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Running into Motivation: 5 lessons my first half marathon taught me about motivation at work

Pain pulsated through every muscle in my weary legs. My family congratulated me at the finish line. The electrolyte drink had never tasted so good. I had just completed my first half marathon (Kerikeri, New Zealand) in a time of one hour and 55 minutes. Not an elite athlete performance but achieving my sub-two-hour goal. And, for those of you who know me, you’ll know that my physique is not one predisposed to running!

Reflecting on my training and the race, I kept seeing links to the work environment. What motivated me? What keeps me going? How do I improve?

Here are 5 learnings and reflections from my experience and how they relate to motivation at work.

1. Make the means to the end purposeful

I had a clear goal of running 21km on a certain date in a desired time. But I had a question niggling in the back of mind. What if something happens before the race and I need to pull out? What will all the effort of training be for?

I had to make the training itself purposeful. Not just a means to an end. I decided to use it as an opportunity to explore my home town on foot. I didn’t run the same route twice and I’ve experienced places and outlooks that I hadn’t seen before.

At work, it’s critically important to have clear goals to focus activity. We also need to configure the work itself to be motivating. Some options include:

– Use it to make better connections with workmates

– Build in mini competitions for yourself to gain a sense of achievement

– Keep a record of the things you are learning along the way

2. Make time for experimentation

During the training, I tried and tested different approaches to nutrition and hydration. Footwear (and blister medication). Running techniques.

This was a process of experimentation to see what would work best to reach my desired goal. I made gradual and incremental progress towards a point of confidence in my race day approach.

But we don’t experiment on race day. That’s time to execute all our learnings.

At work, we should take an experimental approach to any new thing we hope will deliver extra value. Four simple questions can help with experimentation:

– What are the assumptions we are making?

– How can we test some of these assumptions?

– What are useful measures when we do the test?

– How much of a certain metric will prove our assumption to be valid (or invalid)?

3. Visualise progress

On the race day, many things kept me going. The other competitors, one of which was my dad (who beat me by 90 seconds much to his satisfaction). Musicians on the side of the road.

My Polar M400 watch comes out tops. I could check my pace and distance at any time. I could see my progress in real time. I credit this immediate feedback with keeping up my pace in the last 3km. Every time I started to drop my speed I would notice and speed up.

Two aspects of this apply to work. What are the useful measures to show us progress? And, what tools are we using to calculate and display the measures?

A simple whiteboard displaying the completion of tasks in a project can increase motivation. We focus on what we can see (profound, I know!!). This is the flip side of the phrase my high school teacher used to use with regards to keeping our property safe “Out of sight, out of mind.”

4. Regulate self-talk

What we say to ourselves when the challenge becomes acute is critical. It’s useful to decide on the script before the race. I had run a full 21km in my training. My self-talk in the final few kilometers, when I was feeling a lot of pain, was, “You’ve done this before.” The script can be useful to pump you up but it’s more useful to have one that reminds you of the facts. “You have done this before.”

At work, we have challenges that arise. Our self-talk impacts our mindset. Which, in turn, enables us to make meaningful progress. So, decide what you will tell yourself when challenges arise, you face criticism or you make a mistake. Check out my previous post on growth mindset for some ideas.

5. Keep learning

My dad passed me at the 16km mark. I realised that I had a bit to learn about pacing, patience and sticking to a plan.  I want to run another race and get a better time. I must integrate the learning from the race and increase my knowledge to reach the new goal.

In my work, I try to reflect regularly on what I have been learning (part of the purpose of writing these blog posts) and what improvements I can make. What are the things that you need to learn to make you more effective in your work? How can you give more time to intentional learning? This could be through education, seeking out new tasks to complete or a simple process of reflection at the end of each day.

So, there you have my (non-exhaustive) learnings from my first half marathon. In Daniel Pink’s book ‘Drive’ he talks about mastery as a key motivational element. The race I ran was a lesson in mastery. I needed a clear goal and a meaningful training process. I needed a feedback mechanism to make progress immediately visible. I had to choose a mindset that saw the challenge as an opportunity to grow and learn.

I’m excited about the next race. I’m more excited about what these learnings will do for my work life. I hope you can use them too.

Doug Maarschalk is a trainer, facilitator and coach who uses the principles of intrinsic motivation as the foundation for his work. He has worked with New Zealand businesses in the horticulture, legal, accounting, financial services, real estate and healthcare sectors.
Read more about the Services Doug provides and the Clients he has worked with.

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