Magazine article USA TODAY

Motivate Me

Magazine article USA TODAY

Motivate Me

Article excerpt

HOW CAN WE stay motivated while working toward long-term goals? This simple question sparked Thomas Bateman, professor in the School of Commerce at the University of Virginia, to conduct research that embodies a struggle that most of us are familiar with, as day-to-day life intrudes on our best intentions of training for that marathon, writing that novel, or securing that top job. "Many of us know that we are supposed to think long term, but most of us still struggle with that, at least on a daily basis," says Bateman, who specializes in organizational leadership, motivation, and longterm management. "I want to understand what keeps people going even when they are not getting results yet."

As he considered this question, Bateman came across a group that arguably embodies an extreme of long-term thinking: the scientists behind SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). 'These are worldclass astrophysicists who have spent their careers looking for signals that have not come." How, he wondered, could they still find their work fulfilling when they might not feel the gratification of seeing results in their lifetimes? Along with the astrophysicists of SETI, Bateman interviewed scientists doing long-term work in fields like cancer research, biodiversity, and geology, trying to determine what keeps them motivated even when results may take years to achieve.

His findings are instructive for anyone needing to overcome short-term thinking and work toward a long-term goal.

Bateman found the scientists' motivations could be slotted into four broad categories: possible futures, possible selves, near-term gratifications, and task interest.

The first two categories address what will happen when the long-term goal is achieved. Scientists often mentioned how their work might impact their children, grandchildren, and society in general. Envisioning these possible futures and connecting them to their present work motivated them even when the end goal only was distantly conceivable. Often, that motivation was expressed via allegory or metaphor--i.e. comparing their work in space to the early exploration of the West by American settlers.

Of course, the scientists, being human, also were motivated by the prospect of individual acclaim. How wonderful it would be, they speculated, if they could make that big discovery everyone has been waiting for and prove the naysayers wrong. They tended to use terms like "pioneer," "explorer," and "adventurer" when describing the ideal they were aspiring to, and those self-conceptions provided powerful motivation.

The second two categories address the short-term achievements that provide encouragement and progress in the pursuit of long-term goals. …

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