Staying motivated when things get tough is one of the hardest things when you want to make a leap in your career or job-hunt. 

You need to fight against all the “come on get real” people, your own inner “who are you to think that” voice or simply your lazy self who wants to call it a day.
So The question is:

Why can I not motivate myself? 

And why are some tasks so hard for you even though you know they are important?

It is not the 7-motivation hacks or the 3- think big exercises but one of the most influential new psychology theories that show how to motivate yourself and what to do to perform best.

Read on to learn a science proven way to motivate yourself based on your own style. You will not only know how to you reach your important goals  but also understand the best ways to achieve them. 

The Problem: Why you stay stuck

Many gurus but also common management wisdom and pop psychology tell you there is one proven way to reach your important goals.

They all come back to the classic carrot and stick approach. The ideas is that we all want to avoid pain and approach pleasure.

So you try to motivate yourself by thinking of all the big things you can achieve. And at the same time think about all the bad things that will happen if you don’t do something.

Easy right?

But it does not work. Why?

Because just as we all have unique personalities, we also have different motivation styles. We are wired differently WHY our goals motivate use in the first place. AND equally important HOW we work to reach our goals and WHEN we are most likely to succeed.

So if you wonder why the “Think Big”, “Put yourself in a positive mood”, “wake up at 5am to grind the day” (I hate this one) and “remind yourself of your responsibilities” does not work for you then because they try to put you into the same motivation box.

The one size fits all way does not work, because you are not everyone but You with your own motivation style.  

The solution: Use Your Own Motivation Style

To motivate yourself you should know your unique motivation style. Then you can use unique strategies that are proven to best fit to you, so you will be more likely to reach your goals.

A VERY quick background on the motivation science: 

Roughly 20 years ago a Columbia University professor Torry Higgins (the supervisor of my former Ph.D. supervisor) came up with the idea that we have our own unique motivation style which is hard-wired in us.
Our motivation style develops during childhood and then stays rather stable.

Tory Higgins found that there are two very different styles WHY we want something or don’t want something and HOW we go about to get our goals. This revolutionized psychology as before most thought we are just like more evolved animals who try to approach pleasure/ rewards or avoid pain/ punishments.

Here his Harvard Business Review Article on motivating people.

This is so important as conventional wisdom tells us there is this ONE way to create big goals, the 5 ways to achieve them and the ONLY way to avoid failure.

I am sure you heard them.

But your motivation style is very different to anyone’s and you should adapt your way how to reach a goal if you want to be successful.

There are two motivation styles (and some in between)

The people who “play to win” and the “people who play not to loose”. And there are some people in between that sometimes think one way or the other way.

A Mini Test to Find your Motivation Style!

When you think about finishing about an important goal: How do you feel? What are the 3 words that come to mind. Think about it, write them down & compare. If you said...

Play to Win

Excited, up-beat and on top of the world you most likely are wired to “play to win”. You are comfortable taking chances, like to work quickly, dream big and think creatively

Play not to Lose

Calm, relieved and just happy you can relax now then you most likely are wired to “play not to loose”. You want to avoid unnecessary risk, like to  thorough on a problem and analyze different solutions to avoid mistakes. 


Combination between the two or “unsure, in between, thinking of the next thing” you most likely are in between. You like tasks involving safety or accuracy, but also like to work on problems that involve creativity and were you can advance.

Motivation Style 1: You Play to Win

You will try to achieve big goals to grow, advance and yes get the biggest rewards possible. 

If you achieve them, you will feel energized and excited. This will be your superpower as excitement will energize you to keep moving forward to the next bigger goal and people will wonder how the hell you keep this motivation.

But if you do not reach your goals you will feel quite disappointed, sad and even sometimes depressed. It will be hard for you to have the motivation to keep going and you may wonder why the hell you stay stuck even know you what needs to be done.


Your Strengths

Your Risks

Work Style

Work quickly and propose solutions fast

Oversee details and make more mistakes

Getting Stuff Done

Consider lots of alternatives and see the big picture

Can get lost in strategizing and planning but not executing

Overcoming problems

Open to new opportunities

Forget what is already here, rather reinvent the wheel than using what is already here


Optimists and in general excited by challenges

Feel down or depressed when things go wrong (energy slump)

Planning Goals 

Plan only for best-case scenarios

Underestimate risk and reject ´mediocre´ but doable scenarios

You most likely work best in a fast-paced environment, where you explore many opportunities, get inspiring feedback so you do not loose steam,


Not in a place that is detail oriented, where duties and responsibilities are important, with highly structured approaches for projects

Imagine you climb a mountain. You most likely plan for reaching the top but underestimate all the steps needed.

Motivation Style 2: You Play Not to Lose 

You will try to safely fulfil important goal, so you can fulfil your duties and thus will choose goals where you are unlikely to fail.

If you reached your goals you feel relieved and relaxed. However it can be hard for you to keep moving to a next Big goal as you worry about what might go wrong if you don’t work hard enough or aren’t careful enough. Thus you may wonder why you are not as motivated for big goals as the others.  

But if you do not reach your goal or are about to fail them, you will feel stressed, anxious and even very worried. This can be your superpower as it will energize you to keep moving forward even though others give up. Long term though it can overwhelm you  and you can get burnt out.


