I have wanted to be a writer since I first borrowed my parents’ old typewriter, aged six. (To my frustration, I wasn’t yet allowed on the family PC.) As I saw my thoughts take shape on the blank page, I was instantly hooked.
As an author and journalist, I recognise how lucky I am to be following these childhood ambitions, but I would be lying if I said there aren’t regular periods when that passion ebbs. This is particularly so in the dank and dull of London in January, when my mood is already low, and the repetition of the weekly deadlines can start to feel exhausting. I feel like I’m on a never-ending treadmill – and I want to jump off.
I’m hardly alone: as the recent trend in ‘quiet quitting’ has revealed, many people are losing their enthusiasm for the careers they once loved. You may have done everything within your power to attain the perfect job, and yet the daily grind sometimes saps you of your enthusiasm.
“In my experience with my coaching clients, I would say that is a big issue, and that this problem is growing,” says Anna K Schaffner, a life coach in the UK, who specialises in exhaustion, burnout and resilience, and the author of The Art of Self-Improvement.
For some, a loss of passion may be a sign that you need to change careers – but such a drastic move is not always possible. Fortunately, recent studies show that some people naturally apply “cultivation strategies” to reignite their passion and motivation – and there are many ways we can all apply these techniques.
A matter of mindset
The first study comes from Patricia Chen, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, US.
Chen’s previous research examined the influence of two different mindsets about passion. So-called “fit theorists” are more likely to endorse statements such as:
- I believe that there is a perfect job fit for every individual, and finding the right line of work will determine one’s happiness and success at work.
The “develop theorists”, in contrast, are more likely to agree with statements such as:
- I believe that passion is developed through a learning process within any chosen line of work. The better one gets at one’s type of work, the more one will start to love the profession.
Using detailed questionnaires that measure people’s mindsets and various workplace outcomes, Chen found that these beliefs become self-fulfilling prophecies. The fit theorists will struggle to find happiness in a job that doesn’t meet their specific criteria. The develop theorists, in contrast, can learn to find enjoyment and interest in the different tasks, so that their satisfaction grows over time, even if the job didn’t initially tick all the desired boxes.
Splitting up projects into quick, bite-size tasks can allow you to enjoy the warm feeling of satisfaction when you tick them off your plan (Credit: Getty Images)
Chen’s new paper aims to explore how the develop theorists manage their passion in this way. What strategies do they use to fan the flames of their zeal for work?
To find out, she first surveyed 316 undergraduates of various academic disciplines about the ways their passion for their subject had changed throughout time. Crucially, this included an open-ended question on what had caused this change in passion.
From the hundreds of responses, the researchers identified five common strategies that the students claimed had raised their motivation. They were:
- Recognising personal relevance: A student studying business, for instance, could try to think of the ways that theoretical knowledge would help them to found a start-up.
- Recognising societal relevance: A student might ask themself how the subject could help them to understand the world, and how that knowledge could ultimately benefit others.
- Building familiarity: Acquiring new knowledge can itself prime someone’s curiosity to know more, as they identify further points of interest, and the very fact of having made progress and mastered difficult tasks can be a reward in itself. So, someone who is feeling demotivated might look for new ways to grow their skill set.
- Gaining practical experience: Many of the students found that work placements and internships increased their enthusiasm for their academic studies.
- Finding mentors and changing the environment: Students could actively seek teachers that inspired them, or friends who could help to make the work more fun.
Overall, Chen confirmed that the students with the develop mindset were more likely to see positive increases in their passion for their subject over time, and that change was correlated with the number of the passion cultivation strategies that they had used. The students with the fit mindset, in contrast, did not seem to be employing those strategies so effectively.
Chen’s findings chime with broader psychological research looking at the ways that people regulate their interest and motivation in their work. Besides confirming the use of the strategies that Chen had identified – such as identifying the personal or societal relevance of the work – these studies suggest a few other ways of reviving your mojo.
Two of the most useful techniques are “proximal goal setting” and “self-consequating”. These are particularly useful when you feel overwhelmed with a new project, in which the challenge is so great, and the reward so distant, that you struggle to summon up the enthusiasm to get started.
Two of the most useful techniques are ‘proximal goal setting’ and ‘self-consequating’
To apply proximal goal setting, you would split the project into bite-size tasks that are much quicker to complete – allowing you to enjoy the warm feeling of satisfaction when you tick them off your plan. “This can be especially effective if you use little rewards for achieving those goals such as watching Netflix, after you’ve completed an assignment,” says Maike Trautner, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Münster, Germany. That’s the self-consequating part.
Once again, mindset matters. In a recent study with Malte Schwinger, a professor at Philipps University of Marburg in Germany, Trautner surveyed more than 700 students on the ways they handle their motivation. Just as Chen observed with her work on passion, they found that some students believe that motivation for a task is fixed and unchangeable, while others believe that it can be cultivated. And it is those with the latter mindset who will then look for ways to build their motivation using practical strategies, while those who believed their motivation was beyond their control were less proactive.
For people who already have the develop mindset, these strategies may seem obvious. But Chen’s work suggests they are in the minority: in her samples, most people had the fit mindset, and could therefore benefit from being reminded of their potential to build their motivation and passion.
Taking some time to think about our overall goals, looking for the benefits our work is providing to others, reaching out to inspirational colleagues and setting out a plan with small rewards – these are simple strategies that we could all take to boost our enthusiasm.
Taking up a hobby can give you a sense of purpose and achievement, so that your job is not the only place to find satisfaction in your life (Credit: Getty Images)
You don’t have to assume all the responsibility, however. Schaffner suggests talking to your boss about the ways you can change your job so that it is more closely aligned with your values and interests – a process she describes as “job crafting”. “Good employers should be interested in that and supportive of the idea: it makes perfect sense for their employees to be given tasks that they are most suited to perform well,” she says.
If you still feel like you are in a rut, you might simply be asking too much from your career. In much the same way that we might expect our romantic partners to generate all the excitement in our life – which puts unnecessary pressure on the relationship – we can sometimes have unrealistic expectations of our jobs to provide meaning in our lives.
For this reason, Schaffner suggests taking up a hobby that could also give you a sense of purpose and achievement, so that your job is not the only place to find satisfaction in your life. “Ironically, with a little bit of detachment and perspective, we tend to work better, and with more levity,” she says.
It’s a philosophy I’ve tried to apply myself. On these bleak January days, I’ve tried to bolster my energy by reminding myself of all the reasons I was first drawn to a career in journalism and by taking more time to read people’s responses to my writing – an activity that is often overlooked in the face of pressing deadlines. But on Schaffner’s advice, I’m also making sure that I spend more time on all the other activities I love.
In her words: “It can be incredibly healing and curative when work is just work.”
David Robson is a science writer and author of The Expectation Effect: How Your Mindset Can Transform Your Life, published by Canongate (UK) and Henry Holt (USA). He is @d_a_robson on Twitter.