How to motivate yourself to work, even on your most distracted days

A woman is peaceful at work with plants behind her because she learned how to motivate herself at work

If, despite your best intentions, you're struggling with a lack of motivation in your professional life, you're not alone. In light of the record-high cost of living and the ever-looming threat of layoffs, research shows that employee morale is at an all-time low.¹ When it feels like you're carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders, starting that work project can feel near impossible. Yet, the work just keeps on coming, and we have no choice but to complete it if we want to keep those bills paid.

Getting motivated to work can feel even more challenging if you're struggling with increasingly common mental health issues like depression, burnout, anxiety, or ADHD. When you're fighting a battle against your own brain, many conventional motivation tips like 'just start' or 'stay positive' simply don't work.

At the end of the day, motivation isn't one-size-fits-all. To ignite a fire under you to get things done, it's important to understand what drives you, and the elements of work you find rewarding. Leveraging powerful tools like Fingerprint for Success can help you gain higher self-awareness around your personal motivations and unique work styles.

By getting clear on what makes you (and your teammates) tick, you can stop staring at the blinking cursor in that blank document and finally finish what you need to do.

Table of contents
Redefining the science behind motivation
The benefits of tapping into your personal motivations
7 science-backed ways to motivate yourself to work

Redefining the science behind motivation

If you've ever Googled 'how to stop procrastinating', you've likely come across suggestions like using to-do lists and setting SMART goals. While these strategies can be a good starting point, we were determined to dig deeper to understand what truly motivates people. What makes the difference between the people who set out to accomplish big things, and those who actually follow through with it?

At Fingerprint for Success, we spent more than 20 years studying the motivations of some of the world's most successful entrepreneurs and business leaders. In doing so, we uncovered 48 different traits that drive people to get things done at work. We discovered that contrary to what some self-development experts might suggest, highly effective people don't have specific personality traits that make them 'special.' This is great news, given that personality is largely stable, and is difficult to change in adulthood.

Rather, these high performers have a strong understanding of how their brains operate and know how to work with it — not against it — to realize their full potential. The good news is, you can do the same by taking our work styles assessment, and exploring your own personal motivational 'fingerprint.'

The benefits of tapping into your personal motivations

Highly productive people come in many different forms. Some are extroverted visionaries, who gain energy by bouncing ideas around with other people. Others are more quiet, behind-the-scenes types, who need complete privacy and silence to get things done. Many, like Richard Branson, Bill Gates, and Walt Disney even have ADHD, dyslexia, or are otherwise neurodivergent. The one thing these successful people have in common is that they understand their internal motivations, and use them to forge their own path to productivity.

At the core of Fingerprint for Success' human development tools is our X-factor success model. This is a science-backed method that identifies high performers at all levels in organizations, and the motivations that drive them. From here, companies can benchmark other employees against this data. It's important to note, the goal here isn't to pigeonhole people into 'good' or 'bad' employees. Nor is it to alienate people who don't meet organizational norms. In fact, the very opposite is true — F4S is designed to celebrate and foster cognitive diversity in workplaces.

However, the fact is, that success looks different in every company. By understanding what helps you thrive in your specific organization, you can reinvigorate your sense of purpose and enthusiasm at work. This can look like:

Leveraging strengths

You may surprise yourself with all the positive motivational traits you already have under your belt. For example, even if you don't consider yourself an especially focused person, you may find that you score exceptionally high in big-picture thinking — and that this is an asset in your organization. By further strengthening this skill, you can increase your confidence in your own abilities and set yourself up for success.

Identifying blind spots

We all have areas we can improve in and sometimes, we need an unbiased source to bring these to the surface. While this may feel uncomfortable or even confronting at first, it can be extremely empowering to put a name to it. For example, perhaps you've always held the belief that you're 'just lazy' but in fact, you learn through the F4S assessment that you simply have a strong need for structure that isn't currently being met. Armed with this knowledge, you can create a structured game plan for improvement, and turn this blind spot into a strength.

Designing your work life

When you understand what does and doesn't work for you, it becomes much easier to ignite your sense of motivation. Armed with solid data to build your case, you'll also likely achieve better results when asking your organization for what you need. Perhaps you've learned that you're a strong self-starter and are action-oriented, but tend to lose interest once the project is actually kicked off. If you're a remote worker, you may find that asking for regular accountability check-ins could help keep you motivated in the long term.

Improving team harmony

If your preferred work style is different from the rest of your team, it's not unusual to feel misunderstood and undervalued. On the flip side, you may find it challenging to understand why your colleagues do the things they do. Fingerprint for Success' team collaboration tools bring together the data from each individual's work style assessment, to highlight shared motivations and potential areas of friction. This helps create an environment where everyone is supported to do their best work, in a way that suits them.

F4S can help bridge understanding regarding team differences

7 science-backed ways to motivate yourself to work

Based on your motivational traits and ideal ways of working, the best way to 'get in the zone' will vary from person to person. However, rooted in neuroscience and positive psychology, there are some science-backed tips on workplace motivation that are universally helpful. Read on to learn some of these evidence-based strategies.

