by Kelly Beischel PhD, RN, CNE, CAPP, CPPC

I often hear professors, leaders, nurses, and parents bemoan, “But I want them to be self-motivated.”

Well, here’s good news – you can make that happen.

Christine Kane recently posted a message on Instagram about motivation that’s contrary to what we often believe, say and do.

The gist of the message was that setting the bar low brings more success.

The people in my dentist parking lot must have thought I was nuts when they saw me fist pumping the air, hollering, “Yes. That’s so true!”.

Kinda strange that as a success coach I would get behind this type of thinking, right?

But here’s the thing.

It’s important to set the bar low to experience successes that result in mini dopamine hits throughout the day.

Why seek dopamine hits?

Dopamine elevates your energy and motivation, working like a classic reward system.

Here’s how it works…

You successfully reach a small goal and your brain receives a hit of dopamine. This stimulates the brain to light up with pleasure. Knowing the pleasure came from reaching a goal, the brain says, “Bring it on. Give me another goal to accomplish.”

As Zull explains in the Art of Changing the Brain, dopamine is also responsible for action in that how we feel influences the action we take.

So you see, setting the bar low, taking baby steps that seem too easy, keeps us coming back with the energy and motivation to keep moving forward. Boice, in his book, Advice for New Faculty Members,  tells us that this way of working is paramount to faculty success.

Similar to the nutritional advice of eating 5-6 small meals a day to maintain a leveled metabolism, it’s important to keep hits of dopamine coming into the brain to keep intrinsic motivation at a level that keeps you moving forward.

Offering learners opportunities for dopamine hits by creating activities where they can feel a sense of successful progress, stimulate their intrinsic motivation. Breaking down projects into small bites that they can accomplish will keep them motivated to continue moving forward.

It also helps if they are naturally interested in the topic as well.

How to set the bar low…

This past spring, I realized I was getting weaker. I knew I needed to make it a habit to gain my strength back and research indicates it takes 66 days to form a habit. I set a daily goal to do 5 push-ups and 5 abdominal crunches a day. From this, I quickly moved to 10 push-ups, 15 abdominal crunches, and 30-second planks. And now I’m up to 20 push-ups, 25 abdominal crunches, and 30-second planks.

I wrote an article that was published in Nurse Educator by committing to writing for 10 minutes every day. Some days that’s literally all I had time to write. Whereas other days, the goal of 10 minutes got my butt in the chair and I wrote much longer.

As a professor, I challenged students to commit to practicing a small number of exam questions every day. Even if that number was five. I assured them that it’s better to have practiced 35 questions at the end of the week than to tell themselves that they’ll practice 50 questions every day.

At the end of 10 weeks they will have practiced 350 questions and by the end of a 16 week semester, they will have practiced 560 questions. Committing to a large number of questions while also balancing the other work they have typically ends in disaster.

They miss one day and tell themselves they’ll do 100 questions tomorrow. Do this a few days in a row and the number of questions to practice will be quite large. You and I know what happens then. Overwhelm sets in and they’ll quit.

As a success coach, I work with clients on breaking their tasks and goals down to seemingly minuscule activities, especially when resistance is holding them back. My 6-month NCLEX Success clients typically balk at the idea of only doing, say, 10 questions a day. They know they have much to do to be prepared to test but once I can get them experiencing wins with these few questions, they raise the bar on their own.

You might want to begin a challenge to jumpstart your motivation. For instance, I’ve been dragging my feet on writing an article about the tribulations and the joy of being the mother of two gay sons. While I have over 14 pages of notes that I wrote in a stream of consciousness, it’s been overwhelming to condense the article into 1500 words. Hence the procrastination.

I tried all the things… I put together a photo collage and set it next to my computer to remind me of why I was writing this article. For accountability purposes, I posted on social media that I was writing this piece. But continued to drag my feet.

Then I joined a five-day strength challenge where we were instructed to do an activity that bolstered one of our strengths. I chose persistence because that isn’t one of my top strengths.

For this challenge, I committed to persist in writing my article for only 10 minutes (it’s my magical number) every day. By the end of the five-day challenge, I had sent in a detailed query to HuffPost to determine if they were interested in publishing my article. And they responded with an affirmative, requesting that I send them a draft.

Whoot! I have continued to persist on writing the article. I am up to an hour a day and will have the draft to them September 6th. If not for setting the bar low by breaking down this goal into 10-minute increments and receiving dopamine hits everytime I succeeded with my 10-minute goal, I would still be sitting on my article. They may not publish it but it will be written and I can then send it to another venue.

How might you set the bar low or break down your goals into bite-sized pieces so that your brain receives hits of dopamine throughout the day? How will you encourage your learners to set the bar low to enhance their intrinsic motivation?

Setting the bar low by breaking down goals into tiny steps is paramount to success.

I know this because I fall down every time I veer from the practice of taking small steps when going after big victories.

I need those bites of dopamine to keep my energy high and my action forward.

How about you?