The thing about motivation is that it’s not exactly like learning another skill. It’s not at all like learning to cook or ride a bike or learning to drive — those things stick with you and even when you haven’t done them for a while, they tend to come back to you pretty quickly.
Motivation is not something that we can really gain mastery of — just when we think we’ve got it, it’s gone. It’s fleeting and it changes from one time and place to another. In completing one ambition, we may find our motivation to be consistently strong throughout. Yet in the case of another goal or resolution, we struggle to find the motivation to even begin.
Why is that?
Different circumstances, different expectations, different time and place. Maybe our level of interest is varied or we’re simply lacking passion (you can read more about passion in my post on Grit). Whatever the case, rest assured that you’re not alone. Pretty much everyone struggles to find motivation at least some of the time (myself included) and there are lots of strategies to help you discover and keep your motivation burning which I’m going to outline today.
As always, you shouldn’t feel obligated to do everything included in this post (in fact, I wouldn’t even advise that). What I hope you’ll find here instead are a few practical ideas that resonate with you and help provide the spark you need to set your motivation ablaze. Remember, our entire life journey is a work in progress of sorts, so we shouldn’t expect to attain perfection anytime soon!
My own mantra this week is, “Nothing can stop me today — I can only stop myself.” I share this because I think it fits well with the topic of motivation, particularly because I tend to find (and maybe you do as well) that the thing getting in my way most of the time is me! No one is making me take on the commitments in my life that I’ve made — I chose to make them. When I find that my plate is overwhelmingly full, I can only look to myself because I’m the one that filled it in that manner.
I’m not saying this to beat myself up or to suggest that you should in any way do the same. Conversely, it’s important that we take ownership and find empowerment in knowing that we shape our own goals and experiences. While we can’t control everything that happens in a day, we can own the way that we choose to spend our time and how we react to the occurrences throughout each day.
Not sure where to start? Here’s some ideas to help you discover and keep your motivation – that internal fire inside us all – burning strong:
Share your knowledge with others. In most cases, it’s not that you don’t know what to do or how to reach your goal, but channeling the motivation to actually make progress can be difficult. Many people find themselves stuck in a rut, unable to take meaningful action, even though they know exactly what they need to do. There’s a good chance you know someone who’s been wanting to lose weight for years, but hasn’t been able to actually commit to a particular diet (maybe that someone is even you). Yet, that person probably has more knowledge about nutrition and calorie intake vs. outtake than almost anyone else in your life.
In this case, the key to forward momentum is building self-confidence by telling others how to do it. Yes, literally go tell other people the step-by-step process for how to accomplish the goal that you want to accomplish yourself. (I know this sounds a bit odd, but stay with me.) A very compelling study by Eskreis-Winkler and Fishbach (see Fessler, 2018) demonstrated how simply giving advice to others (on the same issues she/he was struggling to do) could help build one’s self-confidence enough to propel individuals into action. It reminds me of that saying, ‘those who can’t do teach,’ except that in this case it’s like ‘those who teach are more likely to do,’ which aligns perfectly with my next point…
“Do something. Do anything.” According to Mark Manson (bestselling author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck) action can precipitate action simply by helping us build confidence in our ability to do so. It doesn’t have to be something big, but making any sort of action towards reaching our goals often creates the inspiration and motivation we need to continue along a path of progress. If you’re paralyzed by your fear of going to the gym, maybe start with a walk outside or find a YouTube video to follow along with at home. If you want to mend a relationship with someone and you don’t know where to start, try picking up the phone and calling them or writing them a letter (you don’t even have to send it if you don’t want to).
When I’m struggling to start writing (which is basically everyday), I will often say to myself, “Okay, I’ll just create an outline,” or “I can at least write down the thoughts that are in my head,” or “Fine, I’ll write ONE paragraph.” Oftentimes I’ll find that as a result, moving onto other parts becomes much easier because I’ll have ideas for how to do so (and maybe even a bit of excitement).
