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Staying Motivated at Work (and in crisis)

Some people say this crisis means the end of business as usual. I am not sure about that. What I DO know is that it has been hard to stay on task and stay motivated when there is so much uncertainty in the world and in how we get our jobs done.

We’ve all had those days at work where we just can’t seem to get into it. Maybe we’re having a hard time staying focused, maybe we’re feeling particularly exhausted, or maybe we’re just plain bored.

Whatever the reason is, “off” days happen to everyone at some point. When we have no motivation to work, a few hours can seem like a lifetime of misery, and we begin to get down on ourselves for not living up to our fullest potential.

Don’t panic! While it’s normal for us to have our off days, we certainly have a reason in the current crisis. Here are some tips and tricks to get yourself motivated to work, even in a crisis.

When we think about motivation at work, what we’re most concerned with is “the act”—doing the work, beating distraction, putting in the effort. But in order to act, we need to understand what impacts our ability to do so.

First, there’s the desire. What is it that makes you want to act? Researchers have spent years exploring the rewards that motivate us to act and have broken them down into two camps:

Extrinsic motivation: Being motivated by external rewards like pay, praise, or fame.

Intrinsic motivation: Being motivated by internal rewards like a sense of accomplishment, internal drive, or enjoyment.

Here are some thoughts on how to find motivation:

  1. Leaps, Bounds and Baby Steps

Every forward movement is progress. One of the biggest myths about motivation is that we need to feel motivated before we can do anything. Psychologists call this the motivation trap: If this seems confusing, think about it this way. How many times have you been intrinsically motivated (i.e. had a desire to act based on self-satisfaction and not external rewards) before actually starting something? In most cases, it wasn’t until you actually started doing the task that you felt motivated to stick with it. This threshold is hard to pass, but it’s also where the power of workplace motivation comes from.

We will all have days that are more or less productive. To avoid burnout, it’s important to make sure that the expectations you set for yourself are realistic. Pushing yourself to meet an “emergency” deadline every once in a while is understandable, but consistently putting pressure on yourself to meet unrealistic goals and deadlines is unhealthy and is a recipe for burnout. If you find yourself stressing over deadlines, evaluate your priorities. Working at a comfortable pace will not only improve the quality of your work, but it will also help you remain calm and focused. In the end, you will likely find that you have made progress.

  1. Work-Life or Life-Work?

In normal times we can usually plug along with generally more great days than bad ones. During a crisis, higher levels of worry and anxiety will cause us to lose focus. Having a good work life balance means that sometimes we need to let the life part win. Finding a good balance and being flexible with each day will help you find the energy to tackle new tasks.

Some work we just don’t like to do. We don’t always get assignments we love—the trick is to focus on the elements of the work that you do find enjoyable. Think about how accomplishing the task might be satisfying and try to offset the chore with activities that you find rewarding—for instance, listen to music while tackling that big backlog of e-mails in your inbox, or do boring tasks with your favorite colleagues.

  1. Be Your Own Hero

Between work, family, and social life, your health and happiness are often put on the backburner due to the lack of time. Meetings may begin to take precedence over doctor’s appointments, and long days spent at your computer may trickle into family dinner time. The first person who can help you is YOU.

When your job begins affecting your health—mentally, physically, and emotionally—you will often find yourself fatigued and unhappy. In order to avoid a burnout, you need to have the energy to tackle your projects with enthusiasm. Be sure to prioritize the needs of you! You can do that by planning days off, taking breaks and engaging in the other aspects of your life without worrying about work. The crisis may be your chance to be a hero, to save your part of the world or even just yourself. Heroes get out there, roll up their sleeves, slay the dragons and rescue the princesses. What are you waiting for?

  1. Find Your Tribe

No matter how on top of it you feel, there are times when you can’t complete a project on your own. Perhaps a project has multiple dimensions that require skills in areas that will take a lot of research on your part, or that would suffer if you did them alone.

In instances like these, you have a choice: push yourself to do it on your own and risk a poor outcome or you can find those friends that will help. When things get tough, you find out who your real friends are. There are few things more motivational than mutual loyalty, support and encouragement. Finding friends to help or even bounce ideas off of will help you to stay motivated.

  1. Rely On Willpower

Convincing yourself to accomplish a task out of sheer will is difficult. Often, getting started on a big goal or complicated project is the hardest part. Once you actually get going, the whole project feels a lot less daunting. The trick to staying motivated is to create small habits that help with productivity and make you feel good about what you’re accomplishing.

Conquer decreasing willpower dips by lowering barriers that get in the way of your beginning a task. If you have a hard writing assignment to tackle, for example, focus on getting just the first sentence down (even if it’s a stream of consciousness). But, once you write that first line, you will most likely feel your anxiety melt away.

It is no surprise that people are worried, about themselves and loved ones catching the Covid-19 virus, and the future of the world or their jobs. It’s hard to focus on work when you are overwhelmed by anxiety. As we enter another week of this crisis, if you are feeling a lack of motivation be kind to yourself. Understand that this feeling is natural, particularly at a time when the world seems to be falling apart and our interaction with others is limited to phone and laptop screens. Work out what can motivate you and be a hero, to yourself and others.

Originally written by Alicia Betancourt, UF/IFAS Extension Monroe County; edited and used with permission, part of the #WFH series with Linda Seals, Ramona Madhosingh-Hector, and Carol Roberts.