How to Stay Motivated During a Recession

Sunshine bursting through clouds

Photo by JeffBelmonte

Some people say the recession means the end of business as usual. I disagree.

Of course, if your idea of business as usual was like Lou‘s – a steady job, predictable market and rewards for hard work, keeping your head down and your nose clean – then it probably feels like the world has been turned upside down by recent events.

But as we said right at the start of Lateral Action, the rise of the creative economy is a long-term trend, and we’ve been living in a world where creativity is economic priority number one for some time.

And you know what? Creativity is unpredictable and risky. Sometimes it’s downright scary. Effects don’t always follow neatly from causes; hard work won’t necessarily be rewarded. On the contrary, it could just turn out to be foolish productivity. Rewards come from being curious, agile, aware of the market and willing to experiment to see what works.

So for me, the recession hasn’t brought anything radically new, just accelerated the rate of change and instability. It’s stripped away a lot of the fluff and complacency, and clarified what’s needed to survive and thrive in a world governed by the capricious laws of creativity.

Why Motivation Is Critical to Your Success

Motivation is vital for success in the creative economy. Not just because you need to be stubborn to succeed in any business venture. And not just because the economic storms we’re flying through are frightening enough to test anyone’s nerves. But also because, as I said in my e-book How to Motivate Creative People (Including Yourself), motivation has a huge influence on creative performance.

Human beings are driven by four basic types of motivation – some of which are particularly important when it comes to creative work:

Diagram of 4 types of motivation: intrinsic, extrinsic, personal and interpersonal

  1. Intrinsic motivation – the love of the work itself. Intrinsic motivations include: interest; challenge; learning; meaning; purpose; creative flow. Research has shown that high levels of intrinsic motivation are strongly linked to outstanding creative performance.
  2. Extrinsic motivation – rewards for good work or punishments for poor work. Extrinsic motivations include: money; fame; awards; praise; status; opportunities; deadlines; commitments; bribes; threats. Research shows that too much focus on extrinsic motivation can block creativity.
  3. Personal motivation – individual values, linked to personality. Examples include: power; harmony; achievement; generosity; public recognition; authenticity; knowledge; security; pleasure. Each of us prioritizes some values over others; understanding your own values and those of people around you is key to motivating yourself and influencing others.
  4. Interpersonal motivation – influences from other people. Much of our behaviour is a response to people around us, such as: copying; rebellion; competition; collaboration; commitment; encouragement.

Put the four together, and you get a matrix containing four basic drivers. For a project or enterprise to be sustainable and successful, you need to tick all four boxes. Neglect any one of them, and it could be like the dodgy leg on a table that brings the whole thing crashing to the ground.

Diagram of 4 types of motivation: personal satisfaction (personal intrinsic); social interaction (interpersonal intrinsic); personal rewards (personal extrinsic); public recognition (interpersonal extrinsic)

Four Motivators That Will Get You through the Recession

There are many different motivators in each of the four squares. In the diagram below, I’ve listed four that become critically important during a recession.

Diagram of 4 types of motivation: challenge (personal intrinsic); friends and enemies (interpersonal intrinsic); rewards (personal extrinsic); heroes (interpersonal extrinsic)

Photo by JeffBelmonte

  • Challenge – depending on how you look at it, the economic crisis could be an overwhelming problem, an unmitigated disaster, or an inspiring challenge. Maybe even an opportunity. Take a moment to look at it through each of these lenses in turn – How do you feel? Which one is most motivating?
  • Friends and Enemies – When things get tough, you find out who your real friends are. Stick together. As Seth Godin points out in Tribes, there are few things more powerful than mutual loyalty, support and encouragement. Who are your enemies? It could be the competition – or even the recession itself. Are you going to let it beat you? A common enemy will give you and your friends a common cause to fight for.
  • Rewards – This is probably the weakest of the four drivers during a crisis, as the payoff for all the hard work can seem far off in the future, or even non-existent. So it’s essential to look at the big picture and remind yourself where you’re headed and what the rewards will be. You can also make use of non-monetary rewards. For example, I recently came across a company where people are being promoted without pay rises – the money will come later, but for now they are happy to take the status and other privileges of the position.
  • Heroes – The recession is your chance to be a hero, to save your part of the world. Heroes don’t sit behind a desk shuffling paper (or e-mail). They get out there, roll up their sleeves, slay the dragons and rescue the princesses. What are you waiting for?

You’ve probably realised by now that you don’t need a recession to pay attention to these four factors. They are crucial to succeeding in any circumstances.

But faced with an economic crisis, it’s tempting to play it safe or go for shortcuts. To stop investing time, effort and energy in building for the long-term, adding real value and strengthening relationships with your partners, collaborators and customers.

Obviously you need to keep rewards on your radar and do everything you can to maximise them. But if you just focus on short-term rewards, it can feel like you’re making slow progress day-to-day. The big rewards are off in the future, and it sometimes feels like you’ll never get there.

This is where the other three squares can help you. Unlike rewards, these motivators are all available right now:

You can look at the difficulties you face and see them as a challenge – right now.

You can look around you and reach out to support and encourage your friends – right now.