Maybe I’ll have an idea for a second paragraph or the introduction or a totally different point I want to make later in the chapter (or blog post…). In any case, once you’ve actually started, it’s so much easier to keep going and I almost always find myself thinking something along the lines of, “That wasn’t so difficult (but I’m definitely not going to admit that I may have even enjoyed myself a bit), I don’t know why I put this off — I’ll just do a bit more.”
When I’m really stumped (or just because), one of my favorite things to do is to create a timeline. It doesn’t have to be very detailed when you begin, it can literally just be an estimated start and end date. Bench marks (tasks that need to be completed along the way) will begin to form in your mind and then you can break down how long each item will take you to complete. After you’ve completed your working or tentative timeline (because it’s always subject to change), you can look to the first task and start working on it immediately.
Be realistic in your expectations. Sometimes we come to a phase in life where we feel compelled to overhaul our entire state of being. If you’re trying to lose weight for instance, you may want to drastically change your diet, workout routine, and sleep habits all at once. While these behaviors likely work together and could potentially reinforce each other, making several drastic life changes at once is almost always a guaranteed recipe for failure.
It’s not at all because we don’t possess the ability to do so, but rather that we’re asking ourselves to do something that is virtually impossible and unsustainable. Meaningful and lasting changes tend to occur through small incremental changes over time. In the example I gave above, you could start with changing just one aspect of your life (like diet) and integrate the others later once you’ve accomplished your initial goal. Another option might be to set two attainable goals to begin (like eating out one day less each week and getting up 10 minutes earlier) which you make more challenging over time (like eating out only once a week and getting up an hour earlier).
As with the above points discussed, this approach tends to work because small, attainable goals help us experience a sense of achievement which in turn, builds self-confidence. Why should you care about self-confidence? Because self-confidence is really about learning to trust ourselves. Imagine if you had someone in your life who you continually told you they would meet you at a certain time tomorrow and then for weeks, they never showed up, day after day. After a few days (or maybe even just the first day), you would stop waiting for them because you wouldn’t trust them.
Every time we break a commitment to ourselves, we break our own trust. We trust ourselves less and less until we come to believe that we won’t follow through with anything and are incapable of accomplishing any goals. We diminish our self-confidence until there is nothing left (just writing this makes me feel so sad!!). Why do we treat ourselves with so little regard? We are important and so worthy of self-love and of keeping our commitments to ourselves (which fits so well with my next point)!
Before we move on, let me just say once more — YOU are important and YOU are worthy of love.
More compassion, less criticism. There’s a lot of research which shows that self-criticism actually works to demotivate us. (Which is probably not so surprising after reading the last few paragraphs.) When we fail, as we inevitably will, it’s important to have some self-compassion. Be gracious with yourself in recognizing that at any moment we can start again and try our best to do better.
More compassion may mean that you go off your diet for a night because it’s important to enjoy a special occasion with your family and not worry about monitoring your food choices. It may mean that you while you didn’t stick to your diet for breakfast (because maybe someone brought donuts to the office this morning), you’re committed to making good food choices for lunch (or dinner if you call it that) and supper instead of throwing the whole day out the window. It may mean that while you missed your deadline for a project or goal, you recognize that you’ve still made a lot of progress and you’re committed to seeing it through, even if it’s a little bit later than you had hoped.
I want to note that there’s a healthy balance between being self-compassionate and not falling into overly-compromising on a commitment to yourself (which can harbor distrust). That balance will be different depending on the individual and the circumstances. I genuinely believe however, you know the difference— you know when you’re showing a little bit of grace, flexibility, and self-compassion (which is sometimes needed) and you know when you’re breaking a commitment or promise to yourself. Be mindful of the difference and do what’s best for you.
Stay in the present moment. When that moment of conflict arises and you find yourself with the desire to compromise your goal, whatever it may be, know that this is only natural. This is an inevitable occurrence within the process of change. Instead of seeking a distraction, stay present in the moment. Try facing these moments with a sense of curiosity (instead of chastising yourself). Consider what it mean to cheat on your goal today or in this moment. Likely, it would mean breaking a promise you’ve made to yourself.
