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Getting Psyched! A Playful Approach

Learn how to motivate yourself and others.

Many of us drag ourselves to work only to watch the minute hand inch its wayto five o'clock. These games will help boost your employees' motivation as well as your own.

I knew an administrator once--let's call her Ann--who confessed to me that she hated her job so much she had trouble making the trip to work in the morning. Sometimes, she said, she stopped halfway, pulled over and had long debates with herself about turning back. On all but a few occasions, she eventually made it to work where she struggled to keep up appearances and get things done. Ann had suffered through this regimen for years, at first counting the months, then the weeks, then the days that would bring her to retirement.

When your energy is low, what, if anything, can you do about it? If your employees are sluggish, how can you give them a boost? Researchers in business, psychology and other fields have been working hard (speaking of motivation) for decades to answer these questions. And significant advances have been made.

If you or your staff is only going through the motions and if passion and energy are words you only see in Nike ads, get ready for liftoff.


Motivation is an internal state of arousal that often precedes behavior. As Ann's case teaches us, the relationship between motivation and behavior is only approximate: One can behave without being motivated to behave. One can also be motivated to behave--for example, to date an attractive colleague--without ever having an opportunity to behave. Ideally, we not only experience a high state of arousal but also have an opportunity to behave in a way that fulfills our need. When we're hungry, for example, we feel great if we can eat. When we're edgy, we feel frustrated if we're prevented from moving around.

If you're already highly motivated but can't find a way to reach your goals, you might want to read books on creativity, career change or, if all else fails, stress management. What can you do about the opposite problem: the lack of motivation, either in yourself or in those around you? How can you induce an internal state of arousal? In other words, how can you make yourself or others want to behave? How can you get people to strive to achieve?

These are important questions because if behavior and motivation aren't in sync--if we drag ourselves through the day or if we lack the opportunity to act on some performance impulse--productivity, mood, health and retention may suffer.


Some self-help gurus will try to persuade you that you can bear down, concentrate and will yourself to be motivated. But willpower works poorly for most people. Skill, not will, is the best way to change oneself, and anyone can learn and practice new skills.

Skill acquisition has many advantages over willpower. For one thing, it saves you a good deal of grunting and groaning. Second, it prepares you for the long-term; gathering up courage might get you through the next few minutes, but it's hard to count on for the long-term.

Third, the right set of skills will help you deal with changing conditions such as a new boss or a fluctuating economy. Eight types of skills, also called competencies, can help you build and maintain motivation. The skilled individual:

1) Manages the environment: You create a workspace that helps energize you, and you surround yourself with people who bring out your best.

2) Manages thoughts: You use visualization techniques, thought-restructuring techniques and affirmations to keep yourself thinking positively.

3) Sets goals: You make both short-term and long-term goals, and you formulate plans for how to achieve them.

4) Maintains a healthful lifestyle: You exercise regularly, get adequate sleep and eat right to keep your energy high.

5) Makes commitments: You make commitments to yourself and to others to arrange both positive and negative consequences for your behavior.

6) Monitors behavior: You keep records of your progress to bring yourself closer to your goals.

7) Manages stress: You practice relaxation techniques, reduce stress in your environment and plan ahead to stay calm and productive.

8) Manages rewards: You seek out people who appreciate you and settings that reward you.

Your strengths and weaknesses in these areas can be measured with a new test called the Epstein Motivation Competencies Inventory for Individuals (EMCI-i), and the competencies that managers need to motivate others can also be measured. Where you're weak, simple games and exercises can help you build your skills. If you drag yourself out of bed in the morning, if your hopes are distant memories, then get ready to play...


In a nutshell: Players give speeches from different perspectives to simulate a job exchange.

Time: 20 minutes

What you'll learn: Role-playing can be energizing, and a job exchange might help energize people.

What you'll need: Lots of hats. They can be homemade party hats (with labels that describe jobs or roles) or more elaborate costume hats (the kinds used for Halloween). Better still, get a variety of real hats from a thrift store or hat shop. Hats should suggest a wide range of roles: adventurer, coach, detective, movie director, baseball player, cowboy, police officer. Wigs can also be employed. If all else fails, search your attic. A big bucket or basket (large enough to hold the hats) would be helpful. You'll also need at least a half dozen speech topic cards (see below), which you should place in another container.