You can confront your enemy – whether in the external forces ranked against you, or inside you, in the voice of your inner saboteur counselling a timid retreat – right now.

You can be a hero, working to fix things and build them up again – right now.

You can pick up the gauntlet – right now.

How Do You Meet a Challenge?

Has the recession changed the way you approach your work? If so, how?

How do you motivate yourself when things get tough?

Which of the motivators I describe works best for you? What others would you add?

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For a free 25-week guide to success as a creative professional, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.

How to get creative work done in an "always on" world

Productivity for Creative People

Mark McGuinness' latest book Productivity for Creative People is a is a collection of insights, tips, and techniques to help you carve out time for your most important work – amid the demands and distractions of 21st century life.

“Of all the writers I know, I have learned the most about how to be a productive creative person from Mark. His tips are always realistic, accessible, and sticky. It’s not just talk, this is productivity advice that will change your life.”

Jocelyn Glei, author and Founding Editor, 99U

More about Productivity for Creative People. >>

Responses to this Post


  1. Excellent post, glad it was one of the first things I read this morning.

    I think I need to print this out, post it above my desk, and read it every day. Seriously.

  2. Thanks Stacy, I’m honoured! 🙂

  3. Excellent post. At first, I told myself that staying motivated meant I had to keep “plugging away” – and basically keep doing the S.O.S. only longer and harder.

    I only became more frustrated and stressed out – and finally realized that an approach like that will only drain your motivation.

    Working longer and harder doesn’t change the economic reality.

    So I reached out to my community. I am volunteering and interacting with people, strictly in a giving mode. It’s amazing how energized I’ve become.

    Creativity flows from the soul. Doing “soul” work brought my motivation back.

  4. As a creative type who doesn’t do the regular thing and has just recently hit some criticism in a new venture from some unexpected places this is really helpful.

    Staying motivated is hard sometimes but having a network of friends and peers to work with is one of the best things to keep me going.


  5. Read “The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us And What We Can Do About It”.

    Stop doing what isn’t working, as fast as possible.

    With all that free time, think about what to do instead.

    Do it.

    I used to make money almost exclusively as a contract technology trainer, using the live, on-site, instructor-led classroom model. Good money for over 10 years. Then this economic upside-down cake happened. Clients dropped off the radar like flies sprayed with a flit gun. Now I mainly do online training, mostly recorded, and I’m making more money than before. But I had to give up chasing non-existent classroom training gigs before I could free up enough time to develop the online stuff.

  6. Great post.

    I wrote something on motivation recently too:

    The thing I identify with the most is the four motivators.

    I think a lot of people forget that people, creative or otherwise, respond differently to different types of motivation.

    Take distance runners, for example. I am one and tend to do much better with positive reinforcement. I’d rather have a coach encourage me than say something like, “Is that the best you got?” That, and seeing teammates, and the team, succeed always made me want to push harder.

    However, I know plenty of runners who get fired up, and run faster, when you challenge them, instead of just encouraging them.

    To each his own.

  7. Oh, man, I needed to read this today! I’ve been feeling a little stuck, and the exploration of motivators really helps. Like Stacy, I think I’m going to print this out and re-read it a few times.

    I also really like Angiel’s idea of engaging in a giving mode; that’s probably a big help in getting un-stuck too. Great post and comments!

  8. Terrific post! I am really glad I chose this to read first in my Google Reader back up this morning. Now I can go take some action!
    Thank you!

  9. @Angiel – Great example! It’s amazing how energizing it can be to get out of one’s own shell and reach out to others (who may well be facing the same challenges). But not easy to remember it when things are tough.

    @Carl – In the words of Dr Johnson, “Censure is the tax a man pays to the public for being eminent.” – or maybe just different? Stick with the people who ‘get’ what you’re doing.

    @Robert – Thanks, another great example. Reinventing yourself/your business can be daunting before you start but it can be really exciting once you get into it. Really pleased to hear things are working out so well with your new business model.

    @David – That’s an excellent post. I love this bit (in fact I’m off to Tweet it):

    You can solve all your problems on a five-mile run. That is, if you can get through it.

    Have you read Haruki Murakami’s new book on running and writing? I haven’t, but it sounds like it could be up your street.

    @Catherine @Joanne – Glad to hear the post was well-timed. 🙂

  10. @Mark – Thanks for the kind words. Glad you liked the post.

    I had not heard of that book until now, so I am off to the library to pick it up. Read a summary of it and it sounds great. Thanks for the suggestion!

  11. Brilliant article, Mark. You touch on so many points that on the one hand, are common sense – I read them and think, “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes..” and then realize I’m grateful that I don’t talk to myself reading blog articles in a crowded room. I then have to take a step a back and recognize that for many of my clients, this isn’t common sense. Your discussion is thorough, and elegant.

    I was reminded this week of the potently distilled variation of this, given to me by my favorite mentor, a decade ago.

    It is the foundational philosophy for all my business endeavors, and many of my creative ones.


  12. Thanks Jim, yes ‘common sense’ isn’t as common as we often assume. What’s ‘obvious’ to you could be a revelation to me, or your clients.

    Great post and proverb – thanks for sharing.