Remind yourself of your goal’s importance and worth (and perhaps also of your importance and worth as well). Why did you commit to this goal in the first place? Why was (is) it important to you? Stay with these feelings and allow them to pass (because they definitely will!). You may be surprised at the emotions connected to these experiences — you may feel anger or sadness or remorse (or something else altogether). Just know that it’s okay to feel; we’re human and that’s what we do.
Recruit an ally. Accountability can be a powerful tool especially if you’re someone who struggles to keep resolutions for yourself. *raises hand slowly* This doesn’t have to come in the form of a person (though it certainly may!), it could be in the form of keeping a reflection journal or logging your progress in an app. There are a lot of great apps out there for tracking fitness goals through logging your food and workout habits, for example. (I use Fitbit and know a lot of people who use MyFitnessPal, but there are many other good apps out there beyond these.)
The most important thing here, is finding whatever works to help hold you accountable and provide some support toward reaching your goals. I recently installed an aerial yoga hammock in my house (it was actually a gift from my parents – thank you!!) which I had been wanting to do for some time. I was initially drawn to it because it looked like fun, – which it totally is – but since practicing with it, I’ve realized it has immense value in its ability to act as a support in learning to do things like inversions or for working on balance in poses like Warrior 3. I’m telling you this because I happened to mention my observation to my doctoral Advisor and she, in her infinite wisdom, remarked how perfectly this demonstrated that with the right supports in place, virtually anything is attainable (it literally gives me goosebumps even now).
Isn’t that the truth? Things that sometimes feel out of reach or even impossible to us, suddenly become realities when we just have the right tools or the right people around us. So spend a bit of time thinking about what might be most helpful to you and recognize that it may take some trial and error to figure it out. Once it’s there, the sky is the limit – literally, anything is possible.
Channel your inner rebel. If you’re the type of person who resists being told what to do and when to do it (as many of us are), you may not love the idea of setting boundaries for yourself. However, the same characteristics that compel us to resist constraints also drive us to fight and fight hard; we love to defy expectations, prove others wrong, and most of all, we LOVE to win!
I have a good friend who’s taking his sibling rivalry to a whole new level by competing with his sister to make his fitness goals. That desire to beat her (or maybe just to not let her win?) is a big part of what’s driving him to make it to the gym every morning before work. Healthy competition can be highly motivational for individuals like this (myself included). It may not be possible (or ideal) in every case, but for something like losing weight, it could be really fun to challenge a friend or family member.
I will add a word of caution on this point, however. Yes, spite can be a powerful motivator, but I’m not sure it’s always a healthy one – especially if it’s the ONLY thing that’s driving you to accomplish a goal. It’s important that our goals be things that we have chosen to pursue because they are meaningful and important to us in some way. If the desire to prove someone wrong or to be better than someone else is the only thing that is driving you to pursue a goal, I urge you to consider whether it’s truly something worth the effort. Is it something that will bring joy or peace to your life in some way? If not, it may be time to drop it.
Do some investigative work. It can be really helpful to do a little research about your goal and to find out what others have done to achieve the same goal. If it’s a particularly broad topic area (like weight loss ), you may find the amount of information online to be overwhelming at first because there are literally thousands of articles available. Consider starting with friends, family members, or colleagues who may have had similar experiences and ask what’s worked well for them. Most people are happy to share their success stories and will probably give you more information than you asked for! Once you have a good starting point (like maybe the name of a particular diet to research), you can narrow your search online for additional information if needed.
This approach can be particularly helpful if you’re someone who likes to make a clear plan ahead of time or if you have a tendency to want to know the “best” or “right” way to do something. Just be sure to keep in mind that what’s best for you may be different from what’s best or has worked for someone else and that’s completely okay (really, it’s to be expected). You may even need to try some things out to find the best fit before making a decision. Remember, what’s most important is to actually take the first steps toward achieving your goal (back to that point about “Do something. Do Anything.”) – even if it’s not quite right when you first start. Don’t get stuck in the research and planning phase at the cost of delaying your goal any longer.
