What's the Best Way to Stay Motivated?

How to harness the psychology of meaning in order to stay on track at work—or in Legos

At its best, work is like a semi-challenging level of Super Mario World. It’s hard enough to be engaging, easy enough that victory is within sight, and fun enough to make you want to try again if you lose—as long as you have lives left.

What happens, though, when you reach the level where Bowser just keeps crushing you, or you can’t figure out the exact right way to make Yoshi jump to avoid the lava? Maybe time for a good ol’ game of pogs instead?

Like with video games, behavioral economists have found that it’s a sense of progress that makes adults stay motivated at work. Duke University’s Dan Ariely discovered this by running an experiment using another children’s toy: Legos.

He gave subjects the option to build a Bionicle—a type of Lego figurine—for $3. If they agreed, they’d build it, and the researchers would ask them if they wanted to build another one for 30 cents less. If they said yes, they’d reduce the price a bit more for the next one, and a bit more for the one after that, and so on until the subjects said they didn’t want to build any more.

Then the researchers tried it again. Except this time, they’d destroy the freshly built Bionicle right in front of the participant’s eyes.

Perhaps understandably, people built many more Bionicles in the first situation, labeled the “Meaningful” condition—11 on average, compared to just 7 in the “Sisyphus” condition.

In this video, we highlight the work of Ariely, as well as Daniel Pink and Teresa Amabile​, to explain how progress and meaning influence our motivation to work. We also offer some tips on how to motivate yourself to try that Mario level one more time, or build one more Lego, or enter one more row in that spreadsheet—whatever the case may be. Even when the going gets tough.