What to do: Remind participants that people are often motivated by learning new things and by having opportunities to do new things. Now have volunteers come, one at a time, to the front of the room. Ask each to select a hat from the bin (raised high so the hats can't be seen). Then ask him or her to draw a card from the second container (or hat). His or her task is to give a three-minute speech on the topic from the perspective of a person who usually wears the hat.

Repeat the performance with other volunteers, hats and cards, as long as time permits. Finally, lead a discussion about the possible value and potential feasibility of a job exchange program--a program in which people in different areas of an organization occasionally switch jobs for a day.

Discussion questions:

1. What are some advantages of letting people try new roles?

2. Is challenge always motivating? When is it not?

3. Can you employ a job exchange program in your workplace?

Speech Topic Cards: Directions for group leader: Cut out speech topics, at left, and place them in a hat. After a volunteer has chosen a hat, have that person draw a speech topic card: Improving transportation systems; making air travel more comfortable; improving the postal service. If these topics don't work for you, make up your own.


In a nutshell: People try to guess pre-selected alphabet letters based on positive feedback from a partner.

Time: 20 minutes

What you'll learn: Positive feedback boosts performance and it can be fun.

What you'll need: A large bowl and a bag of candy for every pair of individuals participating. One person in each pair should also have a pad of paper and a pencil.

What to do: Divide the group into pairs. If possible, have each pair of individuals sit cross-legged on the floor, facing each other, not more than three feet apart. One person, the listener, holds the bag of candy, and the other person, the speaker, holds the bowl.

Ask the listeners to write down an alphabet letter and conceal it. The speaker's job is to guess that letter. He or she can get clues about the letter by saying any three-word phrase aloud. (Phrases such as "I love dogs" and "Eat more pizza" have letters such as "i" and "e" in common and rule out letters like "q" and "u.")

The speaker begins the exchange by saying a three-word phrase. If the phrase contains the hidden letter, the listener throws a candy. If the speaker catches it, the speaker can then guess a letter. If the speaker misses, no guess can be made. If no candy is thrown, the speaker can try another phrase. When the correct letter is guessed, the exchange ends, and the listener raises his or her hand to signal the successful conclusion of the exchange. Bonus: The speakers can keep any candy they catch. If time permits, have the speaker and listener switch roles and play again.

Discussion questions:

1. What impact did the positive feedback have on your performance and thinking? How did it affect the speaker's phrases?

2. Why is positive feedback important for performance?

3. How can you increase your use of positive feedback in the workplace or at home?

Alternative: To make the game tougher, require the speakers to use four-word phrases. To make the game easier, allow them to use two-word phrases or even single words. For extra fun, have the speaker and listener sit farther apart.


In a nutshell: Participants gather around a crystal ball while they concentrate on positive futures.

Time: 20 to 30 minutes

What you'll learn: The motivating power of concentrating on a bright future.

What you'll need: A crystal ball and a small table for every team of three to five people. For extra fun, dress as a colorful fortune-teller during the game. Another amusing option is to have one colorful scarf per table, to be worn by the designated "Madame Fortuna."

What to do: Divide the group into teams of three to five people, and have each team choose one member to be Madame Fortuna, the mysterious fortune-teller of bright futures.

Instruct the various fortune-tellers to put one hand on the crystal ball, point to someone at the table as the "chosen one" and recite: "Into the future I see...all that you will ever be...smiles and riches are you...success and happiness too."

The chosen one then puts his or her hand on the crystal ball. For the next minute or so, that person, along with everyone else in the group, stares at the crystal ball and tries to focus on a bright future for the chosen one.

The fortune-teller then asks the chosen one what he or she saw, asks others to add more details and then adds details of his or her own. The chosen one then becomes fortune-teller for the next round.

Finally, ask for a brief report from a representative of each team, and lead a discussion about the motivating power of visualizing a bright future.

Discussion questions:

1. What bright futures did you see?

2. How did it feel when others focused on your future?

3. Why is it important to visualize a bright future?


In a nutshell: People toss pennies into bowls, having first been given no goal, a vague goal or a clear goal.

Time: 10 minutes

What you'll learn: Clear goals boost performance. The absence of goals is deadly.

