Motivating Until It Hurts: Four Subconscious Motivators That Can Damage Productivity

“Motivation is great. It’s nature’s reward for achievement, but it can easily become your drug of choice if it’s misused.” – Lewis Howes, American business writer.

We talk a lot about motivation in productivity circles, for good reason: it works very well. Little things like promising yourself some coffee when you finish the next page of your report will keep you on point and producing; and when you get back to work, that cup of coffee will likely help you produce more. Big motivators, like the promise of a promotion if you end the year in the black, or a free trip to Hawaii if your team hits a huge deliverable, can keep you focused and fierce. The result is often greater engagement and higher productivity. Motivation works so well because it produces a natural high that makes you feel better whenever you achieve a goal.

But motivation isn’t always a good thing. Let’s take a look at a few motivators that can kill your productivity if allowed to rampage through your subconscious unchecked.

  1. Perfectionism. If you get the idea in your head that everything has to work just right before you release it to the world, you’ll have trouble from the word go. As a high achiever, you may have an internal motivator urging you to do everything perfectly, to the point of stopping you dead if you can’t. It would be wonderful if you had the time to do everything just so, but you probably don’t—so you have to make do with as perfect as possible given the time frame. Don’t let perfectionism trash your deadlines.

  2. Damaged pride. Another dangerous “P” word that, in many situations, can act as an excellent motivator. When someone puts you down or embarrasses you enough to anger you, you may say to yourself, “I’ll show them!” When combined with a commitment to do good work (without edging over into perfectionism) this can serve you well. But like any powerful motivator, it can also harm, so don’t let it force you into poor health or self-sabotage through bad judgment.

  3. Bad habits or routines also misuse motivation. Routines are handy, since you perform them automatically; but if they get so deeply-ingrained you can’t adapt when the environment changes, then they become bad habits to shed. This is difficult, as the brain loves to save time and energy with routines. But when you pour coffee on your hand because your new mug is two-thirds the size of your old one, and your muscle memory got used to this much coffee, the best you can say is, you’re suddenly wide awake. Ideally, you’d never do it again; but you’ll have to be extra-mindful when pouring next time, because a habit is a habit. Some habits are usually considered bad, like the reckless aggressiveness you cultivated to get through grad school, which may not work in your new job. So, take the motivator in hand and escort it out of your life.

  4. Focusing on the reward before the action. One of the things we’ve learned about motivation is that achieving goals releases a shot of dopamine, a powerful natural drug, in your brain. Suddenly, you feel great! But if you you’re not careful, this reward may lead to motivation addiction. Anything you do toward completing the action seems like the action itself, so you get the reward in advance… and may become very slow about actually achieving the goal. Take this blog, for example. What if I got my motivation reward just from doing my research? Or when I read the research? I might take more time than I normally do to write my blogs. However, I know I have to keep plugging away, so I break the project down into pieces, do so much per day, and complete the project by my deadline. Deadlines, by the way, are wonderful motivators—one of the reasons writers under contracts tend to finish work much quicker than casual writers.

Beyond Mindless Motivation

Too much of anything can be toxic; and sometimes, misuse of even a small amount can cause severe damage. If you fall on your face unconscious in a few inches of water, for example, or drink so fast it goes down the wrong “pipe”, you can drown. So it goes with motivation. If the wrong motivators get stuck in your head, they may shred your effective productivity. Rather than the motivator being the end itself, or letting you cruise along on automatic, take a look at each of your subconscious motivators as it pops up to see if it’s still useful to you. If not, dispose of it.

About Laura Stack, your next keynote speaker:

© 2019 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored eight books, including FASTER TOGETHER: Accelerating Your Team’s Productivity (Berrett-Koehler 2018). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and a member of its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at an upcoming meeting or event, call 303-471-7401 or contact us online.

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  1. Barry Hall says:

    Many thanks Laura for a great post, I really enjoyed reading it.
    All the best