Get motivated and stay motivated: Eight keys for pursuing long-term goals

Setting a goal—and sticking to it—can be difficult for anyone. And whether you’re a scientist, business leader or Olympic athlete, when it comes to work goals, giving up is not an option because one’s career may depend on it. A new study co-authored by Vanderbilt management and sociology professor Bruce Barry examines how certain types of professionals sustain their motivation and enthusiasm over very long periods.

“People in contemporary economies seem to know that they should ‘think long term,’ when in fact they base their choices and behaviors primarily or even solely on short-term considerations,” wrote Barry, the Brownlee O. Currey Jr. Professor of Management at the Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management in a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Organizational Behavior.

Barry and his co-author Thomas Bateman, of the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce, write that long-term thinking is especially hard in American businesses because businesses are often pressed toward short-term success, even if that impedes on long-term planning or goals.

Also the authors wrote that there isn’t much research out there to help business leaders with long-term goals. “The motivational psychology behind long-term pursuits is markedly understudied. We seek to begin filling that gap.”

Professionals who are able to sustain the long-term pursuit of their work goals begin by focusing on a specific goal, expending some initial effort and show some perseverance over the short term. But then, these professionals enter “a complex set of cognitive and affective phenomena that implicate perceptions of self, the future, task activities and a variety of other gratifications,” Barry and Bateman wrote.

Work goal traits

To understand the psychological forces at play when pursuing long-term goals, the co-authors identified and conducted in-depth interviews with 25 professionals in fields ranging from medical research to astronomy and climate science, among others. All the respondents are working in fields having the following attributes:

  • Eventual success could take many years, or perhaps generations
  • Real progress comes very slowly
  • There is a significant chance of failure

While these conditions may define the most extreme cases of pursuing long-term goals, Barry and Bateman said the insights generated from the interviews have wide-reaching implications for both professionals and managers.

The researchers then distilled the key elements of the interviews into eight sources of motivation that provide “psychological sustenance” in the pursuit of long-terms goals.

Key motivators

  1. Allegory: Figurative representations or abstractions that offer significant, consequential meaning (e.g., comparisons to the Wright Brothers or the moon landing).
  2. Futurity: Allusions to the long-term impact and possibilities associated with the ultimate outcomes that may result from the realization of a long-term goal (e.g., setting the stage for my children and grandchildren).
  3. Self: Statements that invoke personal identity, reputation or personal belief systems (e.g., expressing my personal creativity).
  4. Singularity: References to the perceived uniqueness of the endeavor (e.g., the big exploration that nobody could have done before).
  5. Knowledge: Statements that refer to skill development, new understanding, acquiring truth and finding ways to control events (e.g., any knowledge that’s created is good).
  6. The Work: Allusions to the nature of the work, including challenges, methods, risks and uncertainties, as well as elements that are fun or surprising (e.g., it’s like a puzzle that you’re solving).
  7. Embeddedness: Ways in which individuals see their work situated within social contexts, as well as ways in which their work garners social legitimacy within their professions and in society (e.g., an enjoyment from disproving the skeptics).
  8. Progress: Statements that emphasize the notion of forward movement, often short term, in the direction of long-term goal pursuit (e.g., advancements in tools and techniques that facilitate the work).

These motivational themes incorporate near-term and long-term features that weave together immediate payoffs with a perception of doing important and lasting work.

Self-regulation is essential

In addition, all the subjects interviewed for this study mentioned the key role self-regulation plays in guiding one’s progress and dealing with changes in circumstances.

“Effective self-regulation is associated with physical and psychological well-being, as well as better job performance,” Barry and Bateman wrote.

The co-authors highlight multiple forms of self-regulation that include:

  • Maintaining focus on goal-directed actions
  • Controlling emotions
  • Coping with failure
  • Using failure as a basis for improvement rather than a setback

Barry and Bateman wrote that the study, even with its limited sample, offers meaningful conceptual extensions to well-established theoretical areas on work motivation, setting the stage for future investigations.

“Long-term goals arguably are at least as important as short-term goals in their ultimate consequences for individuals, organizations and societies,” Barry and Bateman write. “Now is the time to expand our field’s search for theories and strategies that can help people and organizations pursue and achieve important long-term goals.”

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