Inspired by several clients completing a 500-mile cycle from Basingstoke to Cologne in aid of the Ark Cancer Charity, I want to talk about finding the motivation to get the tough stuff done. 

Having completed a few of these endurance challenges myself, I know first-hand that we experience a mix of personal victories, hardships, and mental struggles during them. And, on completion, our neurology releases a cocktail of brain chemicals (a short term high if you like) and often wires in a permanent shift in your identity. We simply can’t go back to the person we were before.

So, where does the motivation come from for these challenges? And more importantly, what can we learn from this and transfer to our commercial lives?

You can donate here if you wish to support this great cause. Image for post. Job well done for an incredible bunch of people.

The flames licking your butt.

Whilst specific triggers are unique to each individual, motivation boils down to one of two key sources; the desire to move away from pain or move towards pleasure. In most situations, humans are motivated more by the former than the latter. Survival is, after all, the biological imperative.

On the surface, the decision to participate in endurance challenges is motivated by the desire to achieve a goal. But that’s not always the truth.

I have spoken to many people who have undertaken significant challenges and, often, ‘move away’ motivation is the major force in play. We often voluntarily undertake challenges to prove something, as a distraction, or to overcome a sense of boredom. This irresistible call to adventure is a pure ‘move away’ motivation.

Either way, understanding the true motivation that drives our level of participation is essential to accessing the inner resources we need to get the job done or save us the effort of doing things we don’t really want to do.

Your business marathon.

Endurance events provide valuable pointers for resolving your business’s significant challenges.

A major difference between an endurance event and a business is that one is finite, and the other is continuous (or at least that is one perspective of it). If cycling or running gets tough, we can push through simply by recognising that the end is coming. In comparison, a business can feel like a never-ending project. If we want to access the same burst of motivation we get during an endurance event, we could start to view our business as a series of projects, each with a specific goal and plan. 

As you look at your business today, what is the ONE major project that would make the most significant impact on the growth of your business? Perhaps it’s a sales drive, an extensive recruitment play or a system implementation. 

If you chose one project and organised yourself around it, you’d attack it with more ferocity and commitment as you would with an endurance event.

Clarity of the goal

Endurance events have a crystal-clear goal, typically a combination of distance and time. We either achieved it, or we didn’t. While outside factors like weather, illness or injury may stop us from attaining the goal, the key determinants of success, our fitness, are within our direct control. In essence, it’s a closed system.

In business, we tend to frame goals as an outcome (number of customers, sales or margin) that are subject to factors beyond our influence (customer behaviour, competitor activity, and economic shifts). Businesses operate in an open system.

When I set goals, I set them around activities rather than outcomes. For example, instead of ‘increase sales by 10%’, I’ll use ‘design a group coaching programme for business owners and market it to my existing and historical customer base’. Both goals have the same outcome, but everything in the second statement is within my control.

Laser Focus

I think the easiest way to earn a living is to be an Olympic athlete. Sure, the training is gruelling and prolonged, but there are limited things to focus on: fitness, technique, and nutrition.

Running a business requires that we attend to multiple disciplines and cope with numerous situations, all within the course of a day. Our attention must hop and skip around as events emerge. An athlete can reasonably predict how each day will go, but a business leader can often see their well-planned day fall apart within minutes.

Perhaps the great attraction of competing in endurance events is the sheer simplicity of the goal. It may be challenging physically, but it is simple. Keep pedalling or putting one foot in front of the other. A mental state of complete clarity is often achieved while participating.

The way to achieve this level of focus in business is through ruthless prioritisation and delegation. In reality, I think many small businesses do not have enough people, so the Leaders end up tangled in the operational firefighting. Trying to juggle too many plates is overwhelming, and after a while, it can even feel boring. Delegating more and making firm choices allows us to focus on the few key things that will keep the company moving and growing.

Keeping on track

I followed the cyclists on their trip, watching their daily mileage, time spent cycling, and the elevation climbed. With technology now, it is possible to track our personal progress with high degrees of precision and access data that was the realm of guesswork until a few years ago.

In business, there are often multiple hoops to jump through before a measurable result is obtained. And most small businesses are good at tracking their financial and operational performance in ways that are useful for motivation and commitment.

Which is why I’m obsessed with the measurement of activity in the business and regular reporting of critical metrics. Understanding where we are, relative to the target, helps to focus attention and keep us committed to the game at any point in time.

Nowhere to hide

As I said earlier, whilst the motivation underpinning an endurance event looks like the ‘move toward’ type, it will include a hefty dose of ‘move away’ motivation. The potential risk of letting down our team, sponsors and supporters is a compelling, motivating force.

There’s nowhere to hide during endurance events; we either gave everything we had in the tank or we didn’t. And our achievement or failure will be laid bare for the world to see. 

In business, there are plenty of places to hide. The circulation of results can be highly restricted, and no one has to know. Excuses are always available, and there are plenty of external things to blame when we don’t achieve what we wanted.

This is the principal reason why creating shifts in how we see ourselves within the company’s context is so necessary. The ability to be honest with ourselves, and hold ourselves to the standards we aspire to, is the ultimate difference between high and low performance; goal achieved or goal missed. Surely there isn’t a more powerful weapon in a business owner’s arsenal.