Navigating motivational slumps in business.
How I discovered a method to push through inevitable emotional lulls.
Steve Jobs said that running a business is so hard that without passion, any rational person would give up. Passion is a coveted and rare asset, and only a few can claim it for their work. If not passion, then at least a high degree of motivation is essential: it focuses effort and inspires action. And yet, motivation dwindles over a sustained period and can vanish entirely in a crisis. It becomes imperative, one discovers, to develop an effective work method to cope with the lulls.
As a beginning entrepreneur, I relied on motivation born of natural optimism. But I was ill-equipped to navigate the motivation-crushing events of my career, and the third of these was nearly terminal for the business.
The first crisis followed the crash of 2008. Companies pulled back investments, the deal flow dried up, and the sales cycles lengthened. I couldn’t discern what the market wanted and, for a time, despaired. My motivation wavered, but a naive optimism bolstered me enough to survive the economic dip. No method, just blind positivity and dumb luck.
The second hurdle coincided with the oil bust of 2015. We worked with companies in the shrinking oil sector, which led to shrinking revenues. Personal struggles compounded the professional, and both eroded my motivation to focus on the business’s priorities. But I still showed up at the office; necessity demanded it, and my team’s energy rekindled my drive.
The third catastrophe, the pandemic, was a perfect storm. It shook the way we did business: rendered our face-to-face sales approach untenable, and killed our interactive office life. I discovered that the energy I derived from working with people didn’t seep through screen pixels. The isolation from colleagues and the precarious business climate drained my motivation.
I put in my hours, scheduled meetings, and checked off project items that the team completed from their remote locations. I completed my daily tasks and kept the work chugging along. It was comfortable. But I lost the drive to steer the business and to do the challenging work of strategic thinking. I became a project manager and stopped being the CEO.
This realization hit me at a daily meeting with the development team. We argued about trivialities like software design choices, decisions that used to take minutes. Without a larger vision, however, I struggled to guide the team.
No worries, I thought. I will refocus on the big picture. I kept stumbling. The once-welcome challenge of teasing clarity from a fog of options was a drag. Instead, I prioritized every triviality in front of me to avoid critical thinking. I answered emails, checked progress with the mathematics team, and posted on LinkedIn. Everything but the right thing. I had no drive for it.
I spent weeks looking for inspiration. I re-read motivational tropes. I watched interviews with successful leaders. I reviewed our own “once-inspiring” business plan. It all came to naught.
Then it hit me. During every year of my university studies, I had experienced a cycle reminiscent of my current slump. I began each term feeling unmotivated, filled with dread and anxiety. But school enforced a relentless structure of fifty-minute lectures and assigned homework that encouraged discipline: trained to focus during chunks of time that were imposed but manageable, I discovered I could complete seemingly unmanageable tasks. Now inspiring rather than daunting, the work itself begot motivation.
I borrowed from the school structure to navigate the pandemic-induced slump in motivation. I knew I could do one task for fifty minutes. Remove distractions, sit down, and don’t move until the time is up. Then take a break and move to a different task. The last point is critical — it has to be a new task, or the mind will discover the ploy and retaliate with bouts of daydreaming.
I dragged a table from my comfortable office to the unfinished basement. The dark, spartan space removed distractions. It silenced the hum of immaterial thoughts. I left my phone upstairs, flipped the fifty-minute hourglass, and began. On the twelfth day, I could focus for the duration of the period. From then on, I experienced a slow, continuous improvement. The difficult became tolerable, then easy, then enjoyable, then essential. My capability grew with consistency.
I discovered that I could do only three fifty-minute periods of quality thinking. This limitation forced me to extract the essential tasks from a long daily list. The clarity and strategic thinking required by these items were easier to induce when working in consistent fifty-minute increments.
At first, I worried I would need more than three daily sessions. But, released from the waste incurred by multitasking, the work that the focused mind can accomplish is amplified. Two and a half hours of concentrated effort covered eighty percent of my required daily output. This structure generated progress, which induced motivation, which delivered the achievement of significant milestones, which bred inspiration.
I wish my workdays were only three hours. Alas, the days are still long. A business presents numerous tasks, and they require time. Fortunately, most demand a lower mental commitment.
My days now follow a routine. The schedule is flexible as I must accommodate client-driven meetings, the needs of employees, and occasional vet appointments. But each day includes three key ingredients.
First, time to think without action. Twenty minutes in the morning at a desk with the laptop closed, phone away, looking at nothing but the clean table surface, in silence. This time allows my mind to align with strategic priorities and to consider which tasks are essential. It is tempting to use a pen and paper to write out the complete list, then cull. But this is a trap; the sheer number of items will cloud your vision. Instead, this time of voluntary inaction allows the most important goals to percolate through the noise of harrying thoughts and distractions. Eventually, I promote three tasks to fifty-minute slots. The rest I forget until later.
Second, fifty-minute priority slots. For me, they are closer to an hour. I start with ten minutes of relaxed sitting to let my mind wander. Often the problem I am about to tackle is solved in rough terms during that time, although I don’t force it. Then I flip the hourglass and work.
I place the hourglass on the shelf behind me. I prefer the deliberate action of turning around to check the remaining time. If the mind enters a state of flow and forgets about the clock, I allow the vital work for longer. But I never cut the time short, even if the progress is halting.
Third, writing up the low effort queue. I decide how to organize the rest of the working hours, or when I will address the tactical and operational items necessary to keep the business moving. I do this only after setting the three priorities for the day, and often after completing them. Once the list is in place, I execute it throughout the day.
I learned to write out the low priority queue daily. Rolling over the incomplete tasks from prior days robs me of an opportunity to reassess and cull the tasks that lost relevance. A third of the tasks drop off my list through the process of daily reassessment.
Today, I believe in something other than motivation — or passion — as the driver of business success. Emotions are transient and most potent when launching you on an endeavor. The grind and pressure of the mundane erode them quickly. Instead, I believe in structure and discipline. These ingredients will push you through the lulls so that, ultimately, the work itself will motivate and inspire you.