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How to Rediscover Your Inspiration at Work

When we’re inspired, our work hums. We have a sense of purpose, buoyed by the feeling that our talents are being put to good use. We’re doing what we should be doing. And then, just like that, inspiration evaporates. Perhaps a negative comment from your boss deflated you or you’re not excited about a particular assignment. Inspiration can be frustratingly fleeting and difficult to recover when lost. Even if you’re lucky enough to have a job you love, it’s common to go through lengthy periods where you need to dig deep to feel excited about your work.

I’ve coached many executives in the thick of this morass and they often struggle to understand the cause: is it the company? Or a particular set of circumstances? Or is it them?

Psychologists Todd Thrash and Andrew Elliot have been studying inspiration for decades. They’ve identified three elements that occur when we’re inspired: we see new possibilities, we’re receptive to an outside influence, and we feel energized and motivated. Fortunately, inspiration is not a static state of mind but a process that we can cultivate. While we can’t force ourselves to be inspired, we can create an environment that’s conducive to inspiration. Here’s what I’ve seen work for my clients.

Don’t wait for positivity to strike. When you aren’t feeling inspired, it’s normal to feel stuck. But inaction is your enemy in this effort. Inspiration doesn’t just happen while we’re at our desks returning emails. Don’t wait for a flash of insight to strike before making any changes. The field of cognitive behavioral therapy shows that our behavior affects how we think and feel. When we do different things, we feel different feelings.

Waiting to act reinforces stasis. Instead, understand that any move you make will open up new possibilities and reveal emotions that you can’t yet see. And remember that you often have more control over your work environment than you typically think.

Develop an inspiration routine. When you’ve excelled in your field, it’s natural to move out of learning mode. But researchers have found that when people believe that they’re experts they become more close minded, a concept termed earned dogmatism. We’re most likely to get, and stay inspired, when we have fresh experiences and information that can trigger insights.

There are lots of ways to gather these – take a class, read a book, attend professional gatherings, travel. It’s best to pick one that works for you and then structure your time to integrate these actions into your routine. You might commit to traveling once every six months or take a few hours every Friday morning to read articles and books or set a goal to meet three new people in your field each quarter. Bill Gates was known for having a twice yearly think week, spending full weeks away from his office, reading and mapping new ideas. For most professionals, this isn’t possible but devoting even a couple hours a week to perspective-expanding activities will help you stay engaged and interested.

Find new friends. The people we spend time with affect our energy and our mood. They also tend to reinforce our beliefs. We can easily get into a situation where we speak to the same people about similar topics, week in, week out.

Get out and meet new people. Make a concerted effort to find thought partners and guides who are doing different things from you. Role models are inspirational because they allow us to learn vicariously through their experiences. They stimulate new ideas, and provide a glimpse into the future.

Having role models who are a few years or levels ahead of you can help you rethink your own situation and what’s possible for yourself. Make a list of people who have qualities that you admire. Aim for a few qualities rather than perfection. You don’t need to establish a formal relationship with your role model. It’s fine to observe and learn from them from afar. They don’t even need to know that they’re serving that function.

Narrow your choices. Sometimes we lack motivation, because we’re not sure what to do – stay in a job, leave for a different one, try out a new career, move departments, ask for a promotion. Too many options are paralyzing, as psychology professor Barry Schwartz discusses in The Paradox of Choice. Too often, we feel overwhelmed and do nothing.

We can boost our motivation by narrowing down our options, making it easier to act on them. We like to know we have a plan and are working toward it. If you feel stuck, try writing down all of your options and selecting the three you’re most excited about in order. Then allocate time to work toward your top choices.

These aren’t just actions to take when you’re in a slump. It’s important to keep them up even when you’re feeling inspired so you can stay that way.

Inspiration doesn’t have to feel elusive. It’s in your capacity to increase your opportunities for new insights and ideas. As Jack London said: “Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it you will nonetheless get something that looks remarkably like it.”



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