up, there’s a good chance that you’re not ready to jump straight into a brain-intensive task. Similarly, as the day winds down and you become tired, you are less capable of completing it because of similar physiological impacts.

This somewhat relates to health, as being healthy allows more energy and the like, but no matter how healthy you are, you need sleep. And no matter how healthy you are, you don’t wake up and become Albert Einstein in five seconds.

The exact hour of the day in this situation is inconsequential, as we all have our own schedules and “night” or “day” are not necessarily great predictors of when we’ll feel fatigue.

However, the common standards of the Monday to Friday, 9-5 workday and free weekend schedule can directly influence our ability to be motivated. Here, the pull of the third tier – “belongingness and love needs” – can outweigh the smaller needs that are pulled upon in work.

If it’s approaching the end of the day (whatever that is for you), and you know your friends or family are at a baseball game or a party that you’re invited to, your work will suffer. You’ll wish you were there. Similarly, if feel the approach of one of these common “relaxation” times, such as the weekend or Friday night, you’ll feel a similar drain on your motivational capacities. Not to say that they can’t be overcome, but they are subtle, influential powers working against your ability to be productive.

Maximizing Motivation using the Four Pillars

Now that you know the four pillars, you probably already have some ideas in mind as to how to better use them to improve your ability to be motivated in everyday life. Instead of breaking it down on a per pillar basis, you will probably ingest suggestions better as a case study, or otherwise, to see it applied as we would to our everyday lives.

I. Motivating Yourself

The Workday

When you wake up, immediately put on a pot of coffee or tea. If it’s coffee, make it black to maximize health benefits (or minimize negatives, depending on who you ask).  During this time you’ll be in a state of “brain drain”.

Start doing tasks that require minimal brain usage, but still need to be done. As your coffee/tea finishes, take it with you to work or wherever you plan on striding towards self-actualization. By the time you arrive, your brain will be prepped and apt to start moving towards success.

As you start the day, you’ll find yourself overwhelmed by the various pings you’ve either gotten that previous night, or begin to get as the day starts. Deal with them, but while doing so, remember the prelude concept – this is the moment that’s most important – the beginning. So start working when it’s right, not twenty minutes after. Another good way to push yourself towards impact is the conceptualization of “doing one thing”.

During lunch, eat healthy. Eating the wrong foods can strongly inhibit your late-day work, creating a fog that’s hard to overcome. You can sap away two or so hours of productivity if you decide to eat fat-laden Mexican food or enjoy a beer. Don’t.

As the last half of the day comes, prep another batch of coffee or tea. This isn’t necessary for all, but for me, it’s necessary to maintain 10+ hours of strong output. You’ll find that an hour will arrive almost every day where your psychological awareness begins to fade – be ready for it. Have that coffee hot and waiting whenever you first feel it, not thirty minutes after.

At the workplace or wherever you are, maintain a careful mediation of social activity. This social connectivity will make much of your own work more bearable to do, as social interaction is another necessity on the Hierarchy of Needs. Furthermore, it’s enjoyable, so make sure to be social being throughout the day. Working in isolation for 10 hours will inevitably end in failure, or about 4 hours of good work, and 6 hours of extremely mediocre output. Call family or friends. Take a break to talk shop with a coworker. Use Twitter or Google Chat to interact with others.

Around 2 or so, or for the entire day, block out the clock. Ignore when you’re supposed to “clock out”. Depending on your setting, this may be difficult, but if you see that clock striking 5 in the corner of your eye, you might drift off to thoughts of pizza and beer and the baseball game. Even if you have to leave at 5 from your job, wait for the surrounding environment triggers (people leaving) to let you know that it’s happened – not a clock that’s rapidly approaching the moment.

When you’ve wrapped up the 8-9 hour day, take a break. Even if you have intentions to work 10 hours, it’s around this time where a workout would be perfect. Go to the gym. Run around the block.

When you workout, create a goal that you can accomplish. If it’s far, block out the mileage on the treadmill with a towel or shirt. Run until your calves scream lactic acid – you’ll often find that you’ve gone further than you initially intended. If you establish the “2 miles” end point, you never will. Also, use an IPod that you constantly refresh with new music you love –music that makes you sing like karaoke – it’ll fuel the process.

