Motivation is one of those fickle things. When people have it, it seems effortless. When they don't - it seems like the most scarce resource in the world!
We all know the thrill of something exciting and fresh: an intriguing project idea, a potential collaboration, a great new job. And we all know the struggle of maintaining momentum as you embark on that journey. Why is so hard to stay motivated throughout your days? What’s holding you back from tackling your goals with the same gusto you had when you conceived them? And most importantly, how can you break out of your slump and start making progress?
A lack of motivation can be very distressing. You wonder what’s wrong with you, or if your goal is even worth pursuing. Perhaps I’m just too inadequate and lazy, you think. These negative feelings further demotivate you and make you depressed and anxious. You might turn to procrastination to avoid a fear of failure, or you simply give up on the things that once excited you.
Fear not: there is a way to turn it around and reclaim your motivation. To get started, let’s look at how motivation happens and how it affects your behavior.
The Psychology of Motivation
Motivation does not happen in a vacuum. Despite the ubiquity of motivational tapes, books, and posters, most motivation starts from within. It happens when you have a new experience that triggers a flood of adrenaline and dopamine. These feel-good chemicals make you excited about a project or goal, and you want to make progress to maintain this excitement. But once the novelty wears off, lingering self-doubts or anxieties creep up. It takes another stimulus to keep you on track.
Experts say that the simplest way to get motivated is to get started. That’s true if you can get started and maintain momentum past that initial adrenaline-filled period. For example, it’s easy to start a new exercise routine. During your workout, you’re literally flooded with endorphins that reward you for your efforts. The next day, the aches and pains provide another sort of motivation: the type that keeps you on the couch instead of getting your butt back to the gym. That’s why it’s so hard to build good habits. It’s much easier to ride the wave.
However, once you’ve built the habit, it’s much harder to stop doing it. Indeed, habit-building is crucial to motivation. If you’ve already trained your mind and body to expect a behavior, it just feels natural to keep doing it. You don’t have to seek out additional motivation. In a moment, we’ll discuss how this simple fact can help you break out of a slump.
Types of Motivation
Not all motivation happens alike. It’s tempting to think of it as unidirectional, but in fact, the “motivation neurotransmitter,” dopamine, goes both ways. This chemical helps your brain judge either the desirability or aversiveness of an outcome. If you expect high reward for little effort, dopamine influences the behavior that will get you there. On the flip side, if you expect little reward (or lots of pain) for high effort, you won’t want to do the thing.
This means that just as the excitement about something fresh and new can get you moving, fear can keep you stuck in place. Worrying about failure, backlash, or pain is a powerful negative motivator. Associating your new workout routine with pain instead of gain will prevent you from feeling motivated to keep it up. And if you just don’t see the point in doing something, good luck feeling motivated to take time out of your busy day to tackle it.
In a nutshell, you experience two types of motivation:
- Positive motivation taps into your brain’s reward system to make you feel good about performing a task. It links to feelings of accomplishment, confidence, enjoyment, and other benefits. Positive motivation tends to happen at the outset of a new project or goal, and you can also use it to maintain your momentum once you get started.
- Negative motivation stems from your brain’s aversion system. Your body has many mechanisms for self-defense, one of which is the tendency to keep you from doing things that would cause pain or danger. Consider demotivation the psychological equivalent of running from a lion: your brain doesn’t want you to get hurt. The problem is, it can’t tell the difference between an actual threat and a perceived threat. This means it’s easy for insecurities or short- term pain to outweigh the perceived benefits of a long-term habit or goal.
The 5 Steps to Getting Motivated
Let's take a look at how we can leverage these neurological whims to your advantage.
Step 1. Establish Your Goals
It’s all too common to feel super-pumped about a new project or habit — then abandon it in favor of your usual routine. If you start working out with a vague goal, e.g. “lose weight,” the initial reward of an endorphin-filled bloodstream is quickly replaced by aversive ideas: your muscles hurt. You don’t have time. “I’ll just do it later this week,” you tell yourself.
Making specific goals helps you overcome your brain’s tendency to think short-term. If you don’t decide how and when to lose weight (and how much to lose by a certain point), it’s all too easy to ignore the long-term benefits of working out. By contrast, if you commit to a workout schedule because you want to see a specific accomplishment, you’re much more likely to stay motivated. We’re curious creatures, and we can tap into our own curiosity about what will happen if we stick to our goals. (Tip: Use a bullet journal, Panda Planner, or a tool such as Trello to track your goals. There are also many habit-building apps on the market.)
A word of warning: don’t make your goals too lofty. For example, it’s usually not possible (or safe) to drop 50 pounds in 2 weeks. Use the SMART Goals framework: your goals should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-Bound. They should also fit together. It might be helpful to map out related goals, e.g. your goal to lose 5 pounds this month should go along with your goal to eat three healthy meals per day.
