On Motivation: An interview with Matt Perman

Most strategy experts have been pointing out for years that the new requirement for thriving in our current workplace context is not discipline but agility. You have to be able to adapt to unexpected and complex circumstances.

–Matt Perman, Director of Career Development

By Jennifer Tharp

In the initial days and weeks of remote learning– a quick transition we made in response to COVID-19 in care for the well-being of our King’s community– we’ve heard from some students that it’s been difficult to stay motivated. The new environment involves challenges to productivity and focus. It requires different skills for getting things done.

When this came up as need for some in our community, I thought of Matt Perman, Director of Career Development at King’s and author of What’s Best Next and How to Get Unstuck. As our resident expert on productivity and a master learner himself, Perman is a great resource for us on how to stay motivated and move forward productively in a time when we’re thinking about these things anew. Continue reading to see my email interview with Perman from this week.


JT: In the first couple of weeks operating remotely, we’ve heard from some students that they’re struggling to maintain motivation in the new online format of classes. What advice do you have for our community about ways to maintain motivation remotely? 

MP: Moving to online classes is a big adjustment. But the good news is that it is possible to make the transition successfully. I’ve had several periods in my career where I worked remotely, including one time working from Iowa for a year for a company in Minneapolis. Here are some things that work, stemming not just from my own experience but the best social science research.

First, reframe the challenge. This isn’t simply about maintaining motivation for your classes, as important as that is. This is an opportunity for personal development. It is an opportunity to learn how to manage yourself effectively in a more ambiguous and complex environment, which is a central skill for workplace success after college.

Why is that? Because as you get into the workforce, you will find that the most important endeavors in your job often require that you take the initiative to make them happen. No one else will make you do them. And, beyond that, you will have competing pressures toward urgent but less important tasks. 

By learning how to create your own motivation and maintain it, you make it possible to get these more difficult things done. These are the things that really make a difference and move the ball forward. Learning how to do this well now will serve you for the rest of your life. And, more than that, it is the development of something far more than a workplace skill. It is the development of your character. Of foresight, determination, and courage. Which is really leadership development. Learning how to lead yourself is preparation for being able to lead others.

Second, recognize the importance of self-compassion. We might think that being hard on ourselves (or others!) motivates. But research actually shows the opposite. Those who reject self-criticism and instead are compassionate towards themselves build greater and more sustainable motivation. In her excellent book The Happiness Track, Emma Seppala summarizes the research on this:

Being self-compassionate rather than self-critical will help you to be resilient in the face of failure, to learn and grow from your mistakes, and to discover opportunities you otherwise would never have found. As a consequence, you will feel grateful, be far happier, and your chances for success will increase manifold.

In fact, Seppala writes, “rather than being a motivator, [being self-critical] can actually prevent you from trying again after failure for fear of failing once more.”

Third, get current on the science of motivation. Leading business author Dan Pink has a fantastic book called Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. In his book he argues that there is a gap between what science knows about how motivation works and what we actually tend to do. 

For example, we tend to think that the strongest motivation comes from rewards and punishments. With the exception of rote tasks, that is incorrect and stifles creativity and insight. We need to transition from extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation if we are going to unleash our full potential (and find more satisfaction in our work). Intrinsic motivation is built through three components: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. This animated video summary of Drive is well worth your time. It is a real game-changer.

JT: If a student feels like they’ve lost motivation, how would you advise them to make a fresh start?

MP: Here are three ways to make a fresh start.

First, get clear on expectations. It’s almost impossible to be motivated if you aren’t clear on what you have to do. This means making a list. 

But don’t overload yourself here by trying to list everything (I make that mistake very often!). Focus on the current week. To create this list, ask yourself: what is required of me this week? Look at your syllabi and write down the assignments you need to do this week. If you have fallen behind, also write down anything you need to do in order to be caught up. Then back up further and ask yourself: what needs to be done this week in my other roles? These other roles might include student organizations, family obligations, and so forth. Keep doing this each week.

Second, create a basic schedule. This is called your ideal week. It is a framework for how you plan to spend your time. Google Calendar works great for this, or some other tool like that. Put your classes in it (I’m sure most have already done that) and then also identify a few other blocks for when you will study and carry out other large responsibilities.

But do not overload it. If you try to schedule every minute of your day, it won’t work. Also, do not be afraid of wasting some time. If you try to avoid wasting any time, your brain will resist, and you will probably waste even more time. Studies show that blank space on your calendar is a good thing for creative work and is often when your best and brightest ideas emerge.

Third, remember the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. To unleash the greater power of intrinsic motivation, reframe the things you have a resistance toward doing. Find an aspect of each–somewhere, somehow–that you really like. Or find a way that those tasks fulfill a larger purpose or value of yours. The notion of “I just need to gut this out” can work for a few things for the short term, but it will not work for the long-term and is never a source of lasting success. 

JT: What are some practices or rhythms that help you to maintain momentum in work?

MP: To begin, what doesn’t work for me. Some people say “reward yourself after you finish a difficult task.” That has never worked for me because I just give myself the reward anyway. But more importantly, that concept is based on the extrinsic motivation paradigm, which can have a place but is generally unhelpful.

Here is what I’ve found does work.

First, I am big on what Cal Newport calls deep work (see his book by the same name). Deep work is uninterrupted focus on cognitively demanding tasks. Studying would certainly fall into the category of a cognitively demanding task. To use deep work means you shut off all interruptions and focus entirely on the task at hand until you are done. You avoid all interruptions during this time, such as checking text messages and multi-tasking. The need for deep work comes from the productivity equation: 

Productivity = time spent X degree of focus

So, if you want to spend less time on something, you need to give it a higher degree of focus. Alternatively, if you give low focus to a task, it is going to take longer. The secret to getting things done in less time, then, is giving them the highest level of focus that you can.

To make this work, you have to shut your email down for a time. The expectation of instant response to emails and messages sounds nice, but it actually interferes with the ability to generate the deep thought and focus you need to create an outstanding performance in the one or two areas that really matter. It reduces your focus on the task and makes it take longer, because you can’t get into the zone. Have windows of time to do email after the cognitively demanding tasks where you use deep work.

Second, do one thing at a time. Start a task, do it all the way to completion, and then go to the next one. This minimizes open loops and attention residue, which are distracting and annoying. (The challenge here, of course, is that there are many projects that can’t be done all the way to completion because you reach a point where you need to wait on something.)

Third, create in-the-moment lists. If the current project that I’m working on gets complicated, I create a list of the actions I need to take to complete the project. By charting a path, it helps me see how far I have to go and exactly what I have to do. This clarity creates a sense of momentum and is motivating. It also keeps me from losing ideas. I usually do this in a Google Doc.

JT: Is there anything else you’d like to tell students in light of our move to remote operations in spring 2020? 

MP: You are doing great! The coronavirus pandemic has created an unprecedented challenge for everyone. Most strategy experts have been pointing out for years that the new requirement for thriving in our current workplace context is not discipline but agility. You have to be able to adapt to unexpected and complex circumstances. 

Adapting to remote operations is a real-life exercise in developing that skill. It is not ideal to have to do almost everything remotely, but the skills you develop by adapting well to this challenge will serve you for the rest of your life.