Things always move rapidly at the beginning of a project. Everyone's excited, and it's easy to see how far you've come from nothing.
But a month later, the excitement is gone, everybody has slowed down and the project seems like it's going to take forever to finish. This middle stage is where projects go to die.
Diagnosing the Problem
It's more than simple fatigue or boredom. It turns out there's a psychological reason people get stuck in the middle of projects, slow down and sometimes even fail to complete them.
New research from Northwestern's Kellogg School Of Management finds evidence of an "attentional shift" that explains the phenomenon.
It's all about your frame of reference.
"We showed that participants exhibited a tendency to focus on the initial state as the standard of reference at the beginning of goal pursuit, but then shifted their focus to the desired end state as the end neared," the researchers wrote. "The observed stuck-in-the-middle pattern resulted from this switch in reference points"
When you start to shift focus towards how far away the goal is, you rapidly lose motivation.
That results in a u-shaped motivation curve, with motivation at its highest at the beginning and end of a project, and inevitably at its very lowest in the middle.
It's an important reminder that not all motivation is external, the way we focus on and approach problems has an impact on productivity.
Finding a Cure
This can be a very real problem for managers. People spend the majority of their time in the middle, and if they're unmotivated and slow in those periods, that's a huge productivity loss.
There are a number of steps managers can take to prevent these stall points.
1. Give more frequent feedback. Motivation issues are worse when people feel isolated. Frequent feedback can solve that problem.
Feedback during large projects should keep the motivation curve in mind, managers can keep employees focused on what they've accomplished to avoid the attentional shift until the point where they're close to the goal and start to become motivated again.
2. Break projects up. Splitting something up into smaller, discrete stages can prevent people from losing motivation midway through. In some cases, having people alternate between projects can make them more productive than focusing on one thing at a time.
3. Give points or rewards. Gamification is an increasingly common way for businesses to engage employees. Social engagement platforms like Rypple allow people to accumulate badges for meeting goals and making progress, giving them something else to focus on.
4. Set hard deadlines. Sometimes people need the extra motivation provided by a deadline to get through these slumps. Also, don't confine the deadline to the overall project, setting deadlines at discrete stages can keep people focused.
When it comes to personal goals like finishing a book or training for a marathon, people frequently have a similar experience. The key, according to one of the study's co-authors, is to flip the attentional shift on its head, to motivate yourself based on what you've accomplished almost until the end of the project.
How do you motivate your employees to finish a project? Tell us in the comments below.