The best motivators are intermittent rewards

Your brain is driven by novelty.

When something new and unexpected arises, it immediately perks up and wonders, “Is this a bad thing or a good thing? And how should I handle it?” 

If it’s a bad thing, the brain activates its threat circuit, the famous fight, flight, or freeze response. But if it’s a good thing, it activates its reward circuit, releasing a burst of dopamine, a drug-like response that stimulates a feeling of pleasure and a powerful motivation that says, “I want more of this!”

Unfortunately, as good things are repeated and become more predictable, they begin to lose their power of novelty. That annual bonus no longer triggers a wave of good feeling. It’s expected.

Maintaining motivation can require an element of surprise. That’s why a small but unexpected “spot bonus” can be a greater motivator for an employee than a larger annual one or why receiving a pair of tickets to a show or sporting event can be more memorable than your biweekly paycheck. The brain recognizes these as something new and responds accordingly.

If you want to maintain your own motivation or that of your employees, strive to use variety and unpredictability to your advantage.

You may be surprised by the results.