Here’s how to stay on top, even in the face of the most trying circumstances.

What was your New Year’s resolution this year? Do you sustain it? Did you have a New Year’s resolution last year? Did you sustain that one? This is an interesting test of motivation. Chances are that your resolution was something around being fit, or finding a better job, or around a relationship. If you see, there is nothing intrinsically difficult and super ambitions about any of these — what can be so difficult about a little bit of exercise every day or spending just 15 minutes of quality time with someone you love? But chances also are you are not doing too well. You started strong then flagged off to your original state as motivation waned. 

Motivation is maybe the key quality that differentiates super achievers from the rest. In the 9 Point Stronger with Rakesh Shukla™ programmes we analyse, discuss, and develop in-depth strategies for developing persistent motivation that allows you to keep pushing onward, even when everything tells you to give up. Here, we discuss some steps to understand it and to get you started on whatever it is that you want to make a difference in your life.

Motivation has a context

Even for the most motivated individual’s motivation is not universal; it strongly depends on the context. For instance, if you want to be motivated about becoming fit you need to clearly understand what you mean by ‘fitness’ to establish context. For instance, fitness could mean you want to lose weight because you have heart disease or diabetes, or because you want a six-pack, or you want to make a profession in modelling. Even with two heart attacks, brain and kidney disease it was hard for me to have the motivation to get fit — till a year ago when I was grossly overweight and had bad eating and drinking habits.

My motivation has a specific purpose, which is that through my old age I should be able to do what I must do for my dogs. If a large dog weighing 50-75 kg collapses and I am alone, I should be able to lift and put the dog in the car and drive to the hospital. Not having the strength is the difference between life and death for the dog. That motivation has led me to develop phenomenal strength. A few months back such an opportunity arose — I was alone with a 65 kg Great Dane that was unconscious with a deep incision in her stomach. I had to carry her for over 500 metres holding her in front of me without putting her down.

Make specific goals, then increment

Setting up abstract ambitions such as “doing your best” is loose talk. I started by just doing 10 pushups. But my commitment was daily and to increase just a little bit every day (I talk about how you reach mental fatigue much faster than you get actual physical fatigue in the Stronger with Rakesh Shukla™ programs). In nine months I was at 2,000 pushups and 250 pullups. The point is that to most people, specific goals look intimidating but the reality is people with demanding but achievable targets achieve more. It has been true for my entire professional life for revenue and engineering targets. I never do entirely the same exercise twice. It might be just one 1 kg I lift more or one more rep on the same weight but I do a little more each time. 

(Un)certainty of reward enhances motivation!

Strangely motivation is high on higher uncertainties and low on high certainties. Allow me to explain. Would you work like the devil throughout the year for a 20% raise of which there is a 50% probability or for a 5% raise that has a 100% probability? For a 20% raise uncertainty is high because it depends not only on your performance but that of your company, your department, that of the industry, interdepartmental office politics, and so on. Remember uncertain rewards are more challenging. You can game yourself to stay motivated. When I reached 500 push up I did not go for 510; I asked myself could I go to 700? I could fail but if I reached, it would change by context. It was a big ask but it turns out with focus it was not. 

Find your intrinsic motivation

People have two kinds of motivation. Extrinsic motivation is based on earning a reward or avoiding punishment. Getting a promotion or getting a raise like in the earlier example is extrinsic motivation. Being the best programmer you know, or the best athlete is intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation, by and large, predicts achievement and success better than extrinsic ones do. If you worked hard for a 20% raise motivation might flag off if you got only a 10% raise. On the other hand, if the motivation was to be the best sales guy in the team and you were off by a small margin your competitiveness will carry you through.

If you are working to create excellence and compete with yourself, you are likely to keep working in the face of small setbacks. Improving yourself is a powerful reward and motivator. For instance, my motivation to carry my strength over the next 30 years and being a little stronger than yesterday has led to me defy my age. Could I become an Olympic athlete? No. Could I Clean and Jerk 105 kg by the time I am 50, (in another two years) which will be 140% of my body weight? I will — that is the range of an elite athlete. Could I make my companies exceed the income and revenue before I lost it all five years ago? Absolutely. And that will give us a serious launchpad for growth over the next 25 years. 

You can enjoy the drudgery

No matter how motivated you are about the task at hand once you start 99% of it is sweat work. Nobody likes boring and repetitive. The most successful people are the ones who stay motivated in that zone. If you think expansively in that ‘sweat zone’ how parts of it are pleasurable, you can shift focus to the overall nature of “I don’t want to do this” to “I love doing this part”. Making dinner every day after work could be an exhaustive proposition. But maybe if you think this is your ‘me-time’, the focus shifts — you might find that the hour preparing dinner could be the best part of your day when you’re at work, with family or in traffic. This is when you can collect your thoughts, think about your future, or listen to some music. It becomes enjoyable.

