stay motivated

One key way to stay motivated

There are times a visual cue can help you stay motivated. 

Think of a thermometer graphic to show how much money has been raised for a fundraiser, the scoreboard and countdown clock during a basketball game, or filling a clear glass jar with change for a vacation fund. At a glance, you know the goal, the challenge, and progress.

It’s exciting and motivating all at once.

Many of our coaching clients confess they struggle to feel motivated and berate themselves for having a terrible character flaw but really procrastination or losing focus is part of being human. We all struggle with motivation from time to timeeven the most dedicated of leaders. 

And let’s face it: It can be a huge challenge to stay focused in an office full of distractions (let alone all the other distractions in life that can derail the best of plans). 

There is a quick, easy and inexpensive strategy that we can all use to stay on track and make progress with a goal: A simple visual cue.

How visual cues work

How simple? Paper clips work.

If you’ve ever read the New York Times bestseller Atomic Habits by James Clear, you’ll already know about the paper clip strategy and his theory that small changes can yield remarkable results (and if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend both this book and his blog about building good habits!). 

Essentially, the story Clear shares is that a young Canadian stockbroker named Trent Dyrsmid was working in sales at a bank in Abbotsford, BC in the early nineties. This rookie in the rural city about 45 minutes east of Vancouver, BC, had a goal to make 120 sales calls every day.

To stay motivated, Dyrsmid put 120 paper clips into a jar on his desk and another, empty, jar beside it. Each time he made a phone call, Dyrsmid moved a paper clip to the empty jar – and he didn’t stop until all 120 had been moved. 

The paper clips were a visual reminder of his goal and tracked his progress. Seeing them all moved from one jar to the other showed that he had met his daily goal. 

This simple habit worked and in less than two years the young stockbroker was bringing $5 million to his bank and earning a good salary (and a six-figure offer from another company soon followed!).

Why does a visual cue like this work so well? 

As Clear explains, Dyrsmid’s paper clip strategy worked because it was a good habit that stuck. The visual cue reinforced the good habit. 

The difference between people at the top of their field and others often isn’t intelligence, ability or even luck – it is consistency of effort. They have good habits and keep pushing day after day instead of getting derailed by life and bogged down by procrastination.

A visual cue, says Clear, is an effective way to stay motivated because:

It’s an immediate reminder. When the young salesman got to his desk, those two jars and the 120 paper clips were waiting for him. This simple visual trigger reminded him to start making those calls – before getting distracted by reading emails, talking with coworkers or reading the news online. He didn’t forget his daily goal and the habit of moving the paper clips kept him focused day after day, week after week.

It’s satisfying. Moving the paper clips from one jar to the other and watching the pile grow was a clear indication of progress. Counting each and every call ensured he didn’t cheat and call it a day after a few successes or an hour of calls, which is why the 120 paper clips worked so much better than simply blocking off an hour in the morning and crossing “make sales calls” off on a to-do list.  

It’s motivating. The act of moving 120 paper clips over created visual evidence of meeting the goal, which in turn reinforced the good habit of making all 120 calls. This habit ensured that the young stockbroker completed the sales calls that would drive his success. 

I have to add that the other reason that a visual cue worked for Dyrsmid is because he set a performance goal that was SMART – specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timely. The visual cue of the paper clips helped him to stay on track.

Want to try using the paper clip strategy yourself?

First, you need to know which SMART goal a visual cue can help you achieve (you can use our ultimate goal setting worksheet to figure this out!). 

It could be that you have to make cold calls like the stockbroker in Clear’s book. Or it might be that you have to write a report and you break it down into three sections to tackle each day. Possibly you have to reply to X number of emails before noon to be at your most productive.

In your personal life, you might want to read a chapter of a leadership book, do 40 push-ups or eat three healthy meals a day. 

Whatever your goal, the key to an effective visual cue is to be able to measure your success. 

You might try moving paper clips (or marbles or stones) from one container to another. Or, you could move coins from one drawer to another or even stack them. Perhaps you put dots on the daily squares of your wall calendar. 

You’ll be on the right track as long as the visual cue:

  • Is meaningful for you and measures your progress
  • Is convenient and easy to incorporate into your daily routine
  • Is placed where you’re going to be reminded of this goal and work toward meeting it
  • Becomes part of your routine so that working toward your goal is a good habit

As American politician and Olympic medallist in track and field Jim Ruyn said: Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going. 

Coach’s Questions

When did you last struggle to stay motivated and on task? What goal could a visual cue help you to achieve right now? What about your team, could you use a visual cue to motivate your team members?

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