What To Do When Motivation is Low

A Blog Post by Chad Hall


Mark came into the coaching relationship very excited about his goal of earning a promotion. He was a year into his role as a production supervisor in a manufacturing company and he had his sights set on becoming a plant manager and eventually a director of operations. Mark wanted the career advancement, but two months into the coaching relationship he was getting kind of bummed. Why? Because he hit a motivation wall.

Here’s a simple rule for getting what you want in life: find out the cost and pay it. As we coached, Mark came to realize what it would cost him to advance in his career: harder work, smarter work, learning some new skills, getting better (way better!) at managing and communicating, and seeing a bigger picture. He wanted his goal. He wanted to want to work to reach his goal. In other words, his motivations fizzled.

What do coaches do when our client’s motivation is low? Well, let’s start with what we don’t do. We do not throw up our hands in defeat (“After all, what can we do if a client isn’t motivated?!?”). One of the reasons a client works with a coach is to stir motivation, to increase and focus desire, and to truly want what the client just wishes he wanted. We need to own the fact that it’s perfectly reasonable to expect coaching to increase a client’s motivation.

Once we admit that it’s within the purview of the coaching relationship to increase motivation, we need some guidelines. One of the most helpful frameworks is the Motivation Equation. I don’t have a dry erase board in this blog post, so bear with me. Motivation = Expectancy * Value/Impulsivity * Delay. Let’s break down each of those four variables.

  • Expectancy is all about the client’s confidence that he or she will be able to create or achieve. Since Expectancy is in the numerator, the higher it is, the greater the motivation. If a client is fairly confident he can reach a goal, he’s going to be much more motivated than if he doubted his goal would ever become a reality. For example, while I might really want to be a professional golfer, I estimate the likelihood of that happening as less than zero, so my motivation for practicing my golf game is very, very low. On the other hand, I once heard a podcast describe how easy it is to write an ebook and my confidence was so high that my motivation carried me forward to finishing my first ebook in less than 5 hours.
  • Value concerns how important the goal is for the client. If a client values the goal greatly, the motivation will be higher. If the client puts little value on the goal, motivation will diminish. The importance of value is why coaches start every coaching conversation with a time of exploration about a given topic or issue. We even ask questions such as, “What about this is important to you?” We want to help a client recognize the value of what they want so they’ll want it more and more. This is not as simple as asking them IF they value the goal; we have to help them uncover WHY they value the goal.
  • Impulsivity is a big drain on motivation. Distractions, lack of focus, and chasing squirrels will drain your motivation by diluting your energy. The greater your impulsivity, the lesser your motivation. BTW, this is one of the reasons goal experts (they do exist!) recommend having no more than 3 goals active at any one time. When our attention radar screen is cluttered with lots of “important” things, we run a much higher risk of impulsively switching from one thing to another, losing momentum on any one of the goals we are pursuing. Decreasing impulsivity requires the client exercising some willpower, but it also involves helping the client arrange life such that more willpower isn’t as needed because his path has been cleared of distractions.
  • Delay is how far into the future is the goal. Shrinking the delay is one of the main reasons we often help clients shrink the goal into sub-goals (or baby steps): we’re trying to create a mile-marker that’s within sight so the client gets that positive rush of emotions that come from having reached a goal. Shrinking the delay is also why we want deadlines that are immediate instead of deadlines that are way off into the future. After all, things that are way off in the future are far less real than things that are more immediate.

The Motivation Equation is simple to understand but using it to help spur motivation and goal achievement can be nuanced.

Mark wanted to move up the career ladder, but his motivation wasn’t high enough to keep him focused on doing what was necessary for advancement. As we used the Motivation Equation, it became clear that his motivation was lacking mainly because the denominator variables (impulsivity and delay) were too high. Impulsivity and delay were overwhelming the expectancy and value variables.

Mark knew the costs he’d have to pay in order to advance in his career, but he rarely found time to pay those costs because his impulsivity spurred him to focus on whatever immediate need clamored for his attention. He’d always framed his job as doing what was needed now and on his own, if possible. He began to realize that dealing with things in the heat of the moment and on his own was not the best way in his current role or in the roles he wanted to inhabit down the road. Instead of dealing with things impulsively, he pushed himself to take a more systematic approach, thinking through who on his team was best-suited for dealing with the issue then delegating and offering support. In this and several other ways, Mark worked to restrain his impulsivity in order to boost his motivation and stay on track for the promotion he sought.

Mark also worked to shrink the distance between now and the time for fulfilling his goal. Instead of thinking only in terms of his long-term ambition of becoming plant manager, Mark worked with the current operations director to identify some smaller, more achievable milestones. Putting his focus on the progress markers instead of the ultimate goal helped Mark feel a connection between his choices today and his desired future. This worked by making his desired future so far into the future, which shrank the delay while also raising Mark’s expectancy.

How will you use the Motivation Equation? Think about using it in your own life and work. Also consider using it with those you manage, lead, or coach. How can you use the formula to support others in staying motivated for their goals?