Stuck in a Rut? Four Essential Steps to Recharge Your Motivation

All leaders, no matter how successful, can run out of motivation. Maybe you’ve been struggling with this yourself. You used to leap out of bed in the morning, excited to work at achieving your goals. Now, you’re just trying to get through the day. You want to lead with energy and passion, but feel like you’re stuck in a rut.

When motivation takes a nose dive, that’s a sign the joy has gone out of a job—if it was ever there to begin with. And that’s a problem. As leaders, we need more than discipline to be effective and stay competitive. Joy is a powerful driver of performance and growth. It’s the difference between doing something because you have to and because you want to. The same holds true for your team. Without joy, productivity and job satisfaction go down, absenteeism and turnover go up.

At this stage in my life, if something doesn't bring me joy, I don't do it. Not everyone has that luxury, of course, but most of us can increase the amount joy in our days. Joy can be the ladder that gets you out of your rut and reinvigorates your entire team.

Step 1: Treat feelings like data

Let’s be real: no one expects to be happy all the time, especially at work. Everyone has aspects of their job that they don’t love. And there may be periods when work is tougher than usual, such as after a failure.

Knowing this, it’s all too easy to minimize the importance of your feelings, to think that outcomes are all that matter. But if you’ve wrestled with motivation, you’ve seen the connection between outcomes and emotions. No one is at their best when they’re bored, anxious, frustrated, or miserable.

Over time, I’ve learned to see feelings as information—data that can be collected and analyzed. For example, I’ll take note when my frustration levels rise or patience wears thin. What provokes these reactions? The feelings become data points, which can reveal underlying problems that should be addressed.

I’ve also learned to pay particular attention to joy. That’s because joy isn’t just a feeling that comes and goes; a more joyful life can be a destination. How often you experience joy en route will tell you if you’re on the right track.

Step 2: Identify your Joy Blockers. 

Before you can add more joy to your life, you need to know what’s been getting in its way. I like to start by making a list of “Joy Blockers.” These are things that can spoil your mood or make your day harder. They can be as small as a bad filing system or as large as major conflicts with a team member.

I asked Guy Raz, CEO of Built-It Productions, about his Joy Blockers when I interviewed him for an episode of the How Leaders Lead with David Novak podcast, which airs on August 3. Guy is an award-winning journalist, author, radio host, and the creator and host of four incredibly popular podcasts, including How I Built This. He told me that his Joy Blockers are when his temperament and work style don’t fit the systems around him. “I’m detail oriented about the quality of my shows, but I can't keep track of spreadsheets or tasks or things like that,” he said, adding, “I'm not great with meetings. Meeting for me are really challenging, because I like to just do and move.”

When making your list of Joy Blockers, you can include things from both your professional and personal life—and be specific. “I find my job stressful” is too broad a statement. “I get stressed out by the way a colleague speaks to me” is better. By identifying the exact problem, you can now make a plan to fix it. For Guy, these actions included getting off the messaging program Slack because he finds it overwhelming. “[I] just can't handle all of those inputs,” he said. “I can't multitask easily. My brain isn't designed for that.”

Step 3: Discover Your Joy Builders 

The next step is to make a list of the things that add joy to your life: the “Joy Builders.” These are the tasks you look forward to, the projects that get you energized, the moments that make work feel effortless—or at least immensely satisfying. My greatest Joy Builders are a love of learning and a love of sharing what I’ve learned, as well as time with my family.

For Guy Raz, finding a new level of joy as a father led to a healthier relationship with work. “All that ambition that was driving me to work and to travel, to constantly try and achieve some unattainable goal, it just evaporated,” he said. “Paradoxically, I became much more successful when I stopped worrying about chasing the brass ring so much. And that is because I became a father. The focus of my attention and what became important to me was so clear.”

Which brings me to what I call the “Single Biggest Thing.” Among your list of Joy Builders, what would increase your joy more than anything? To me, finding a way to make the Single Biggest Thing central in your life is the ultimate destination.

Step 4: Spread joy

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: quitting is easy. All you need is a brief rush of courage to hand in your resignation letter. Knowing when it’s truly time to move on is hard. Knowing where to go is harder still. That’s why it’s important to have these conversations with yourself about Joy Blockers and Joy Builders, especially when you feel like you’ve reached a crossroads.

The same strategies can apply to your employees. If you want to retain great people, you need to watch for signs that someone is struggling with motivation and do something about it. Talk to them about how you can help them reduce Joy Blockers and add Joy Builders to their lives. And if their pursuit of the Single Biggest Thing leads them somewhere else, take a lesson from Guy Raz. “We just lost somebody to another company,” he said. “And it's hard, but I'm cheering her on because she's going to learn so much. I said to her, ‘Learn, learn, learn, and then come back in and bring that knowledge back to us.’”

August 2, 2022