Shower, refresh, eat dinner. This, combined with the gym, will give you the charge to finish the day, and also to return the next day feeling good and ready to start anew.

At this point, you have the choice to either return to leisure, or return to work. It’s your decision – but remember that getting ahead does not involve doing exactly what every other person in the workforce is doing. You have to do more. Or the same amount, better.

Make sure you have a personal space. To continue productive work, you must have a personal space, obstructed from interruptions. Get your own apartment, or at very worst, a workspace that you can lock the door to or obstruct from noise and annoyances. If you have a family, establish an office that you can hide yourself away in.

Find time to take a break and fulfill social needs. These will be required to stay motivated for a long time. You should enjoy your work (this is a required part of sustaining motivation), so working 10 hours on it shouldn’t be an issue. However, if you partied for 7 days straight, even that would get old. Take a break and fulfill everything else you need in life.

At the end of the day, go to bed, and always make sure you get 7-8 hours of sleep. Sleep deprivation is not a badge of honor. Dream, and then wake up and chase them.

Beyond The Workday


Moment of Silence

Outside the “workday” construct, there are other fuels you can use to maintain and hold motivation. One of the pillars that didn’t come up during the workday is Fear. Fear, both fortunately and unfortunately, can’t be artificially constructed.

However, we can think about it in a positive fashion. Johnny B. Truant talks about this eloquently in his IttyBitz post on motivation:

I don’t think you should make your situation dire if it’s not already dire. But if you really want to succeed, you’re going to need to find a way to stop thinking of it as something you’d like and start thinking about it as something you need.

Then, when you feel as if your head’s underwater, don’t wait to drown. Kick and thrash like a motherfucker. Fight like your life depended on it. And you just might be surprised if your need is strong enough.

Goal Setting


Stop making New Year’s Resolutions. Instead, make monthly resolutions – or even better, weekly. Create little goals you can achieve within each time period, but make them impossible to forget. Make them carry with you. We never accomplish our New Year’s Resolutions because it’s so long sighted we actually frequently forget them, and especially do so within many weeks of our larger year.

You’ll feel better about hitting each of these accomplishments – but don’t make them just to make them. These goals have to be of value, or accomplishing them won’t be motivating. If you set a goal to run six miles, and those six miles aren’t a real progression towards Self-Actualization, you’ll find a way not to care – or at least not care as much.

All Eyes on You

Where’s it’s possible, and not destructive to your productivity, put eyes on yourself. Have someone workout with you, ask another person to get feedback on your project, or make someone aware of a looming deadline that’s approaching. As we discussed under “timing”, the last 5% is a period where we exceed potential when we have other’s eyes on us.

This occurs everywhere. The percentage slightly changes, but the reason we have someone else to workout with us is so we go 5-10% further, and it also fulfills some social needs. If we talk about our project with someone else, we’ll know that the person is going to be aware of our task (whether or not we’re working with them on it), so we’ll go an extra 5-10% to make sure it’s done right.

See Greatness

Self Actualization is a concept we formulated for ourselves. We’d all be much happier if we existed in a world where there were no outside influences, and maybe three or four other people. Since we know the top of the hill, we know that we aren’t there. If we didn’t know it, we wouldn’t be motivated to reach there.

But we know about the hill. That’s what we’re driving towards. To stay motivated, we have to keep sight of the hill. Occasionally, we dwindle into only working, and lose sight of the hill. We forget what we’re working towards, and as such, motivation fades. We have to keep an eye on greatness!

The thing about the greatness is that we can’t stare at it forever. Only staring at greatness, and not doing anything about it, ruins the point of looking in the first place – we eventually need to look away and work towards reaching it.

However, greatness is the reason that we began the pursuit in the first place. We see it, and thus are pulled towards achieving it. Somewhere between these two points of seeing it and moving towards it, we lose sight of what we were attempting to reach in the first place. If we occasionally look back up at the hill and are reminded of the greatness we wish to achieve, our motivation is revitalized.

