4 ways to build the self-motivation that can boost your career

Develop strong boundaries and align your passion with specific goals.

As many finance teams shift to a more autonomous and outcomes-based approach in the wake of the global pandemic, finance professionals will need a range of emotional intelligence (EQ) skills to both adapt and thrive. In addition to the core EQ skills of self-awareness and social awareness, the ability to strengthen and sustain self-motivation will become increasingly important as professionals navigate the challenges of remote and hybrid work.

Yet even though self-motivation is consistently cited as the key differentiator between high-performing professionals and those who stagnate, it is also regarded as among the most difficult of self-management skills to cultivate and sustain.

"Self-motivation seems like an oxymoron for most professionals," said Ayelet Fishbach, Ph.D., professor of behavioural science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and author of Get It Done, Surprising Lessons From the Science of Motivation. "And while others can certainly undermine your plan to finish and submit a report this week, it's less clear why you would be your own obstacle … yet you're often your own biggest obstacle."

According to Brittany Cummings, CPA, a director with BKD LLP, a US-based CPA and advisory firm, a major part of mastering self-motivation is learning to prioritise your core needs and "listening closely to both your physical and mental self".

"This requires becoming realistic about the time you have available and when you can commit to achieving goals or getting out a deliverable to a client," Cummings explained. "If you consistently fail, you will drive down your motivation, but if you consistently deliver on time and achieve realistic goals, you generally will stay motivated."

FM magazine spoke to Cummings, Fishbach, and Julia Kerr Henkel, an executive coach based in South Africa, to explore key tactics for sustaining self-motivation through the inevitable psychological slumps that threaten to derail hard-won progress.

Get specific about your goals. According to Fishbach, goal setting is fundamental to self-motivation, and the more engaging and exciting these goals are, the better.

"You should always set goals — whether for the day, the week, or the quarter — and they should be something you'd feel satisfied to both pursue and achieve," she said. In addition, any objectives you set for yourself or agree to should be very specific and detailed.

For instance, research has shown that sales teams with detailed sales targets consistently close more deals than teams that aren't given specific targets. In other words, vague objectives or open-ended goals, such as "studying for CIMA exams", are usually much less effective than something concrete and specific, such as "completing a CIMA course on integrated reporting by the end of the month".

As part of this detailed and intentional goal-setting process, Fishbach urged professionals to anticipate the obstacles or potential challenges associated with the goals.

"Think about what's going to interfere with your plan to finish that project or report this week — it might be some external obstacle (your collaborator is slow) or an internal one (you're not feeling it)," she explained. "Either way, knowing or anticipating the obstacle will prepare you to tackle it more effectively."

Share your passion with team members. In addition to setting specific goals, Cummings highlighted the importance of ensuring that your true interests and long-term ambitions are shaping these goals.

"One of my primary goals, for instance, is to be a role model and encourage women and minorities to become leaders in the public accounting profession," she said. "Goals require commitment and passion, and when we are passionate, we are more intentional and engaged in what we do."

To fulfil this commitment to personal goals and sustain self-motivation, Cummings said that finance professionals must learn to communicate these passions and goals to their leaders and co-workers.

"Communicating your motivators to your team will keep your leaders and co-workers motivated to involve you in opportunities that align with your areas of interest," she added. "My team knows that I am passionate about teaching and training, for instance, so when opportunities arise to speak in my technical area of expertise, I am asked to participate."

This active participation in an area of personal and professional interest then serves as a boost to self-motivation and keeps professionals both enthusiastic and engaged.

Visualise positive outcomes. Kerr Henkel singled out procrastination as one of the major obstacles to strengthening and sustaining self-motivation and urged professionals to understand how this mental process works.

"When procrastinating, professionals tend to focus on the task they are avoiding. They imagine themselves doing the task, which often leads to a negative mental image and emotion, and since emotions drive behaviour, the risk of avoidance is heightened," she explained.

Yet instead of focusing on the task or project itself, rather focus on the result — and more specifically, the feeling of pleasure and achievement that comes with completing the task. According to Kerr Henkel, by continually practising this simple but powerful technique, the shift in focus will soon become automatic.

"When visualising the positive outcome and sense of achievement, get specific and creative. Conjure certain physical sensations, visual elements, and sound effects in your mind's eye … and begin to notice how your willingness to take action shifts."

Repeat the process a few times at the beginning of your workday, and in doing so, your brain will learn to automatically generate motivating images and positive associations around your work and goals, she noted.

Clarify and communicate boundaries. To sustain self-motivation, particularly under pressure, it is critical to understand and commit to what you need to start and end your working day, Cummings said. This could include a morning meditation or workout, for instance, or a family breakfast.

"Understand and clarify what you need, and very rarely allow work to interfere with that time or personal routine," she said. "I work out and meditate in the morning, and I can tell the difference in my day when I do and don't kick-start my metabolism or reset my mind."

Naturally, there are times when finance professionals must be flexible and adjust their daily routines to meet unexpected deadlines or demands, but Cummings underscored that staying firm and committed to one's personal needs and boundaries is key to maintaining high levels of self-motivation.

Jessica Hubbard is a freelance writer based in South Africa. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at