Make your commitment a big deal. It may be tempting to say you’ll start your diet (or virtually any other goal) on Monday, but it’s really important to set an official start date. Lots of people get stuck in the planning and preparation phase; they continually procrastinate actually acting on their resolution. Look at your calendar and mark the start date. Look at the events you have coming up in the near future – will you be traveling or do you have a big celebration to attend? You may want to plan around these things to help ensure you will be successful (just don’t put it off for too long).
Once you have a start date, commit to working on your goal for a set length of time. It may be 30 days, or 3 months, or 6 months depending on your goal and the amount of time you think you will realistically need to accomplish it. Something you may also want to consider are conditions for breaking your commitment. For instance, what will happen if you break your commitment one day or you don’t reach your goal for a week? Will you start over at Day 1?
It may sound harsh, but having some conditions or even consequences in place can actually help us stay committed on those days when we just want to give up. We’ll think to ourselves, “I don’t want to cheat because I don’t want to start over!” I didn’t invent this idea, it’s been used by many people and it’s one of the principles of the Whole30 diet which I’ve mentioned in previous posts. When you get to day 25 and you just want to eat some bread, you’re much less likely to do so because you only have five days left and you don’t want to start the 30 days all the way from the beginning again!!
Okay, enough of that – here’s the fun part: Find a way to commemorate your first day by doing something special. Celebrate in some way or get something that brings meaning to the day for you. It doesn’t have to cost anything – it could be as simply as writing your goal in a place that you will see it every day. It might be finding a mantra that you will remind yourself of as you work on your goal such as, “I trust in myself and the decisions I make,” or simply, “I am enough.” Consider also telling friends and family members about your plan as they may want to know and could help cheer you along the way (and celebrate in your success!).
Trust the transformational process. Recognize that change occurs over time and when we are ready to change. If you have the intention to change and put forth the effort, you will absolutely change — but it’s probably not going to happen overnight. Trust that you will reach your goal in your own time — every day is a day of progress along that journey.
Celebrate your small successes along the way to help remind yourself of your progress. Additionally, you may consider journaling so that you can frequently reflect on how far you’ve come. Even if you did everything on this list and mapped your goal out perfectly, life has a tendency to get in the way on occasion. Remember that we can’t control everything. In unexpected moments, have some self-compassion and then trust that we will all be okay. You will be okay.
There are a lot of ideas mentioned in the paragraphs above to help you channel your own motivational fire. However, there are a few common threads that seem to be focused around:
- Taking action – even if it’s not quite the right action, just trying something out can be helpful in creating the momentum to move forward
- Growing our self-confidence (which involves building trust with ourselves) often provides the empowerment required to commit to and achieve our goals
- Knowing there isn’t a one-size fits all approach; what works best for you will depend on your individual needs and circumstances (so don’t be afraid to try out some different things)
- Recognizing that meaningful and sustainable change take time to create (so have patience with the process)
I hope you enjoyed today’s post and I encourage you to share any questions or comments below. I would love to hear about your own goals, plans, challenges, successes, etc.!
All my best to you,
Fessler, L. (2018). Psychologists have surprising advice people who feel unmotivated. Quartz at Work. Retrieved January 6, 2019, from https://qz.com/work/1363911/two-psychologists-have-a-surprising-theory-on-how-to-get-motivated/
Manson, M. (2011). The “do something” principle. MM.net. Retrieved from January 6, 2019, from https://markmanson.net/do-something
Vozza, S. (2018). How these 4 different personality types find motivation. Fast Company. Retrieved January 6, 2019, from https://www.fastcompany.com/40560193/how-these-4-different-personality-types-find-motivation
Wilson, A. (2016). Playing with fire: The power of Tapas to help us fulfill our intentions. Kripalu: Center for Yoga & Health. Retrieved February 6, 2019, from https://kripalu.org/resources/playing-fire-power-tapas-help-us-fulfill-our-intentions
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