Fast Company: Motivational Mind Tricks Designed to Power Progress

Janet Choi is Chief Creative Officer of iDoneThis, an email-based productivity log. She has a B.A. from Duke University and a J.D. from American University.

Progress is untapped power. It fuels our motivation and performance like no other incentive yet is broadly overlooked. To gain that integral sense of progress, you need to know when you’ve moved forward. The trouble is that most of the time, our work doesn’t yield the easy clarity of progress that a farmer sees in the number of bushels harvested.

These three mind tricks of progress serve employees and managers alike to break free from hamsterdom and actually get somewhere.

Mind Trick No. 1: Seeing progress boosts your performance.

Simply seeing your progress really makes a difference.

Take one of Dan Ariely’s studies, where students were paid to build Lego figurines. Every additional figurine earned a decreasing amount of money. Group one participants saw their figurines dismantled as soon as they were built. While told that their work would be disassembled at the end of the study, group two students placed each completed figurine on a desk before continuing onto the next one. Group two out-built group one, eleven to seven. Seeing the visible indication of progress of accumulating figurines drove group two to keep building.

Take time to reflect on and acknowledge how your work has progressed. All it takes is a pause to get the satisfying sight of all your own kind of accumulating Bionicles rather than letting them slip past you, unrecognized sources of fuel.

Mind Trick No. 2: Even the illusion of progress spurs motivation.

Your motivation surges the closer you are to reaching your goal. Something about seeing the finish line lights a fire, even when you’re not always on the right track. Take those loyalty cards from coffee shops. As a Columbia University study found, the closer you are to earning a free coffee, the more frequently you’ll purchase a cup.

The funny thing is that even the illusion of progress causes the same accelerating effect. In the same study, one set of coffee shop customers received a 12-stamp loyalty card, with two pre-existing bonus stamps, while the other got a regular 10-stamp card. Who purchased 10 drinks faster for their free coffee? The 12-stamp cardholders, by three days.

Get that bonus stamp effect by thinking through and planning out first steps to move faster toward your goals. Also, shift your frames of reference by aiming for shorter-term yet still meaningful goals, thinking dashes and sprints in a relay race rather than one long solo marathon.

Mind Trick No. 3: A lack of progress isn’t the end of the line.

Progress isn’t a continuous ascent to a peak. Sometimes you get stuck on a flat bit somewhere in the middle, for any number of reasons--becoming bored with your work, thinking you’ve reached your limit, feeling like you’re not getting anywhere, or even feeling smug about where you’ve arrived.

The critical factor of deliberate practice is intention. Your goal itself must be improvement--achieved through a combination of knowing your weaknesses, self-monitoring, analysis, study, and experimentation. Ericsson found that the best chess players possessed the largest library of chess literature and spent three to five hours in daily solitary study, analyzing chess moves, positioning, and sequences.

Cultivate deliberate practice by adopting that improvement-centered mindset and taking the time to admit and tackle your weaknesses, whether it’s time management, public speaking, writing, or managing others.

The thing about these flat-line plateaus of progress is you have no sense of where you stand or how high to aim unless you look up. Challenge yourself, embrace failure, and try new things. Growth is usually uncomfortable, but at least it’s made easier and more effective with proper breaks to recharge.

(Image: WebMD)

Related: Pick The Brain: Structuring Your Day to Maximize Fulfillment & Productivity

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08.27.13  12:00PM    JANET C

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