Developing Drive

The best approach to increasing motivation depends on what’s suppressing it.

Posted May 03, 2017

Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain
Source: Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

Most attempts to improve motivation and reduce procrastination focus on carrots and sticks: Consider the benefits and liabilities of doing the task, for example, “You’ll get a promotion; you won’t get fired.”  Or they're reminders: calendars, scheduling, to-do lists, and check-ins. At least among my clients, those are mere band-aids that soon fall off.

The key to enduringly developing drive is to want to be productive for its own sake. How to make that happen depends on which of three inhibitors are operating:

Too narrow a definition of “the pursuit of happiness.” Many people with low drive equate the pursuit of happiness with avoiding work, especially unpleasant work. They fail to realize that happiness or at least contentment, is more likely when one takes pleasure in the process of being productive. If your pursuit of happiness is defined merely by doing as little work as possible so you can do more pleasant things, it can feel but superficially good and, at least in the long run, make you feel like you’re living an empty life. You’re also likely to be poor—and it’s not much fun to live in a dangerous neighborhood with three roommates and worrying if you can afford both tomatoes and toilet paper this week, let alone your health insurance premium.

If a room were filled with 100 very productive people, who only rarely stopped to think about whether a given task was pleasant, I believe they’d, on average, rate themselves as happier than do people who minimize work effort so they can play more.

Of course, if the work is consistently too hard or onerous, for example, a clanging, carcinogenic factory, even a driven person gets demotivated and so should look for more pleasant work.

Unrealistic fear of failure. Some people, whether because of childhood trauma or some conspiration of factors, so fear failing that they avoid trying even tasks at which they'll likely succeed. The first line of defense against that is to list the benefits and liabilities of trying and to ask yourself, “Would I be better off if I tried and failed or didn’t try?” Do remember that not trying because of irrational fear of failure tends to exacerbate, so the person feels capable of doing less and less. A second line of defense against irrational fear of failure is cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Realistic fear of failure. If you reasonably believe the risks of trying outweigh the likely benefits, it may be time to redirect your efforts to work you’re likely to do better. If we’re talking about a task on your job or in your out-of-work life that has to be done, can you delegate it? For example, I’ve had self-employed clients who hate numbers, including bookkeeping. The answer was simply to hire a bookkeeper for a few hours a week.

No matter the cause of your low drive, it may help to consider these two obituaries.

Pat Jones did the least he could get away with and so had plenty of time for partying, video games, and TV. Burial will be at PermaRest Cemetery.

Chris Smith did the most she could and thus improved the lives of many customers, coworkers, family, and friends and spent little time partying, playing video games, or watching TV. Burial will be at PermaRest Cemetery.

It may also help to realize that even if your job is mundane, whether factory worker, clerk, or manager, you're playing a role in running society. You matter.

The Takeaway

Is there anything in this article you’d like to try in developing more drive?

I read this article aloud on YouTube.

The 2nd edition of The Best of Marty Nemko is now available. You can reach career coach Marty Nemko at