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Use Small Steps to Motivate

You can stimulate the innate desire for mastery with small steps.

One of the best ways to motivate people is to stimulate a desire for mastery. People are naturally curious and this curiosity helps people master their environment. People want to learn, improve, and master skills and knowledge. One of the things you can do to stimulate this sense of mastery is to break things into small steps. Why is that important? Because it makes it easy for people to see their progress, and seeing progress makes people want to keep going. 

If you’ve ever used one of the exercising applications, for example “Couch to 5k” or the “10k Runner” you will know what I mean. These are apps that you use on your smartphone. They map out an exercise period. You turn on the app as you start your exercise session and the app tells you what to do along the way. At the beginning a voice says for you to walk for 5 minutes to warm up. After that the voice tells you to start running. Two minutes later the voice prompts you to slow down and walk. During the exercise session your screen shows your progress. (See the picture below).

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screen shot of 5k runner app
You can see how much time you have been exercising, how much time you have left in the session, and how much time is left in the particular part of this session (for example, you have 30 seconds left to run before it’s time to walk again). You also get feedback on where you are in the entire 9 week program—you are on Day 2 in the 3rd week for example. By breaking the entire 9 weeks, and each particular session, into small steps, the app can always be showing progress, and that constant feedback on progress towards the goal is very motivating.

You can apply this principle to anything that you want people to do and/or keep doing. Other examples are having people learn a language, or master the steps to be a barista at a coffee shop. Or keeping your audience’s attention and engagement while you are teaching a seminar.

What do you think? Have you used this technique of breaking things into small pieces and showing progress to keep people motivated?

Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D.,is a behavioral psychologist, author, coach, and consultant in neuropsychology.

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