When I exercise I figured that it puts me in a zone where I have that one thing that I don’t otherwise — my time. Focusing on that instead of the fatigue allows me to look forward to each day instead of dreading the drudgery and the pain. So much so that I do not even listen to music because it interferes with the quietness I reach. 

Incentivise wisely

To get motivated it is easy to set up a reward — if I watch my diet this week I will have a pizza on the weekend. I craved sweet so when I started working out I stopped eating cakes and sweets and stopped drinking. My reward system was that if I worked hard for five days I could take two days easy. It was very demotivating that I was not making progress the way I should have been. It took me a while to figure out that my reward was undermining my progress. High sugar food (which alcohol is too) is an addiction. It gives you a temporary high but causes craving and lethargy.

I had to change the ‘reward’ if I wanted to stay motivated. Cutting out sugar put me back to becoming stronger as I started seeing gains. A poor reward system actually is a de-motivator. If the reward for excelling at work on a difficult assignment for a month is to allow yourself to take it easy the next day you will diminish the gains you made at work. 

Loss aversion

If I gave you an assignment but it came with a condition:
(a) I will pay you Rs 10,000 if you finish it in time
(b) You have to give me Rs 10,000 if you don’t finish it
When do you think you are more likely to complete a demanding task like that? Looks like (a) but it is (b). In both cases you will start with gusto but because it is demanding you might want to stop.

At this time your mind weighs the consequences — if I do not finish it I will not be able to go have dinner with my family at that swanky restaurant. But you were not going to go there anyway so it seems easy to stop. But if you stop you have to pay Rs. 10,000 that was meant as tuition fee or for the next vacation — that loss is tremendously more consequential.

You can use this phenomenon to ‘game’ yourself too. In my earlier life earning Rs. 20,00,000 a month brought a nice reward — I could take a vacation or buy a new car. But I could live without it as well. Now, if I do not earn that much my dogs will not eat or get medical care and die. There is no way I would allow that. Even for an intrinsically motivated person like me ‘loss aversion’ is a very, very powerful motivator. 

Focus on what’s left

When I start a hard day’s work or a hard workout I do not focus on all of it. I don’t say I will work 12 hours today or do 2,000 pushups. Instead, I start by focusing on the middle of the task. My focus is on the first half of the day or the first 250 pushups, then the next 250. Each time I achieve it there is a sense of accomplishment. My reward is a small break of a little water. Then I start focusing on the second half. I noticed that the last 250 are the easiest. The last two lifts of 20 should be the toughest but they are not. Unknowingly I have stumbled on a major motivational hack — when the goal seems within reach, we become more motivated to increase our effort. 

Find someone who believes in you

No matter how motivated you are, or not, or how onerous the task is, if you have someone who believes in your goals they won’t let you flag. That is why many people need a ‘gym buddy’, or companies organise retreats or one-one sessions with managers. Others can motivate you easily if you are an extrinsically motivated person (Stronger with Rakesh Shukla™ training have evaluations on which kind of personality you are to figure your motivation triggers).

For complex long term tasks having someone in your life who truly believes in your goals — telling you to pick yourself up when you’re flagging it — is a powerful motivator. No matter how strong I intrinsically was, I know that most of my insight is post-facto and something I have developed watching myself over the last six years when I started my free fall. If I did not have someone who believed in my goals and dreams it would have been easy for me to give up. Even now sometimes when I flag I am told to get up and that makes a difference. 

Understanding the context

To most of us it seems that we are at a disadvantage — we think some people seem to be highly motivated about most things but we’re not. It’s not true. Chances are, you are in at least one situation not entirely to your liking. It could be a job you don’t like, or have a partner you don’t like. Yet you get up in the morning and get to work or make them breakfast!

The point being, even if you think you are not a motivated individual chances are there are parts of your life you are showing great motivation in. Once you understand the context where you can apply motivation — and that urgency, importance, outcome, and reward in that context determine motivation — you can motivate yourself to achieve anything.

Go ahead and use some of these techniques to become the motivational powerhouse you really are. You are stronger than you think™.

Stronger with RAKESH SHUKLA is a framework for developing unparalleled mental and physical toughness. It is based on Rakesh’s life, and has helped drive two ‘comebacks’.

Rakesh Shukla slept on railway platforms on his way to creating a world-leading technology company — TWB_, which is the choice of over 40 Fortune 500 tech customers worldwide including Microsoft, Boeing, Airbus, Intel, and others. However, at 43, he lost everything within a year. Alone and friendless, he spent the next five years repaying over INR 20 crore of debt and taxes, while building back his company and reputation, and creating and funding VOSD — world’s largest dog sanctuary and rescue.

Rakesh Shukla has suffered heart disease since he was seven years old, had had two heart attacks by the time he was 30, suffers from brain diseases, has broken his back and his kidneys are failing. Towards the end of this five-year period, Rakesh weighed 88 kg and very unfit. Today, at 48 years, he can lift well over 100 kg above his head, run a 10-minute mile, do 2,000 push-ups, and 250 pull-ups. He has never been to a gym, been on a diet, had a trainer, or taken any supplements.