Define the “Situation,” Find Your Motivation

By Ryan Quinn

One of the things I spend a significant amount of time doing as a professor is research. Academic research projects are usually big, long, and ambiguous. They can take years to complete, and what you thought you were doing when you started the project is seldom what you end up having done when you finish. You get extensive negative feedback throughout the process, but it is seldom clear how to respond to it.

Losing motivation is all too easy in circumstances like these—which are not limited to the academic world, but exist with many other kinds of projects, too. (In fact, in some ways, it sounds a lot like parenting.)

The situation keeps shifting. But what is a “situation” exactly? Could the right definition firm up your motivation and spur you on to action?

Purpose and its Obstacles

I had an experience like this on Thursday morning. When I came in to work, I knew I needed to devote most of my attention to one of my big, long, and ambiguous research projects. But I was at a loss as to where to begin. What was getting in my way?

I have written about how to develop intrinsic motivation—the kind of motivation where you do something because you want to do it, not because of the rewards and punishments that you get for succeeding or failing at it.

In Lift: Becoming a Positive Force in Any Situation, we suggest that Robert Fritz’s question, “What result do I want to create?” is a powerful way to develop intrinsic motivation because it encourages us to focus not on process but on what outcomes (“result”) we would be excited (“want”) to accomplish without letting presumed constraints restrict us from the chance to consider possibilities (“create”). So I asked myself that question. And failed.

I failed at first because I was trying to say what kind of impact I wanted my final research report to have, though I knew that there was a good chance that what my report would say in the end would not be what I think it might say right now. How could I decide what result I wanted to create when I knew that everything could change?

I failed a second time because I tried to define what result I wanted to create over the next few hours, though I had no idea what would be a realistic but ambitious objective for that time frame. Somehow, working hard so I could feel good about how hard I was working did not really inspire me either.

An Activity and a Context

Finally, I zeroed in on a concept that got me unstuck: A simple definition of “situation” as an activity you do within a particular context. The activity could be analyzing data, having a conversation, building something, for example. The context includes those people, locations, objects, history, and anything else that gives that activity its meaning. Thus, if the activity changes, the situation changes. Or, if the activity remains the same but the context changes, then the situation changes. In this way, your situation could change without your even realizing it. This is why sometimes we lose our intrinsic motivation without even realizing it.

On Thursday morning, the “situation” I decided to focus on was preparing a presentation on this research project.  It was a bounded, manageable segment of the entire research project, so I could work on it without getting overwhelmed. Yes, it would take longer than one day to complete, but it was just one component of the project. The context included the work my colleagues and I had done so far, the time I had to work on it on Thursday, the deadline for presenting it, the opportunity it gives me to both influence others with my ideas and to learn from their feedback, and so forth.

Motivation Found

Once I had a manageable situation to focus on, it was much easier to come up with a purpose. I wanted to give a presentation that would move those who attend to want to conduct research differently, teach differently, or work with practicing managers differently because of what they learn from the presentation, whether from the ideas I present or through the interaction we have as we talk about the ideas and they evolve and change. That is a result that I would be excited about creating.

The questions we propose in Lift are relatively simple, and seem like they should be simple to answer. In practice, however, people can find them difficult to answer—even those of us who wrote the book! Stopping to define a situation is a simple tool that has helped me come up with answers to these questions when coming up with answers has not been easy. Hopefully, it is a useful tool for you as well.