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3 Practical Lessons for Achieving Goals from Work Motivation Research

It’s not surprising most of us at least think about setting a resolution at the beginning of a new year.

We’re wired to be goal-setters.

Psychologists call goals the language of the brain that directs the brain’s executive function. The executive function allows us to plan instead of being slaves to instincts (which is a good thing!).

But while goal-setting is natural, knowing how to motivate ourselves to achieve those goals isn’t so automatic.

For a demotivating example, research finds that by June of this year, over 55 percent of new year’s resolutions will fall by the wayside.

A goal without motivation is useless.

So, what exactly is “motivation?”

Craig C. Pinder, Professor of Organizational Behavior at the University of Victoria, British Columbia and work motivation expert calls motivation, “…the set of energetic forces that originate from within as well as beyond an individual’s being to initiate behavior.”

Motivation is energy, and there are powerful ways we can design our goals to generate that energy.

3 Practical Lessons for Getting Motivated to Achieve Your Goals

In 1975, organizational psychologists J. Richard Hackman and Greg R. Oldham studied 658 workers in 62 different jobs to determine the “critical psychological states” necessary for motivation in everyday tasks.

The researchers found through extensive validation three factors that predicted motivation: experienced meaningfulness of the task, responsibility, and knowledge of the outcomes.

Through further validation over the past 44 years, researchers found the most powerful predictor and necessary state for internal motivation was experienced meaningfulness, also known as psychological meaningfulness.

On a basic level, psychological meaningfulness is our understanding of how what we’re doing contributes to some bigger purpose.

Psychological meaningfulness is predicted when tasks are designed with the following components:

  • Task significance: Being able to identify how something we’re doing benefits another person or group of people beyond the self.
  • Task identity: Being able to identify the task with the whole product or clear outcome.
  • Skill variety: Being able to use a range of pre-existing skills and talents to accomplish a task.

Since most big goals are achieved through smaller incremental acts or tasks, there are ways we can design our approach to these tasks for more motivation.

Here’s how to start:

1. Be mindful of how accomplishing the goal will affect another person or group of people beyond yourself.

Most goals we set are self-centered. We want to improve ourselves for the sake of ourselves.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with that intention, research finds we’re simply not as motivated to achieve goals when we can’t see their significance on another person or group of people.

When we connect our goals to how they might benefit another person or group of people, we get a boost of what neuroscientists call the “happiness trifecta;” the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. These neurotransmitters are responsible for mood, movement, and yes, motivation.

We’re wired to contribute; therefore task significance has a powerful causal effect on meaningfulness and motivation.

Embed a reflection of the goal’s impact before you set out to do a task associated with the goal. For example, if you want to start meditating, before your meditation session ask yourself:

  • Why am I doing this?
  • How will what I am about to do benefit others?
  • Whom will it benefit? (be specific)

This will be awkward at first but keep at it – even motivation is a result of habits.

2. Vividly visualize what it will be like when you achieve the goal and return to that vision often.

We tend to overestimate what we can do in a day and underestimate what we can do in one hundred days.

We are naturally inclined to seek instant gratification. When we can’t see how a small task connects to a larger outcome, we can be quick to abandon it or even dread it.

To give your task “identity” with the outcome, it’s useful to visualize the bigger whole and know clearly how each small task or step connects to the big picture.

Practice: Spend time crafting a clear vision of how yours and others’ lives will be once you’ve achieved the goal.

Using the example above, what will the achieved goal of meditating regularly be like what it’s achieved? What will it feel like? How will your thinking and behavior change?

One way to do this is to make three columns on a piece of paper. In the first column, write what you and others would feel like if the goal were achieved. In the second column, write what you would be like after achieving the goal (your state of mind). In the third column, write down what you would be doing differently when the goal is achieved.

Look at that vision at the beginning of embarking on any task on the journey toward your goal.

3. Identify your strengths and consciously use them in how you approach your goal.

Often when we set goals we adopt a deficit mindset; the thought that we’re not good enough or that accomplishing the goal will fill some critical “gap” in our lives.

When we think from a deficit lens, we can miss out on the resources we already have to achieve the goal. Not using what we’re good at ob a task can quickly leave us feeling drained.

Practice: Before embarking on the set of actions necessary to accomplish your goal, seek to better understand your unique strengths – where your passions and unique talents overlap.

What are you already good at? What do you already love to do?

Ask yourself, “How can I use these strengths to help me achieve this goal?”

For example, starting out you might not know anything about meditation, but you just might be amazing at managing your calendar, so lean into that strength to schedule your meditation sessions.

When we use our strengths, research finds we’re more motivated and more productive.

Zach Mercurio is a purposeful leadership and meaningful work strategist, researcher, and bestselling author of “The Invisible Leader: Transform Your Life, Work, and Organization with the Power of Authentic Purpose.” 

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