Staying money motivated

Most money goals worth having are marathons, not sprints. Whether it’s building savings or reducing debt, big goals usually take a long time to achieve and the day-to-day rewards are pretty minimal.

That can be a problem. No matter what you’re trying to accomplish for yourself, motivation matters and there are few things more motivating than seeing your hard work turn into positive results. The trouble with money goals is that those positive results can be a long time coming, and it’s easy to start losing your drive after a while.

So how do you maintain your drive over time? The answer may be to find the purpose in your efforts.

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely presented a fascinating TED Talk on the subject “What makes us feel good about our work?” In the talk he describes an experiment in which participants were asked to complete a fairly simple, but very monotonous task – finding pairs of letters on a sheet of paper. They were paid for each sheet that they completed, although the pay went down with each sheet that they turned in.

The first group of participants was told to sign their name on the front of each sheet. When these participants handed in their sheets a supervisor reviewed their work, verbally confirmed that it had been completed correctly, and placed the sheet face down on the desk.

The second group was not told to sign their names on the sheets and the supervisor only glanced at their completed sheets briefly before putting the paper face down on the desk.

The final group did not sign their sheets either. For this group the supervisor took the completed sheets and fed them directly into a shredder without ever looking at them.

Every participant could stop completing sheets whenever they wanted. So who quit first? The people who saw their work go straight into the shredder. And who kept working the longest? The people who signed their sheets and had their work thoroughly reviewed didn’t stop working until they were making half of what the third population was making at the time they had quit.

The most interesting finding, however, may have been with the second group. They had no ownership of their work and their efforts were largely ignored. They ended up quitting almost as quickly as the “shredder group.”

What does any of that mean for you and your money?

The long road towards your financial goals can sometimes feel thankless and lonely. Hopefully you never feel like your hard work is immediately run through the shredder, but there’s a good chance you may feel like your work is completely unacknowledged.

Ariely’s experiment suggests that money itself isn’t enough. The shredder group could have easily cheated to continue racking up easy money, but they didn’t. Faced with the same diminishing returns as everyone else, the first group kept working for longer because their effort was continually validated. Someone simply acknowledging their effort was enough to keep them going much further than the other participants.

Acknowledge your effort, not just your success

When we set goals for ourselves we tend to withhold rewards until we get to the finish line. “When I do _____ then I can have _____.” But in doing that there’s never any acknowledgment of our daily sacrifices.

If you struggle with self-motivation, make sure your actual effort is appreciated – not just your results. Consider teaming up with someone with their own goals and supporting each other through the process. Having someone simply appreciate what you’re doing every day to push closer to a particular goal makes an enormous difference.

If you have to go it alone, make self-acknowledgment part of your routine. Take a moment to step back and appreciate what you’ve done. Even small steps are still steps.

Jesse Campbell is the Content Manager at MMI, focused on creating and delivering valuable educational materials that help families through everyday and extraordinary financial challenges.

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