What you'll need: Masking tape; small boxes, containers, or bowls; lots of bite-size candies, popcorn, chips or pennies.

What to do: Use the masking tape to make a lengthy line on the floor, then place several bowls on one side of the line, space them two or three feet apart, about five feet from the line (adjust the distance to make the task somewhat challenging).

Have some participants stand in a row on the other side of the line, and give them candies, popcorn or pennies to toss into the bowls.

Instruct the participants exactly as follows: "Here are some pennies. There are some bowls." Now see how many pennies they get into the bowls over the next minute. Record that number on a flip chart for all to see. If necessary, empty the bowls and give people more pennies.

Now instruct them as follows: "See if you can throw pennies into the bowls." After one minute, stop and count the number of pennies in the bowls. Write that number on the blackboard.

Empty the bowls and give people more pennies. This time, say: "You just threw a total of [say the number] pennies into the bowls. Your goal now is to throw as many pennies as possible into each bowl, and make sure more pennies land in the bowls than last time." After a minute, stop and count the pennies in the bowls. The total should be dramatically larger.

Lead a discussion about the importance of goal setting, and especially about the advantage of using clear goals rather than vague ones.

Discussion questions:

1. Which instructions worked better? Why?

2. How is performance affected when no goals are stated? When goals are vague? When goals are clear?

Alternative: To control for the "practice effect," rotate players.


In a nutshell: Participants rate their energy level before and after vigorous exercise.

Time: 15 minutes

What you'll learn: Short exercise breaks can greatly boost your energy level.

What you'll need: Copies of the energy scale for all participants (see right), a portable stereo and energizing tapes or CDs.

What to do: Distribute copies of the energy scale. Then ask participants to rate their current energy level on a scale of one to 10, where 10 is the highest level.

Next, play some fun music on your stereo, and have people walk or run in place for about three minutes. Encourage participants to cheer each other on as they continue.

Have them wait 30 seconds or so, and then ask them to rate their energy level once again by marking the scale. Compute a quick average, and, if you'd like, display the result on an overhead projector. Has the average energy level increased?

Finally, explain the benefits of getting brief exercise breaks during the workday. Vigorous physical activity can serve as a motivating force by improving overall health and well-being.

Discussion questions:

1. How does vigorous exercise effect your energy level?

2. Do you currently get any vigorous exercise during the workday, either at work or elsewhere? What kind and how much?

3. How might you incorporate vigorous exercise into your workday?

Energy Scale

Rate your energy level before and after exercising:

0 2 4 6 8 10

0: Comatose. 2: Barely breathing. 4: So-so. 6: Perky. 8: Up and at 'em. 10: King of the world.


1001 Ways to Energize Employees Bob Nelson (Workman Publishing, 1997)

Who Am I? The 16 Basic Desires that Motivate Our Behavior and Define Our Personality Steven Reiss, Ph.D. (J.P. Tarcher, 2000)


Managers, supervisors, parents and teachers need some special competencies--10 in all--to motivate others. Your strengths and weaknesses in these areas can be measured with a new test called the Epstein Motivation Competencies Inventory for Managers (EMCI-m).

The skilled manager: 1) Manages rewards: You provide positive and constructive feedback, recognize achievement and reward good performance. 2) Communicates effectively: You solicit ideas and feedback, present a clear vision of the future and seek to inform, educate and inspire. 3) Manages teams effectively: You compose teams wisely and help them to function smoothly and optimally. 4) Manages the environment: You create and maintain an attractive, functional workspace and encourage healthy relationships. 5) Matches skills and tasks: You match people's skills with the tasks they're assigned. 6) Challenges: You identify people who thrive on challenge, and you seek to push them beyond their current limits. 7) Trains: You identify skill levels and provide ongoing training to enhance a wide variety of skills. 8) Resolves conflicts: You identify conflicts and resolve them before they escalate. 9) Allocates resources wisely: You allocate resources in ways that people perceive as both generous and fair. 10) Models high motivation: You demonstrate high energy, commitment and enthusiasm in your work.

Adapted from The Big Book of Motivation Games by Robert Epstein, Ph.D., with Jessica Rogers (McGraw-Hill, 2001), with permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies.

Robert Epstein is former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today. Jessica Rogers is a former editorial intern for the magazine.