Finding Motivation in a Down Economy

We’ve all been impacted by it, in one way or another; whether personally, professionally or financially every one of us has been hit in some way by the global downturn in the economy. We’re dealing with less money in our retirement accounts, reduced services, and even job losses among our friends or family. None of these is a trigger that is likely to lead to an increase in what Americans are best known for: our gumption, our get-up-and-go attitude and our commitment to giving it our all to reach that stretch goal even in hard times.

So, how do we stay (or even get?) motivated in a down economy? How do we make lemonade when given lemons? Let’s review some Motivation Theory, and as a coach, I will try to help you apply it in a way that will not only help you stay motivated in a down economy, but find the opportunities and take advantage of what is available instead of dwelling on what is not. The great thing about both psychology and coaching is that you can apply what you learn to all aspects of your life. So, while you may be dealing with Survivor’s Guilt in your job because you weren’t laid off, or you can’t seem to get back on your bike with the stress of what’s going on in the world, you’ll also find that you have a hidden bonus somewhere; whether it’s more time to do things you’ve put off or a renewed sense of motivation to achieve an important goal.

Motivation Theory

Multiple theories of motivation include looking at what drives the individual and what rewards work to maintain that drive. Specifically, they look at the difference between Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation.

Intrinsic Motivation occurs when people engage in an activity, such as a hobby, without obvious external incentives. Think about the satisfaction you get from a job well-done or setting a goal and achieving it. Research has found that intrinsic motivation is usually associated with high educational achievement and enjoyment by students. Students are likely to be intrinsically motivated if they:

  • attribute their educational results to internal factors that they can control (e.g. the amount of effort they put in)
  • believe they can be effective agents in reaching desired goals (i.e. the results are not determined by luck)
  • are interested in mastering a topic, rather than just rote-learning to achieve good grades

People often cite altruistic reasons for their participation in activities that again, don’t have an obvious external reward system, including contributing to a common good, a moral obligation to the group, mentorship or ‘giving back.’

In terms of sports, intrinsic motivation is the motivation that comes from inside the performer. That is, the athlete competes for the love of the sport; whether it is the kinesthetic enjoyment of feeling your blood pump and your muscles burn or the self-satisfaction of knowing that you are doing something good for your health.

In work environments, while there is intrinsic satisfaction to performing a job well or reaching a personal goal, money may provide a more powerful extrinsic factor than the intrinsic motivation provided by an enjoyable workplace.

Extrinsic Motivation comes from outside of the performer. Money and other tangible rewards are the most obvious examples, but coercion and threat of punishment are also common extrinsic motivations.

In sports, the crowd may cheer the performer on, and this motivates him or her to do well. Trophies are also extrinsic incentives. Competition is often extrinsic because it encourages the performer to win and beat others, not to enjoy the intrinsic rewards of the activity.

Social psychological research has indicated that extrinsic rewards can lead to over-justification and a subsequent reduction in intrinsic motivation. Over-justification occurs in sport when an external incentive such as money or prizes actually decreases a person’s intrinsic motivation to perform a certain task. People may pay more attention to the incentive, and less attention to the enjoyment and satisfaction that they receive from performing the activity. The overall effect is a shift in motivation to extrinsic factors and the undermining of pre-existing intrinsic motivation.

In one of the earliest demonstrations of this effect, researchers promised a group of 3-5 year old children that they would receive a “good player” ribbon for drawing with felt-tipped pens. A second group of children played with the pens and received an unexpected reward (the same ribbon), and a third group was not given a reward. All of the children played with the pens, a typically enjoyable activity for preschoolers. Later, when observed in a free-play setting, the children who received a reward that had been promised to them played significantly less with the felt-tipped pens. The researchers concluded that expected rewards undermine intrinsic motivation in previously enjoyable activities. (Lepper, M. R., Greene, D., & Nisbett, R. E. (1973))

Real World Application

So, let’s apply what we just learned to the real world of work and sports. How do we determine where our own motivation comes from and then how do we use that to our advantage to enhance our personal success? Here are a series of questions to ask yourself:

  • What motivates me to go to work/participate in my sport?
  • Where does my sense of satisfaction come from after work/a workout?
  • How can I increase the power of the motivators I have?

If you can answer these questions for yourself, you can identify what motivates you, whether there are extrinsic or intrinsic factors that can enhance your motivation, and therefore, how to maintain your motivation. For example, if knowing that your co-worker or boss would be impressed that you stayed late to finish a project or that your workout buddy or teammate would be envious that you climbed Mt. Palomar in record time, you may want to line up the opportunity to gain visibility for your actions or accomplishments in order to enhance the extrinsic impact. If, on the other hand, you set yourself a new goal for organizing your desk or for the number of hours you dedicated to your sport this week and you gained satisfaction from meeting that goal, then you should identify more personal goals for yourself to reach in order to maintain your intrinsic motivation for the activity.

For example, I interviewed my dog walker who started her own business about the same time my husband and I got our first dog (about four years ago). She grew her business from a few clients and still needing to live with her boyfriend to a successful business and the ability to live on her own. When I asked her what motivated her to succeed she said, “fear of failure.” You have to ask – is that an extrinsic or an intrinsic factor? If failure means not being able to pay her bills or afford to live on her own, then it’s extrinsic; if failure is a sense of disappointment with herself, then it’s intrinsic. Another example, is a cyclist I know who rides to help others, whether raising money for a cause or providing coaching, she is extrinsically motivated by the thanks and appreciation she gets. While she still has an internal sense of satisfaction when she has ridden hard and long, if no one else knows about it or benefits from it, it has less meaning for her. In addition to these two examples, I know a man who was laid off in November and by December had started his own business generating 2.5 times more in a month than he was earning at his full-time high-paying job. When asked what motivated him he said, “my wife.” While his wife is an external factor, the drive behind that answer is his internal sense of responsibility and his upbringing.

The important thing to recognize is that even if you are motivated by extrinsic factors, it is up to you to make sure that those factors are in place. If you are motivated by intrinsic factors, then the important thing is to take account of them and make sure that you are paying attention as you achieve goals. If you are motivated by extrinsic factors, make sure that you are participating in activities that will be recognized and rewarded by others.

So, if your pay was cut due to the recession, or the rain or snow just won’t let up in your part of the country (things you don’t have control over), set goals for yourself every day (things you do have control over) and work towards achieving them. Sometimes the small goals are how we get to the bigger objectives – think of how baby steps eventually led to “one giant leap for mankind” (Neil Armstrong on his first steps on the Moon).

Coach Landi Saifer PhD works with beginning cyclists as well as those aiming for endurance goals. She is also an Organizational Psychologist who helps people with motivation in workplace settings.