Beyond the gobbledeegook metaphors, what does this mean in the real world? Keep greatness in your sight. If you want six-pack abs, subscribe to eight muscle and fitness magazines. If you eventually stop seeing beautiful people, you won’t care anymore (whether or not you should is up for debate). If you want to be rich and famous, create a sight line of amazing people. Schedule yourself in for talks every week for the next two months of people that you want to be like.

I used to think watching movies was a waste of time, but having watched a few recently, I realized the motivational benefits they can supply, if done in moderation. These people are larger than life, perhaps unachievable objects – but since I can see them, I have desire to run up the hill towards them.

Love What You Do — Seriously

I don’t like writing stuff that feels cliché, but I can’t pass up on this point. You have to love what you do. It is impossible to get to #1 or get to where you want without loving what you do. You just won’t be able to sustain the motivation required to do so consistently, for long enough of a period that it requires to get there.

II. Motivating Others


So, how can we channel what we know about motivating ourselves into other people – those that we know, that we respect, and that we lead?

Dan Pink says that the old ways of carrots and sticks (financial incentives) are dead. New studies show that financial incentives actually quell creativity in employees. Managers need to be cognizant of the three elements that actually drive productivity in employees:

  1. Autonomy – work without micro-management.
  2. Mastery – become the best.
  3. Purpose – do something that matters.

In regards to autonomy, we must trust our employees. Derek Sivers offers some cogent advice on the subject, saying we must trust, but verify. Believe that your workers are doing the work, but check in with them occasionally to make sure things are going according to plan. This creates the greatest balance of efficiency and trust, spurring motivation and high morale in the workplace.

In regards to mastery, we must offer our employees a path towards self-actualization. In any job where true self-actualization is not possible, eventual motivation drops are a certainty. For a manager in this instance, it is his job to understand this and promote a career growth that lets the employee know that his path in the company will provide him the ability and skills to outgrow the position and leave somewhere else, without having it inhibit his journey.

Managers should set forth a path for their employees and guide them to the top, and look at this planning as independent of the company itself. If this is done, motivation will be maximized, and your employee will become an evangelist for your brand, likely bringing in someone just like them to start the process again once/if they outgrow the company.

In regards to purpose, managers have the need to create positive reinforcement and belief of “mattering” in their employees. For employees to truly feel engrossed in their work, they must see the fruits of their labor. Managers must find creative ways to show their impacts, if the measurable effects are tough to gauge. Give compliments about their work, frequently. Be careful not to disparage their work as only a minor part of the bigger equation – they have ears, and they listen. They listen and change – for the worse.


The List

Now that you’ve reached the end, I’m going to reward with you with that one thing that the rest of this article wasn’t – a recyclable list on motivation. Here’s a list of 19 things, taken from the post, that you can constantly remind yourself of to increase your drive and motivate others towards greatness.

  1. Make your coffee black, and drink it immediately in the morning.
  2. Do One Thing.
  3. Understand when to be motivated.
  4. Be prepared for the time when your cognitive ability fades.
  5. Exercise.
  6. Eat healthy during lunch/breakfast. Eat healthy always, but especially during breakfast/lunch on a workday.
  7. Ignore the clock. Block out any awareness you have of the “end of the day”.
  8. Keep your Ipod constantly updated with new music. Make it a habit to automatically sync it on your computer when you start working.
  9. Block out the finish line. Go until exhaustion. You will find that when you block out the finish, you sometimes will go past your goal – but if you see the finish line, you never will.
  10. Take short breaks. Talk to people.
  11. Have a personal, isolated space. Everywhere.
  12. Get 7-8 hours of sleep, always.
  13. If you want to succeed, you’re going to need to find a way to stop thinking of “success” as something you’d like and start thinking about it as something you need.
  14. Set small goals that matter.
  15. Love what you do. Seriously.
  16. Maintain happiness – accept painful emotions happen, spend time with people you care about, exercise, cultivate gratitude, simplify.
  17. Put eyes on you.
  18. See greatness – and constantly look back at it.
  19. Promote autonomy, mastery, and purpose when leading others.

Now, go do.

Image credits go to The Smithsonian on Flickr and InterfaceLIFT.

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