Human Sustainability: Two Ways to Manage Motivation


Leaders often have to make very long-term decisions, or decisions that require a long time to implement. How do you maintain energy and focus around a decision that may take years to show any impact?

The answer is, sometimes you don’t!

The stereotype of gritting one’s teeth and hanging on for years simply doesn’t work. People always get tired, or distracted, or disgruntled, or just have bad days. The answer lies in how you manage your motivation instead of relying on it always being available.

You need to:

  1. Create external and internal structures to keep realigning your motives in the best way.

    Arnold Schwarzenegger, widely considered the best bodybuilder of his day, which took complex and sustained work over time. At one point he decided his calves were too thin and needed building up. He designed an exercise regimen for them, but rather than just adding it to his “to do” list, he cut off all his pants at the knee. That meant his attention could not help but be drawn to his calves, which energized him to build them up. This is an external reinforcer – re-arousing and re-focusing your goal.

  2. Permit yourself to have bad days, with the understanding that things will get better.

    General US Grant was perhaps the most steadfast generals of the Civil War. He led his troops into horrifically bloody battles, all the while staying visibly calm in front of the troops and officers, and keeping the ultimate goal despite setbacks. What made him different was that he did not retreat completely after a defeat, losing heart; he just refocused and tried something different, and kept going, assuming he would always move forward. Sometimes he took private time to express his painful feelings, but then came back to the task at hand.

Implicit motives – your emotional drives – are definitely a reliable source of energy over time. They are very stable: a study found that people typically had very consistent patterns at ages 18, 31, and 41. Unfortunately, they are not conscious; you must spend time to understand them, and they can derail you as easily as they can empower you in the wrong situation. These two techniques: pushing the motivation button, and allowing for bad days, can do a lot to keep people going under tough situations, or even just over long periods of time.

And that’s key to human sustainability.

Marietta Bryant