Your Strengths

Your Risks

Work Style

Works deliberately and structures solutions

Sometimes slow, oversee big image and "good enough"

Getting Stuff Done

Assesses solutions for a concrete problem and considers details

Can get lost in little steps and doing mode but not strategic planning

Overcoming problems

Use and improve what is here already

Overlook new and unfamiliar


Setbacks and stress energize you to move on

Can be overwhelming when things go wrong. When things are well sometimes hard to get going

Planning Goals 

Prepared for the worst thus good at seeing potential set backs

Overestimate risk and "say no too fast"

Imagine you climb a mountain. You most likely see all the steps needed but overlook what is at the top.

In Between: You play to win while seeing the risks

And if you are in between you will try to achieve a big goal but at the same time will make sure you avoid failure.

This can be great as you can balance big goals with doing what is actually needed to get them done. But sometimes it can be simply overwhelming as you don’t know where to start.

Imagine you climb a mountain. You most likely plan for reaching the top and assess all the steps needed. You may become overwhelmed as the top seems so far because of all the steps needed.

Conclusion: Use Your Motivation Style to Achieve Your Career Goals: 5 Science-Backed Ways to Stay Motivated

Motivation is one of the hardest things to master when it comes to achieving your professional goals. But it's also one of the most important pieces.

I hope you saw the importance of knowing your motivation styles, which are very different. They not only tell you how you motivate yourself for your career goals but also show you when you are at your best and what to do when you are stuck. 

“Study after study shows that people who think not only about their dreams, but about the obstacles that lie in the way of realizing their dreams—believing they can overcome those obstacles and planning how they’ll make it happen—vastly outperform those who sit back and wait for the universe to reward them for all their positive thinking.”

DR. HEIDI GRANT HALVERSON‧ Author & Associate Director of the Motivation Science Center and Columbia Business School,

So how can you use your motivation style to make a leap in your job-search or jump ahead in your career?

Below some tips how to use the best strategies to achieve your career goals for your own unique style and what to do to put your back on track.  

Play To Win: Achieve Your Big Career Goal

Move fast But don't overlook the details and plan for action after failure

How to Motivate Yourself: 

Imagine the Big Career Goals and all the rewards you can win. You will naturally be motivated by a career where you can grow fast and were you can achieve big rewards. So go big for your next level job and tell yourself why you should move ahead because you don’t want to miss out on the opportunity.

What to Do to Perform:

You thrive when you can move fast and think about the big picture by connecting the dots. So send out many applications, write many people and brainstorm all the new ways you can create value for a company. This will excite you and you will get lots done in little time.

Watch out for:

Because you work fast and see the big picture you may overlook details or steps that are required to grow your career. So make a plan for all the details, do the extra effort to spell-check your application and write down the steps that are needed to reach an important goal (you will underestimate them). This will drain your energy so make sure you connect these boring to dos to your bigger goal. Tell yourself I have to do it as otherwise I will miss out on that great opportunity.

When You are Stuck:

Know that if you get rejections/ miss your your goal that you will feel sad or depressed and thus your motivation will slump. So make sure you schedule recovery time afterwards and try to get out of the slump by envisioning your big goals. Remember that focusing on small goals or telling yourself all the bad outcome you should avoid simply wont motivate you.


Most likely lists are not your thing as you think in networks. Keep track of all the details with a mind map.

Play Not To Loose: Ensure Your "Must Do" Career Goals

Move Step-By-Step But don't overlook the big picture and plan for extra effort when are just fine

How to Motivate Yourself: 

Imagine the Career Goal you must achieve so don’t waste your potential and all the rewards you can secure. You will be naturally motivated for a job/ career that you a clear career path with some security so you can fulfill your obligations (e.g. to your family). So try to go for a big job goal by telling yourself that it is your duty to use your potential and why you want to move ahead so you will have a secure career.

What to Do to Perform:

You thrive when you can take the necessary time so you can come up with a solution in structured way. So create the application system, send them one by one and think about the proven ways you will help your company to stay competitive.

Watch out for:

Because you work systematically and look at the details you may overlook the big picture or opportunities that help you grow your career. You will naturally not go for big job goals or career goals that seem to far away from your comfort zone as you see more risks.

So make a plan to challenge yourself by writing one application to a job that you think is out of reach and study the industry report on the big trends (you will think this is not important). This will feel stressful or overwhelming so make sure you connect these risky to dos to your bigger goal to not lose a great career opportunity. Tell yourself I must do this as it is my duty to not fail on my career track before I even have started.

When You are Stuck:

Know that if you achieve your goals or things are quiet you will feel quite comfy and your motivation will slump. So make sure you remind yourself that you must keep going as otherwise you will lose security you have now. Also know that stress will naturally make you get going and you can use it to your advantage but have recovery time. Finally remember that Big exciting goals or focusing on all your future achievements simply wont motivate you.

CAREFUL With Big Dream Goals

Most likely writing down big goals are not your thing are they lofty and too far away. So connect you big goal with to-dos and steps by planning backwards.

So next time you wonder why the "motivation hacks" don't work or why you simply can't get an important task done take a step back.

Its not because you are broken but simply because you are wired differently. 

Let me know in the comments: What is your motivation style and how can you move ahead for your career goals.

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About the Author

Work Psychologist & Advisor, with the sole purpose to find and offer you the most competent advise so you grow professionally and live a fulfilling work-life on your terms. 

Find out more: How I went from being an anxious, always pleasing and stuck in the rat-race professional to creating a well-paying career and fulfilling life on my terms.


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