This was the post that almost didn't get written. How come? Read on - but only if you want to.

January 3, 2019

During the December webinar I asked participants to come up with some topics for the 2019 season of blogs, webinars and 2-Minute Model films and you did me proud. I got everything from meditation to motivation including how to get the most (truth) out of interviewees and how to run genuinely fruitful meetings.

For this first outing of the year Nicola thought motivation fitted (I've never know her short of it - maybe it was a hint to her colleague).

This is a huge topic in general psychology so I've decided that I'd like to poke around in a couple of corners in particular that I thought might interest you. Firstly how we can work on our own motivation when it is flagging and secondly how we have an impact, for better or worse, on the motivation of our colleagues and team members.  

motivation = imagination + selective attention 

You and I may have grasped intellectually that the worst of the dark days are behind us and yet the fact that this idea has so little impact on how we feel as we strain to prise ourselves out of our warm beds on dark mornings illustrates how little motivation has to do with reality, and how much it has to do with feelings and imagination. Our ability to generate the motivation within ourselves for something that we don't want to do I think hinges on knowing our own levers and being prepared to hurt a little psychologically.  

One of my main levers at 06.20 when it's my turn to get up and get the tea for everyone is the reward of being allowed to read The Spectator magazine for 10 minutes whilst the kettle boils (it's an old, old kettle). And the negative counter-lever I have to disarm very quickly I'll call the oh no! lever. This is the one attached to everything from the outside temperature to the long to do list and the tight schedule for Friday. What gets me out of bed then is in essence selective attention and the power to imagine something nice instead of something nasty or unknown. So we could say that motivation = imagination + selective attention. 

I once asked an old couple I know what they thought the secret of a long marriage was and quick as a flash, Antonia replied, "well, we just don't think too hard about things". Bam! Antonia and her husband had a deal. Despite both being Oxbridge grads, and therefore by implication, not exactly dim, they had found that endless examination of issues between them and the feelings that they attracted actually caused more pain than it saved. And so I believe it is with motivation. Think about it too long and it gets harder. Go and stand on the edge of the 10 metre board of your local Olympic diving pool and notice how it becomes exponentially more difficult to jump with every passing minute of hesitation. How much will it hurt if I get this wrong? What if I miss the water altogether and end up on the pool side? And so on. The trick surely is to find the how cool will I feel lever and to focus like mad on that one. 

My tip: Small step first, a little reward to get the ball rolling. And I'm going to steal Antonia and John's top tip for enduring marriage: Don't think too hard about it. One foot out of bed. Write the first line of the report. Dial the number of the person you dread talking to. Arms above your head, lean body forward and simply keep leaning til you have no choice but to goooo.

So what about your colleagues and the team? What are you going to do with that bunch of diverse psyches, feelings and lives? Because, of course, they're all going through their own private tussles every day. Here are my top tips for you to experiment with - they also take account of feelings but in a slightly different way. Helping people to find the motivation to act (we can't 'give' it to them) is I think about creating good, or at least better, feelings here and now - not just the promise of them at some future point. 

So, try these and let me know how you get on or send me your mind tricks for motivation. Drop me a line at

  • Empathise when someone is lacking in motivation to do something - by which I mean help them to untangle their feelings for not wanting to do the task. Asking them why they won't do it or trying to persuade them with a reward is little short of a waste of time - they won't know and it won't work. They need to figure out why they should and they need to have a good feeling right now... and then they will.
  • Ask your people for their views - especially when there's a lot riding on it. It will stop them from getting stuck in a motivation rut through not being valued or consulted. This is a longer term way of raising people's expectations that you will pay attention to them.
  • Make a habit of specific feedback - upsides as well as mistakes. Not knowing where I am is motivation hell for most people. 

Motivation, most simply, is the state that we can get ourselves and other people into when we provide a compelling, emotional answer to the thought:

What’s the point?

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