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Imagine yourself in a race, where you don't know for sure what your chances are of winning. Then, to your surprise, you find yourself in the lead.

Winning feels like it's in reach when you suddenly relax and mentally calculate how much more effort you need to exert to stay in first. Then, before the finish line, a tinge of complacency takes over and, before you know it, your competitor beats you to the punch.

Sound familiar? Whether in an actual race, sales meeting, investor pitch or job application, that early feeling of success can sometimes work against you, according to a new study, which will soon be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

"When [people] are ahead early on, studies showed that their motivation stays high as they now feel like winning is possible. It is when they are ahead late in the game that they relax," said Szu-chi Huang, an assistant professor of marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Along with co-researchers, Jordan Etkin of Duke University and Liyin Jin of Fudan University, the study focused on 136 people who competed against each other to memorize lists of colours for a cash prize. Those in the lead spent more time memorizing than those who lagged behind. However, after a while, the efforts of those in the lead waned, believing they needed to spend less time working to win.

In a separate study, 2,500 students from two different schools competed against each other in a book drive. The winning group received a $500 prize to buy books for their library. On the fourth day of a six-day competition, some students received notice that their efforts were still 10 per cent lower than their best year. Those who received the notice contributed an average of 2.8 books while those who didn't donated 1.52 books.

The second study concluded that one method to motivate people in later stages is to refocus the objective. In other words, you might decide to not focus on winning but on beating your existing record.

The research also provides clues on how to gain an advantage if you aren't in the lead. Participants who remained close enough to the leaders, especially toward the end of a competition, were more willing to exert the extra effort to win. The knowledge that leaders sometimes relax near the end could also be used to the advantage of those trailing just behind, Ms. Huang explained.

For experts on the ground, keeping professionals motivated when it appears they aren't going to win is par for the course.

Jodi Johnson, of JJ Human Capital Consulting Inc. in Toronto, which helps young companies grow, likes to run through exercises with her clients that let them "connect the dots to the long game of success."

In one exercise, she asks leaders to reach out to their mentors and ask them to share their biggest failure and what they learned from it. The mentees are then encouraged to see what it's like to be in a "non-winning phase" and reframe it as an opportunity, said Ms. Johnson.

She cautions that there remains no set standard on maintaining your motivations, and that different tactics work for different leaders. Some take an actual break from where they are while others may volunteer elsewhere to change their focus. The objective for most is to return to work with a fresh set of eyes, said Ms. Johnson.

Another method to stay motivated comes down to celebrating the small successes along the way, said Sarah Vermunt, a Toronto-based career coach and author of Careergasm: Find Your Way To Feel Good Work.

"It can be disheartening to pursue a long-term goal and not feel like you're having any wins until the big finish, which may be months or years down the road," Ms. Vermunt said.

"One of the most effective things you can do to stay motivated is to break down a long-term goal into bite-sized measurable steps and then celebrate the little wins," she added.

Ms. Vermunt also believes that those not in the lead have a "scrappy" advantage that can pay off and the study seems to support this.

"There's something about being an underdog that makes people a little hungrier for the work required to get to where they want to be," she said.

If you are an early winner, there is still work to be done to keep that momentum going.

"For individuals to who do have an early win in their career, it's important that they look at why and how they achieved that win so they can work to replicate that behaviour and strategy moving forward," Ms. Vermunt said. "That'll increase your chances of doing it again."

Leah Eichler (@LeahEichler) writes about workplace trends.

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