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HER take on staying motivated: A conversation with UI professor Beth Livingston

University of Iowa Tippie College of Business assistant professor Beth Livingston has spent 15 years studying spousal/partner negotiation, and she’s a frequent human resources consultant for local businesses. Her background makes her uniquely qualified to offer advice for individuals and companies navigating the new — and sometimes tough — work arrangements created as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Shortly after increasing numbers of people began working from home, Livingston started hearing from friends and colleagues who were struggling. From her basement, she started filming YouTube videos with tips and advice, although she’s careful to not be overly prescriptive.

“You can’t say, ‘Just do this and it will get fixed,’” she said.

Video topics range from setting boundaries when working from home to management mistakes when overseeing employees remotely. We asked Livingston about how to stay motivated and ways managers can keep employees engaged even though things are off-kilter.

Livingston has a particular phrase that helps motivate her when she’s feeling overwhelmed. “Don’t hit yourself with a second dart,” she said. The phrase comes from the idea that the first dart that hit you — the thing you couldn’t control — might have knocked you down, and feeling guilt or frustration will just knock you down again.

She recommends motivating yourself by celebrating small accomplishments instead of spending time feeling bad about the things you haven’t been able to get done. Even if the accomplishment is getting out of bed each day, try to celebrate it.

“It may feel silly at first, but eventually, it will help sustain you,” she said.

It’s tough to stay motivated when you feel like you don’t have enough time to accomplish everything you need and want to. Livingston said many people’s schedules are less structured, making them feel like they should be able to get a lot done.

“Time is a finite resource, and the fear of losing time is making people feel strained. There’s also a lot of social comparisons — look at all these other people learning to play the piano,” she said.

She recommends encouraging yourself the same way you’d encourage others.

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“If my niece were to call me, I’d say, ‘Cut yourself some slack, you’re doing great.’ Grant yourself the grace you would grant others.”

Livingston said some managers are making the current situation tougher — leading employees to feel less motivated — by hovering from a distance. Through her videos, she’s reminding companies that the same things that motivate people in normal times, like being treated with respect, apply now. “Your employees shouldn’t be the lever you pull to try to get some control back in your life,” she said.

Livingston said most people want to work, even if they’re temporarily struggling with motivation. “The vast majority of people want to produce things.” She’s noticed that lately, some managers of low-paid workers have started to make changes to retain and motivate people — changes she’s recommended to companies for years. “What we’re seeing is that low-paid workers are not replaceable cogs in a wheel — they’re providing valuable services. If you embrace people’s humanity, you’ll get their engagement.”

For Livingston, creating videos — while juggling teaching online classes — is helping her feel like she’s creating something useful. They’re also helping people realize they aren’t the only ones struggling.

“People have responded and said they’re happy they’re not alone in how they’re feeling right now,” she said.

Find the videos on the UI Tippie College of Business YouTube page: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8n8fDb6Azok&list=PLHHu1zv77dOiW9LRxUlHQyl975XOQ6nat

Quotes on motivation:

“With the new day comes new strength and new thoughts.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

“If you cannot do great things, do small things in a great way.” – Napoleon Hill

“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.” – Confucius

Books on motivation:

“The Motivation Manifesto” by Brendon Burchard

“Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” by Daniel H. Pink

“The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” by Charles Duhigg

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