1. Break it down

When you have a never-ending laundry list of things you need to get done, it's easy to get stuck in a state of analysis paralysis. This becomes even more overwhelming when you have large projects on your to-do list, but no clear milestones or deadlines. How do you know where to start when you've got a mountain in front of you, but no clear map to navigate to the top?

What's far more practical is to break those bigger projects down into more manageable chunks. Research shows that setting smaller, achievable tasks leads to improved productivity because these 'tiny wins give us the motivation to keep going.² Visualizing your desired outcome, work backward to figure out the smaller steps required to bring it to fruition. Then, find a way to get it down onto paper. Rather than a generic to-do list, you may find it more motivating to map out a timeline in a Gantt chart, on a Monday board, or even using Post-Its on a blank wall.

If you're juggling many different projects or tasks at once, you'll need a system to figure out what to work on first. One popular method for prioritization is The Eisenhower Matrix. This is where you draw a quadrant on a piece of paper, and group tasks into four sections: Urgent and important (do first), urgent but not important (delegate to someone else), important but not urgent (do later), not urgent and not important (don't do). This helps take the guesswork out of what you should be working on at any given time.

2. Set up your environment

Don't underestimate the role your surroundings play in helping you stay focused and motivated. One prime example? Research shows that working in an open-plan office significantly hinders productivity — likely thanks to constant interruptions from colleagues and water cooler chatter.³

The good news, the increase in remote and hybrid work makes it easier to take control of your environment. While all of our desks can get messy from time to time, generally the best environments are clean, uncluttered, and have plenty of natural light. You might also want to consider asking your organization for a comfortable, ergonomic chair and adding some personal touches that inspire you — whether it's a desk plant, nice stationery, or a scented candle.

When it comes to designing your environment, also think about how you can use friction (or lack thereof) to your advantage. This refers to obstacles that make it difficult to carry out a task or behavior — and they're a crucial aspect of habit change.⁴ Eliminating distractions (such as social media) is key to productivity, so to increase friction, you might consider stashing your phone in a cupboard or investing in a lock box. On the flipside, if you want to motivate yourself to drink more water, (after all, physical health and productivity go hand-in-hand) you could decrease friction by placing a jug and glass on your desk.

3. Block time out

By its very nature, motivation is fleeting. While it's nice when it shows up, we can't always rely on it. The good thing is, that motivation isn't actually required to achieve your daily goals. Sometimes, movement can actually precede motivation — meaning you take action first, and that initial sense of satisfaction gives you the motivation boost you need to keep going. However, what you do need in this situation is a solid plan of what you're going to do, ahead of time.

For this reason, many highly productive people swear by calendar blocking. That is, slotting all of your tasks and commitments on your calendar, for the day or week ahead. This includes not only meetings but work sessions, break times, and even personal life commitments like exercise and catch-ups with friends. This will require you to estimate the duration of these tasks and it's always wise to add in extra buffer or white space (as things normally take longer than we anticipate). Not only does this technique give you a  clear daily plan, but it also helps you gain a better understanding of where you're spending your time.

Not really a calendar person? You can use a whiteboard, a traditional planner, or even a visual-based, ADHD-friendly app like Tiimo to do this.

4. Take regular, time-restrained breaks

Believe it or not, the human brain wasn't designed to stare at a computer screen for hours on end. While everyone's attention span is different, studies show the average person can only stay focused for 10 to 15 minutes at a time.⁵ For this reason, long, work marathons aren't realistic or sustainable for most people.

Research shows that for most, it's more efficient to work in short, sharp bursts, with regular breaks.⁶ One technique to help put this into action is the Pomodoro technique. Usually aided by a timer or Pomodoro app, this is where you work solely on one task for 10 to 20 minutes, followed by an intentional break (usually around 5 minutes). Some people choose to grab a cup of coffee, refill their water, or stretch their legs in nature. In any case, there's clear evidence that these regular breaks are essential for maintaining motivation and focus throughout the day.

5. Audit your energy

Fingerprint for Success can give you an excellent starting point for understanding the types of tasks and work environments that energize you (and drain you). However, it's also important to understand how your energy levels fluctuate throughout the day. According to research by sleep doctor Michael Breus, we all have different chronotypes or 'sleep animals' that we mimic, in terms of the times of day we are most focused and alert.⁷ For example, there's the 'wolf', who does its best work at night but is groggy in the morning; or the 'dolphin', who (based on the animal counterpart, which only sleeps with half their brain) is alert and ready to go in the morning, but needs a lot of help winding down at night.

Consider keeping a log of your energy and focus levels for a couple of days, and shuffling around your work schedule accordingly. If you're a morning person, the a.m. might be your critical hours for tackling intensive tasks, while you might do mindless tasks in the afternoon, while listening to music.

6. Reward yourself

With dopamine being known as the 'feel-good hormone', rewards are truly the cornerstone of motivation. This neurotransmitter directs our attention and drives our behavior, by telling us a certain stimulus (or, a task) is important.⁸ When we do something pleasurable or rewarding, this releases dopamine in the brain, which further reinforces that this stimulus matters to us (and makes us want to do it again). This is why it's so easy to get stuck in the social media scroll cycle of binging funny videos. But the good news is, you can also use it to your advantage by harnessing the power of rewards.