Step 2. Tie in Rewards
As we’ve established, rewards are the bread-and-butter of your brain’s motivational neurology. Unfortunately, the auto-generated rewards of adrenaline rushes and dopamine spikes are short-lived. They’re easy to forget, especially if your project or goal is high-effort, low-reward. The solution, of course, is to add a reward.
It turns out that we can trick ourselves into seeking additional rewards if we link good things to what we’re doing. It’s the equivalent of dangling a carrot in front of our faces. Rather than relying on the “native” rewards of a project (feelings of accomplishment, a flood of dopamine), assign specific rewards to your specific goals. For example, if you make it to every single one of a week’s workout sessions, you can reward yourself with a cookie. (Just one, though.)
If the goal is particularly difficult to achieve and no positive reward seems to outweigh your brain’s aversion system, turn that system on its head. Link a source of negative motivation to NOT achieving your goal. You can focus on an inevitable outcome by scaring yourself, e.g. “If I don’t lose weight, I’ll increase my risk for heart disease and diabetes.” Your demotivator doesn’t necessarily need to follow from your inaction. For example, instead of saying, “If I don’t get this project done, my boss will be unhappy with me,” say, “If I don’t get this project done, I will have to donate money to an organization I hate.” (Tip: For help putting this strategy into action, visit ActionBuddy)
Step 3. Start Small
Once you’ve set up your system of goals and rewards, take it slow. One of the biggest demotivators is feeling like you just can’t win. With a lot of hard goals happening at once, that’s an inevitable experience. The hard truth is that most of us lack the time and energy to transform every part of our lives at once. The more we pile on our plates, the more likely we are to run away screaming from our goals.
So, set one or two major goals per month, and try to build only a couple good habits at a time. It’s simply not realistic to adopt a new workout routine, yoga practice, diet, hobby, job, personal project, etc. all at one time, especially if you’re also trying to quit smoking/drinking/insert vice here. It may feel frustrating to put some goals on the back-burner, but you will ultimately feel more motivated and empowered to make progress.
Plus, saving goals for later can help you feel more motivated once it’s time to work on them. That’s because we tend to get more excited and invested in something if we have time to build up anticipation. Think about the difference between an event you’ve been looking forward to for months versus a random happening you stumble into on a Saturday night. You’ll be much more focused on the anticipated event and experiencing it in its entirety.
Step 4. Establish Your Accountability
If no one sees you skipping your workout and hiding out in your living room to eat Cheetos, it’s easy to let your aversion take over. But if you have someone who’s waiting for you at the gym, you’ll have two sources of negative motivation. Which is worse: feeling a little bad that you skipped your workout, or being ashamed that you stood up your workout buddy, who’s judging you to boot? You know which.
Accountability systems work. If pursuing your goal wouldn’t work well with a buddy, choose a general accountability partner instead. Each of you can commit to achieving specific tasks every week. Promise to be there for each other if either of you falls into a slump, and check in regularly. You can select an accountability partner through a program such as actionbuddy.io.
Step 5. Set Up A Ritual
We’ve talked a lot about habits, but habits aren’t just a way to make progress toward a goal. They can also get you into the right mindset. We all have rituals, even if we don’t realize it: brushing our teeth before bed, taking out the trash every Wednesday, watching the news in the morning. You can tap into these existing rituals to motivate your progress toward your goals. Then, make it easy to slide from your existing habit into your new one. For example, if your new goal is to start a morning yoga practice, don’t hide your yoga mat in the closet. You’ll make it past lunchtime before you remember to dig it out, and by then, you’ll have lost the energy to do it. Instead, put the yoga mat by the TV and do your yoga routine as you watch the news. (Bonus: yoga helps reduce the stress caused by said news.)
You can also set up a ritual as part of your project or goal. Mindfulness and motivation go hand in hand, so if you take deliberate steps toward achieving your goal, you’ll associate those steps with the reward. It’s also a way of tricking yourself. Working out can seem daunting, but how hard is it to put on your sneakers? Once your shoes are on, how hard is it to just do a few jumping jacks? Once those are done, how hard is it to hop on the treadmill? By minimizing your brain’s aversion machine, you can access the motivation that you need to make progress.
Ultimately, maintaining your motivation is all about tricking yourself. Your brain is wired to minimize harm and maximize reward. By tapping into these tendencies, you can train yourself to keep the momentum of a new habit or tackle the difficult work toward a new goal. Creating a robust structure, timeline, and accountability system for your goals will help you feel more in control, which makes it much easier to make progress. Remember, it’s much more difficult to break a habit than to build one, so the key really is to get started — and compel yourself to keep going even after that initial high.