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Use the Psychology of Motivation to Reach Your Goals

Emily Friedel

Contributor at StartupNation
Emily is a freelance writer who covers topics ranging from personal finance to neuroscience, and everything in between. She especially enjoys making dauntingly complex topics easier to understand. Emily lives in the Australian countryside with her family and three lovable mutts. She can frequently be found chasing after her toddler, communing with her honeybees and creating stop-motion animations.

Do you have a long list of goals for your startup to achieve this year?

If you do, you’re off to a great start; setting goals is the first step toward making them a reality. But the way you frame your goals is also crucial and has a significant impact on your likelihood of achieving them.

As salesman extraordinaire Zig Ziglar once said, “a goal properly set is halfway reached,” and a basic understanding of the psychology of motivation will allow you to do just that.

The following five research-based strategies will help you shape your goals to keep your team motivated and bring your startup’s master plan to life.

Clear and challenging goals enhance performance

In an article for Business Insider, Ira Kalb, an assistant Professor at USC’s Marshall School of Business, identified a worrying trend among company decision makers: when asked what their goal was, they’d often answer in vague terms like, “sell as much as possible.” Fuzzy goals like this, which don’t provide something concrete to aim for, aren’t the best tools for motivating your team.

Studies have shown over and over again that specificity and difficulty make a winning combination when it comes to goals. People like to work toward something that is both well-defined and provides an achievable challenge.

Specificity allows you to plan properly and gives you a reference point to measure progress, while an end-point that tests your limits adds excitement, which is energizing. A challenging goal is also more interesting, which research has shown is another key factor in driving motivation at work. If you dove head first into the startup world, chances are you’re not inspired by taking the easy road.

To make sure your goals tick both the specific and challenging boxes, ask yourself these questions:

  • Does your goal have a precise outcome?
  • Is your goal measurable?
  • Is your goal difficult but doable?
  • What do you need to do to achieve your goal?
  • Do you have a timeframe for your goal?


Value-driven goals give purpose

It takes commitment to reach a goal, and you’re more likely to commit to a goal you perceive as important.

In a review of 35 years’ worth of research on goal-setting theory, professors Edwin Locke and Gary Latham wrote that commitment “can be enhanced by leaders communicating an inspiring vision.” Your team will be more motivated by things they believe in and care about, so basing your goals on your startup’s set of core goals can spur your collective dream-chasing onto new heights.

Motivation expert Dr. Charles Kearns wrote in a Graziadio Business Review article:

“Values give purpose and meaning to one’s goals. Values serve as a strategic foundation for goal-setting.”

He also suggested leaders ask these questions during the goal-setting process:

  • Is this goal consistent with my espoused core values?
  • How confident am I in the pathway(s) chosen to attain the goal(s)?
  • How important is this goal?

Baby steps lead to big accomplishments

Imagine you decide to run a marathon. That end goal of 26 miles is overwhelming, especially after your first training session when a tenth of the total distance has your legs aching and lungs burning. But if you break that long-term marathon goal down into bite-sized chunks, it becomes a lot less daunting.

Locke and Latham wrote in one of their research papers:

“It is difficult for most people to make long-term goals feel real. Such goals are often too abstract and too far in the future to have motivational power in the present. However, this problem can be resolved by setting short-term subgoals which will lead to the attainment of the long-term goal.”

So make your startup goals ambitious to keep your team enthusiastic and energized, but break those big goals into smaller pieces to make them feel more real and less formidable.

Keeping an eye on progress pushes you forward

You know the big cardboard thermometers people use as visual aids for fundraisers? Well, the idea behind those simple cardboard cutouts is one you can use to motivate your startup team.

According to a meta-analysis of research in the field of goal attainment, regularly monitoring progress helps ensure goals get translated into action. The meta-analysis also found that reporting progress (or making it public) and physically recording progress are beneficial for motivation. By sharing progress openly and recording it, you build accountability into your strategy, which is a significant contributor to accomplishing goals.

Not surprisingly, monitoring progress is cited by many savvy entrepreneurs as an important ingredient for success. But they tend to use far more sophisticated tools than giant thermometer cutouts to measure how they’re traveling in relation to their goals. For example, Neil Patel lists Trello and Basecamp (project management software with progress tracking) among 13 online tools used by successful entrepreneurs.


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Dangling carrots are good motivators

If you’ve ever trained a puppy, you know that rewarding good behavior with a treat makes the task mush easier for both of you. Humans will also perform better when they’re offered incentives, and research has shown rewards have a substantial impact on employee motivation, which in turn affects performance.

Financial rewards are an obvious choice, but may not be an option if you’re bootstrapping, and they’re certainly not the only type of incentive that will motivate your team.

Something as simple as showing full appreciation for the work done is rewarding for employees, and a 2015 survey by Genesis Associates found incentives like an early finish to the workday were attractive motivators.

In fact, the best way to learn what your team values in terms of rewards is to ask them.

Get goal setting

Now’s the time to set out your goals and structure them using the tips above to get the most out of your team. What do you want your startup to achieve this year?

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