Dan Richards is a faculty member, Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, and author of Getting Clients, Keeping Clients.
We all encounter periods when we're challenged at work. Last summer, I was faculty adviser to 35 MBA students during their summer internships. When some complained that their job was uninspiring or felt like a grind, we worked on nine strategies to help them stay positive.
Set key priorities each day
Feeling overwhelmed and out of control drains energy. Spend 10 minutes each morning laying out the critical things you have to do that day. Or consider making this the last thing you do before you leave the office, so you hit the ground running when you arrive the next day.
Do the hard thing first
Periodically, we all have calls that we avoid or projects that we don't want to even think about starting. The difficulty is that the longer you put off that tough call or delay that daunting project, the more overwhelming it becomes. In the interim, it hangs over your head and drains energy.
In his book, Do the Hard Thing First, Michael Bloomberg advocates ending each day by writing down the one important item on your to-do list that's overdue – and to do it first thing in the morning when you get in. The energy from making that call or filing that expense report will give you a boost through the day.
Focus on progress
Harvard Business School's Teresa Amabile conducted research with knowledge workers in which she had them complete diaries at the end of each day, recording their motivation level and what had happened during the day. Her conclusion: Being able to point to progress in your work, even if it's modest, has a strong correlation with enthusiasm at the end of a workday. The opposite is true as well – people who can't point to progress report lower levels of motivation.
Consider creating a file on your computer labelled "Progress." As the last item each day, take 30 seconds to write down at least one thing you've done where you made tangible progress.
Take breaks to increase motivation
You can't be effective when your motivation is below a minimum threshold, so if your enthusiasm level is dragging, take a quick pause. In The Organized Mind, McGill's Daniel Levitin points to research on the benefit of regular breaks, provided that they're for fresh air rather than checking status updates or completing the latest BuzzFeed quiz.
Everyone is different, so pinpoint what will get you recharged when you're flagging. Consider taking a five-minute break between meetings or schedule 15-minute morning and afternoon breaks to inject fresh air into your system, whether it's a quick walk around the block or a run to Tim Hortons.
Refuse to be a victim
Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch says feeling sorry for yourself is one of the most destructive and energy-sapping behaviours you can engage in. Yes, it's unfair that our boss or clients are unreasonable. But accept this for the reality it is and move on. Every minute engaged in self-pity is one minute too many. "Refuse to be a victim," says Mr. Welch.
Sometimes internal motivation isn't enough and we need external incentives to see us through. It doesn't have to be elaborate. Something as simple as looking forward to a quiet dinner out on Friday night with your partner can be a reward for making those challenging phone calls or grinding through that spreadsheet. Looking ahead to a small payoff can provide that extra motivation.
Boost your energy level
Keeping your energy level up is always important, but is absolutely essential when your motivation is challenged. We all know the ingredients that create high energy – what's key is make them a priority.
Begin by getting enough sleep and eating the healthiest foods you can. Starting the day with exercise has a big impact. Even a brisk half-hour walk first thing can make a lasting positive impact on your energy throughout the day. Don't underestimate the effect of fresh air; yes, it's colder and there's less sun in winter, but a bracing walk can pep you up for several hours.
Build a positive mindset
A positive mindset is as contagious as any flu. Seek out people in your office who are positive and upbeat to share coffee or a sandwich at lunch. Work hard to be positive yourself.
Edward Jacobson, author of Appreciative Moments, has some suggestions on maintaining a positive mindset. First, find the opportunity to make at least one honest compliment twice a day (he calls this "filling people's buckets"). He also suggests replacing throwaway greetings like, "How was your weekend?" with more engaged greetings like, "What was the highlight of your weekend?" or "What's been the best part of your day so far?" You'll get much more than the standard "fine" when you ask questions that show real interest in the answers.
Avoid negative people
Just as talking to positive people gives us energy, spending time with negative people drains it. We all know people who are perpetually down and mad at the world, who suck the energy out of every room they're in. If you have a "woe is me, it's so unfair" person in your office, stay clear of them.
One final tip that I shared with students: If they were really down after a tough day, I suggested that when they got home they watch the funniest movie they could think of – twice, if necessary. Laughter is a proven remedy for feeling down in the dumps. And it's cheaper and less guilt-inducing the next morning than that bottle of wine or box of chocolates.
Executives, educators and human resources experts contribute to the ongoing Leadership Lab series.