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How to Stay Motivated—and Motivate Others

Over the course of your career, it's natural for enthusiasm to wax and wane. Here's what to do when your hooah (or someone else's) is broken.
Photo by SFC Jon Soucy
Photo by SFC Jon Soucy

Stay in the Army longer than a day and it’s inevitable: Your motivation will wax and wane. No matter how hard you try, no one can stay at max motivation all the time—and some years you’ll just feel it more than others. Situations can get you down, whether that’s feeling stuck with no promotion in sight or working in an MOS that has lost its new job smell. 

But getting out before you’re eligible for retirement is a short-term decision with long-term consequences. So, before you take that big step, consider these ways to get your hooah back.

MOTIVATING YOURSELF

Have a Plan

Imagine you are sent to wander Baghdad with no mission—just a vague idea that you’re supposed to fight bad guys. After the first rocket whizzes by your head, you’ll be questioning your purpose, your commander’s sanity and probably your life choices. Regular life is like that, too. If you know where you’re going and what steps you’re taking to get there, it’s a lot easier to withstand setbacks. Wherever you are in your Guard career, you can still have goals, like: 

  • Getting your 20-year letter and being eligible for retirement
  • Making one more promotion before you get out
  • Becoming an officer or NCO
  • Earning a new MOS
  • Adding points to maximize retirement pay

Think of something that excites you, and figure out actionable steps to get it. Just the act of trying will help you feel more in control of your own destiny, give you a way to get through career speed bumps and, if nothing else, pass the time until you get your next spark.

Build Relationships Outside Drill

Most scientists will tell you that we humans are basically just a bunch of enlightened apes running around, with lots of animal instincts left over from our tree-swinging days. One of those instincts is our built-in need to be part of social groups. And while it’s easy to feel connected to military friends on a surface level, some of us haven’t made much effort in building true friendships .

If you’re finding it harder and harder to get out of bed at oh-dark-thirty on Saturday drill morning, beef up your social connections in the unit. This can be as simple as inviting your battle buddy over for a beer, grabbing dinner after drill or meeting your three best Guard buddies for lunch during the week. While building lasting relationships often involves things like sharing feelings (I know … but sometimes you just have to do it), it doesn’t always go that far. It can also mean finding shared interests, like sports or cars. Most important, it just means spending time together. Build those relationships, and you’ll find it a whole lot easier to make it to Saturday morning formation on time.

Don’t Be Afraid to Make a Change

Someone once said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” Lots of people think it was Einstein. Alcoholics Anonymous uses the phrase a bunch. I know my favorite drill sergeant said it, for sure. Whoever first said it, they’re smart. If you’re feeling stuck—or bored—and are running at anything other than full hooah capacity, it might be time for a job change. Or a unit change. Or even a rank change … a new warrant officer class starts every week. Just don’t keep doing the same thing over and over and expect to get a burst of inspiration. 

Own Something

Psychologists tell us that one of the biggest contributors to stress is feeling a lack of control. Especially for lower enlisted, it’s easy to feel like you show up to drill every month as just another robot—doing what you’re told, when you’re told to do it. It’s nearly impossible to stay motivated in this environment long term. 

Combat this by volunteering to handle something, whether that’s restocking the unit fridge, serving as the NGAUS membership rep or something critically important, like running the company fantasy football league. Then handle it. Own it. Be the best fridge stocker your unit has ever seen. You’ll get satisfaction from a job well done, feel more in control of your time and, if you really knock it out of the park, probably find yourself with more responsibility than you bargained for—also great for your motivation level.

MOTIVATING SUBORDINATES 

If you find it hard to stay motivated, imagine how your subordinates feel. They’re even lower on the command food chain than you, and morale filters down. If you feel like your team members lack something in the motivation department, try these techniques for refilling their hooah tank. 

Be a Model 

Young Soldiers are hardwired to learn by watching. This can bite you in the fourth point of contact if you’re the kind of guy who walks around grumpier than a sergeant major judging a grass-walking contest. But you can use it to your advantage, too. Model a positive motivation level—oozing hooah—and your subordinates will eventually start to emulate you. If it sounds like I’m suggesting you subtly manipulate your subordinates into doing what you want them to do, it’s because that’s exactly what I’m suggesting—because it works, and it’s a win-win. They get more out of their work, and you get more out of them.

Incentivize 

This doesn’t mean giving out Army awards (although those help, too). Incentivizing motivation can mean giving more responsibility to those who are earning it. It can also mean recognizing somebody for a solid effort in front of a formation. Look for every opportunity to identify people who are exhibiting behaviors that you want the rest of your unit to emulate, and then praise them—in front of everybody.

Define Mission Success

Your unit’s motivation will rise and fall with its sense of purpose, just like your own personal motivation. Give your unit (or squad, or section) team-based goals, and then communicate those goals to individuals in terms that spell out how—and why—their effort is important to reach those goals. Not everybody will buy in, but some will. And the overall motivation level will definitely go up.

Stop Controlling Everything

If you want your subordinates to have maximum motivation level, you’re going to have to let them take charge of their own destiny. The quickest, easiest way to squash hooah is to be a micromanager. Nobody will put in maximum effort if they know you’re just going to step in at the last minute and “fix” everything—which usually means you’re just making things different, not better.

Create a Culture

People like to belong to something. When they feel that way, they want to contribute to it. It’s another one of those leftover animal instincts that scientists say came from our primordial pack mentality. That means the more you build your unit or squad into a pack, the more its members will want to contribute to it. Do this by creating a distinct identity. That can mean unit T-shirts, complete overuse of your unit call sign or, like the most motivating commander I’ve ever had used to do, just regularly telling your Soldiers what a wonderful bunch of misfits they are. You might be surprised how quickly your misfits will embrace that label (we sure did) and how hard they’ll work to earn it.