There are two main types of motivation — extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is when you use an (you guessed it) external reward that comes from outside of yourself, to entice yourself to do something. This can be something tangible, like enjoying your favorite food for dinner, or playing an hour of video games. Or, it can be more intangible, like seeking positive feedback from your boss. Meanwhile, intrinsic motivation is the inherent reward you get from completing that task, like enjoying the creative challenge, or a sense of mastery. Research shows that external motivators can be highly effective, but only when they're delivered on an intermittent schedule (that is, every now and again).⁹ The issue is, that it can be difficult to control these external motivation sources. Plus, studies show that if we're expecting a reward but don't receive it, this can actually backfire by making us less motivated than we were initially.¹⁰

Instead, extensive research from behavioral scientist Katy Milkman and colleagues at the Wharton School shows that concurrent, intrinsic rewards are the most effective way to motivate yourself.¹¹ Known as temptation bundling, this means finding ways to make the tasks themselves more inherently rewarding. For example, you might have a favorite song that you only listen to when you're preparing your daily morning updates. Or perhaps you always have your first cup of coffee for the day, when you're working on your spreadsheets. This can create a powerful positive feedback loop, and make boring tasks more enjoyable.

It's important to note that people with ADHD typically have a dysfunctional dopamine system, and it's believed this is what causes issues with focus and distraction. In these cases, doctor-prescribed medication is sometimes needed to treat the root cause. However, if you find yourself Googling 'What to do when Adderall isn't even working,' establishing your own reward system can help achieve that much-needed boost of motivation.

7. Get coached

Behind many of the world's most productive and successful people, is a coach helping them achieve their full potential. While in the past, working with an executive coach was a privilege reserved for only the elite few, this is no longer the case. Now, thanks to virtual coaching platforms like Fingerprint for Success, gaining mentorship and support is now accessible and affordable to all.

There's a multitude of ways working with a coach can help you get motivated to work, including goal setting. An experienced coach can help you determine your long-term goals, so you can connect your day-to-day work with your broader vision. After all, it's easy to feel listless and uninspired, at work when you don't have a clear career path you're working towards.

After you complete the Fingerprint for Success work style assessment, you'll be prompted to set a career goal.

F4S dashboard shows what motivates you at work based on your traits
F4S dashboard reveals your motivational traits

Based on this, our AI coach Marlee will suggest a personalized coaching program to help you reach your destination.

F4S coaching programs to motivate yourself to work

Through bite-sized coaching sessions (which take only 5 to 15 minutes to complete), you'll build upon your motivational strengths while making steady progress toward your goals. With a newfound sense of motivation, we find that 90% of users achieve their goals by the end of their first coaching program. The best part is, that you can complete your coaching sessions whenever and wherever is convenient for you — or, any time you need a little pep talk.

Uncover your inner motivation and start enjoying work again

We all have peaks and troughs in workday motivation, and not every day can be your most productive. However, understanding what gets you out of bed in the morning (and, what gets you fired up and ready to work), allows you to create your own blueprint for success. Armed with the tools and strategies to give yourself a boost in motivation, you can quickly get back on track when you find yourself unmotivated

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Show References
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  1. Pindar, J. (2023.). Low Employee Morale Statistics. https://championhealth.co.uk/insights/low-employee-morale-statistics/
  2. Nawaz, S. (2020). To Achieve Big Goals, Start with Small Habits. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2020/01/to-achieve-big-goals-start-with-small-habits
  3. Adobe. (2018). What Science Says About Open Offices.  https://business.adobe.com/blog/perspectives/what-science-says-about-open-offices
  4. Milosevic, Y. (2020). Use Friction to Make or Break Habits. The Blacklight.  https://theblacklight.co/2020/01/16/use-friction-make-break-habits/
  5. Bradbury, N. (2017). Attention span during lectures: 8 seconds, 10 minutes, or more.  https://journals.physiology.org/doi/pdf/10.1152/advan.00109.2016
  6. Ellet, G. (2016). The Pomodoro Technique: Study More Efficiently, Take More Breaks. Learning Commons. https://learningcommons.ubc.ca/the-pomodoro-technique-study-more-efficiently-take-more-breaks/
  7. Better Sleep Council. (2020). Your Sleep Animal and How You Should Sleep.  https://www.bettersleep.com/blog/your-sleep-animal-and-how-you-should-sleep/
  8. Cleveland Clinic. (2022). Dopamine. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/22581-dopamine
  9. Cameron, C & Pierce, W. (1984). Reinforcement, Reward, and Intrinsic Motivation: A Meta-Analysis. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1170677
  10. Schultz, W. (2016). Dopamine reward prediction error coding https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4826767/
  11. American Psychological Association. (2021). Better Behavior Through Brain Science. Speaking of Psychology Podcast https://www.apa.org/news/podcasts/speaking-of-psychology/better-behavior

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