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‘Motivation is your flakiest friend’ says Katrina Keeling in our new Safe House collection of interviews. As a personal trainer she should know. The existence of the £684m UK personal training industry ($10.5bn in the US) suggests that there is a gap between knowing what we want to do and doing it. That was true even at the best of times and for most of us these are not the best of times. In fact, you won’t be alone if you’re thinking that motivation is worse than a flaky friend right now – it’s totally ghosting you.

In putting together the content for Safe House, one of the things we’ve looked at is redundancy. That’s somewhat new for us. Working Voices usually provides consultancy to large organisations so the people we work with are usually employed, by definition. It’s interesting to think about ways that the knowledge we have is just as relevant to someone without a job.

You have to be your own boss

When you’re looking for a job, you have to be your own boss for a while. This is made harder by the fact that you may also have to be your own accountant, your own recruitment agency, IT help desk – you name it. And that’s before we even get started on the extra load that has hit parents or carers in the lockdowns…

As a writer, I’ve been self-employed for large parts of my career, and in those periods of self-employment, my performance as employer and employee of myself have left something to be desired. I know how it feels to land up at home looking at a calendar with not much in it but the words ‘job search’. The one task in front of you is dauntingly simple and dauntingly vast. The advice I’m about to give is hard-won.

The general advice I would give is to split yourself into employer and employee; leader and follower. Don’t try to be both at the same time. That means make a list of stuff to do, have a break, and then come back and be the person who has to do it. And always be a considerate employer: be sympathetic to what your employee is going through and capable of; don’t feel that it’s OK to be hard on them just because ‘them’ is yourself. It doesn’t work on yourself any better than it works on others.

3 key tips on motivation

So that’s the trick. Ask yourself what you, as a considerate leader and manager would recommend for yourself. And when it comes to motivation there is a very useful set of ideas that any leader should know about. They come from the author Dan Pink. In Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us he summarises the needs of human beings (which is what most employees are) this way:

MASTERY

MEANING

AUTONOMY

I’m going to deal with these one at a time and suggest ways that you – as Interim Global CEO of yourself – can use them to motivate yourself. Remember that you need a bit of each daily AND also an overall sense that each is happening more deeply in the long term. So here we go with each of Pink’s ‘drivers’.

1. Mastery

(This means getting better at things, winning control, seeing yourself progress.)

Daily, you can schedule self-contained, achievable tasks so that there is always something getting done. Don’t worry if those tasks are not massively important; you’re doing them to improve your well-being, which helps with the big stuff. Remember that the pressure to always use your time to maximum effect is intolerable when you’re at home without much structure to direct you. As well as itty-bitty tasks, larger projects with more obvious value can be broken down into clear mini-stages so that each day you tick another chunk off.

Long term, treat the job hunt as a job in itself that you want to master – as if you’ll be doing it for ever, ignoring the fact that you actually want it to be over as soon as possible. Get into a routine and rhythm of researching opportunities and making approaches. Efficiency and productivity are intrinsically satisfying, whereas a disorganised approach that you adopt because of short-term thinking (‘hopefully I’ll only have to do this once’) is dispiriting.

2. Meaning

(This is about feeling that your work – and your life generally – has purpose.)

Do something every day that you think is significant or worthwhile, even if it’s only for a few minutes. How about making a list of people in a similar situation to you that might need a boost and checking in with them or sending them something they might find helpful? Or allocate half an hour each week reflecting on the kind of work you’d ideally like to do and how you might get to do it at some point. Just because in the short term you might have to be less ambitious about what job you take just to bring some money in doesn’t mean you can’t allow yourself a portion of time to contemplate what matters most. Because while you don’t have your head buried in a current job, this is the perfect time to do some thinking on this subject – don’t waste the opportunity!

And for the long term, invest in yourself. Think of ways to add to your skills even if you’ll need to find a job before those investments bear fruit. Once the pandemic recedes and the economy swells, you’ll want to be ready to catch that tide.

3. Autonomy

(This is about deciding things for yourself and directing your own efforts.)

Although you probably need daily routines, grant yourself some permission to ‘break free’ from time to time. You might find it liberating to think ‘sod it, I’m going for a walk’ right in the middle of the day or do some online shopping or get ingredients to cook something special. Everyone loves a boss who – once in a while – tells you to leave your work for a while and treat yourself. Be that boss. You’re in charge!

A wide open horizon can be paralysing

In the long term, you may find, like many people, that one of your problems is too much freedom. One good thing about being employed is that there are so many things needing our attention, and so much coming down from above, that we don’t suffer the awesome responsibility of wondering what, out of all the things we could do, we should choose. Out of work, when the future is uncertain and we’ve just lost security, a wide open horizon can be paralysing: staring at a laptop, or looking out of the window, or interrogating ourselves – none of these provides an answer. So what you might need to do is reduce the choices. Beware that you don’t do this by closing your mind to opportunities. Instead narrow your choices into different areas:

  • obvious things you have to do (eg update your CV)
  • things that you’ll enjoy (eg some training in new skills)
  • things that you’re dreading (eg phone up old work contacts)
  • things that will change your outlook (eg read articles, speak to interesting people)
  • things that you don’t know how to do (eg work on your brand and confidence) which you’re not ignoring but might need help with

Fill this list, combine it with all the other tips and you should have plenty to be getting on with – and hopefully some desire to it.

Phone a friend

But then of course…. after reading all this you might feel: yes, that’s all very well but I haven’t even got the motivation to do the things that might improve my motivation! That’s particularly likely if the spectre of depression has descended on you, which would be understandable. Clinical depression needs treatment, obviously. But even the low spirits that come with a dose of bad luck are hard to fight off.

If so, then again maybe do what a good employer would do and get in some outside help. Choose a friend or sibling that you can arrange regular chats with where you make these lists and review your progress on them. Those chats can begin with you saying ‘I’m useless… it’s hopeless… I’m even wasting your time right now’. People won’t mind. They know you and they get it. You might notice that I said ‘a friend or a sibling’. Think twice before using your partner. However great they may be, and your relationship may be, they have a big emotional stake (and possibly a financial one) in the process and might not be detached enough to give you impartial feedback.

Good luck. I’m off to put some of this into action. While writing it, I’ve realised I don’t do half of it so I want to change that straight away.

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