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?

Managing Anger and Frustration in a Way that’s Helpful to Your Team

Your organization is pitching a big contract to a potentially huge client. Or, your government department is presenting a new approach to the Minister or a Cabinet Committee.

One of your team members is the principal on this particular topic and carries the ball – this team member is leading the presentation and fielding questions. Weeks of team effort are riding on them to get the deal done.

And they blow it. They drop the ball. They can’t answer a crucial question, or they have a weak response for a key concern. The result? Confidence is shaken among those making the decision and they decide to go a different way.

The team is upset, the person who was making the pitch is upset, and you as the leader are upset.

The whole team gets back to the office following this enormous loss. As the leader, should you: 

  1. Put on a fake smile, suppress frustration and not discuss the situation?
  2. Vent your frustration or anger?

Which is the better approach?

You may have chosen the first option and think others would agree with you. If you chose the second option, you might be thinking the same thing. 

So, we’ll call option (1) suppression. It’s something that a lot of folks do, especially in the workplace: they hide their feelings, pretend not to be upset, and avoid conversations where frustration and anger may arise. While it’s a common approach, it isn’t the best because it leads to a cascade of negative outcomes – for you it can lead to fewer close relationships (people never get to really know you and know what you care about) which means less social support, poor memory (you’re carrying around so much extra baggage, you can’t carry it all), anxiety, elevated blood pressure and, of course, ongoing hidden resentments.  It doesn’t stop there, your “suppressed” emotions still affect others – they pick up on the subtle cues and it can actually be more draining and stress-inducing on them than emotional expression.

Given the litany of problems that come from suppressing your emotions with the team, you might be inclined to think option (2), where you vent that frustration and anger, would be a good approach. Of course, doing that in the moment, or immediately following a crisis, might feel like a release for you or it might let you “get back to normal” quicker and not carry a grudge, but it affects your reputation as “quick to anger” and “explosive.” Not only that, venting also has lasting negative effects on the team – individual team members will have their confidence shaken, many will feel fearful or dejected and their performance going forward will be weakened knowing if they “mess up” they may face your wrath.

So, which is the better approach?

Neither, actually.

You see, there’s a third option beyond suppressing or venting feelings of anger and frustration.

Emotional Intelligence research demonstrates time and again that the leader’s ability to manage (not suppress) his or her emotions will significantly determine the team’s morale and motivation. And managing emotions means reappraising your emotions before reacting. Reappraising involves reminding yourself of the big picture:

“This is only one sale, there will be others”


“We can learn from this but we can’t change what is done; 

we need to look to the next opportunity.”

It might mean recognizing the principal salesperson is feeling shaken and unconfident and needs encouragement.

The key with reappraising is to take a moment, or two or more, to pause before reacting – but to be careful not to take too long. You don’t want to let a pause for reassessment turn into suppressing the feelings.

After reappraising, the leader might do something like this: call the team together and acknowledge the big feelings: we’re all feeling disappointed or frustrated or angry. The leader might emphasize that our success on the next bid, and the one after that, depends on everyone’s determination to support each other, to figure out what it takes to win next time and to support everyone who made an effort today.

A key role for a leader is to both manage and influence the emotional state of the people they lead. This is achieved by:

  • inspiring and instilling confidence in people, 
  • encouraging them to maintain motivation
  • helping them cope with difficulties to succeed in the goal. 

Effectively managing anger and frustration

To be effective at that, a leader has to effectively manage their own feelings. 

Studies show that leaders who can review their own feelings before showing them (note: not suppressing them!) help their followers manage their own responses to the same things. In one study, followers of leaders who suppressed their anger and frustration reported more negative attitudes toward the leader.

So how can you get better at reviewing and assessing if you’re not used to it?

  1. Practice seeing problems as challenges rather than threats. Focusing on how you can overcome the challenge rather than “react” to the threat builds resilience – in both you and your team. In our example that means turning the loss from a threat to your career or a threat to your reputation or success, to instead be a challenge to do better next time, or a challenge to fix a flub.
  2. Deep breathing. It may sound simple, but it isn’t simplistic – taking a moment to pause, and breathe, actually works wonders in letting your emotions relax and your brain time to focus for a bit. That “bit” is often all it takes to allow you to begin reassessing.
  3. Focus on the big picture and the longer term. How do we learn from today to make tomorrow even more successful than it would have been?
  4. Change the story you’re telling yourself.

    Change the story you’re telling yourself.


Imagine this situation: Someone is yelling at you in anger. It happened suddenly. You probably want to yell back or even lash out with something that’s critical of them. But what if I told you their mom died yesterday, or they’ve been in an ugly divorce case for months and this morning they lost custody of their kids or their workplace went out of business with no notice – leaving them with no job, no salary and no pension. 

Chances are, knowing that information, you might forgive the yelling. You might even respond to their anger with compassion. 

But what changed? The situation stayed exactly the same. They were yelling at you – but the story you’re telling yourself, the way you have filled in the blanks about WHY this is happening has changed. You’ve moved from taking this personally (making it about you and why they are being so awful to you) to being about them – “they must be having an awful day.”  You’ve moved from seeing a threat (“they’re an awful person”) to a challenge (“how can I help?”) Giving someone the benefit of the doubt is essentially changing your default view to something like, “they must be having a tough time.”

  1.     Ask yourself new questions to focus less on response and more on what could come of this, like, “what am I intended to learn here?” or “what can the team take away that will benefit them?”

Coach’s Questions

What has been your default response when you’re angry and frustrated? How has your reaction influenced your team’s response to a situation? What can you do to manage your feelings the next time you are angry or frustrated?

For the last several weeks we’ve been asking you to give us your requests for topics you want us to write about in the blog and boy, did you ever.  Thank you to everyone who gave us suggestions and entered our contest to win 6 of our favorite leadership books.
Keep following us on to see our articles inspired by your requests!
The winner of the grand prize is Marty Robinson of Medicine Hat, AB. Congratulations Marty!