How to create high motivation and prevent burnout

Getting the best from yourself -- and those you lead

How can you inspire motivation to get the best from yourself and those you lead? When engaged in an unchallenging task, you will likely find yourself bored, unmotivated and unproductive. If challenged with a task or project that is significantly more difficult than your competency or skill level, you might become frustrated, angry, overly stressed – and eventually reach emotional burnout.

When you take on a project or something where you are both highly competent and challenged this is when you are most likely to be most highly motivated and to be at your best.

In sport and high-performance psychology, there is a relationship between the challenge, competency level and motivation level as represented in the graph below. The graph above combines my interpretation of the research of Clark Hull on drive (motivation) and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on flow (the flow state is when you perform at your best).

A motivational relationship exists between competency and challenge level. Motivation is usually high when both the skill and level of challenge are similar, unless both are low.

The measure of competency on the graph is not general competency but a very specific measure, different in every situation.

For example, I mentally trained an Olympic gold medalist I’ll call John. John was an amazing endurance athlete; however, he was extremely shy and somewhat socially phobic. He was always great in the most challenging and stressful of competitions but was painfully inept in interviews and social settings. We all have different competency levels in all different parts of our lives and for all different skills  

Can you match competency and skill for yourself, those you care about and—if you lead others—for them? Matching competency with challenge levels to find the right mix that creates high motivation is a bit like the process Goldilocks went through in the fairy tale Goldilocks and the Three Bears. To jog your fairy tale memory, here is the beginning of the story.

Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Goldilocks. She went for a walk in the forest. Pretty soon, she came upon a house. She knocked and, when no one answered, she walked right in. At the table in the kitchen, there were three bowls of porridge. Goldilocks was hungry. She tasted the porridge from the first bowl.

"This porridge is too hot!" she exclaimed. So, she tasted the porridge from the second bowl.

"This porridge is too cold," she said. So, she tasted the last bowl of porridge.

"Ahhh, this porridge is just right," she said happily, and she ate it all up.

Like Goldilocks finding the right temperature of porridge, you will benefit by identifying the ideal level of challenge for you and those around you. When is it too high, too low or just right? Most people find the highest levels of motivation when the challenge is equal to or slightly above their current skill level. The result: enhanced joy, self-esteem and confidence.


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