How to Stay Motivated

Jan 30, 2023
how to stay motivated

Tell me if this sounds familiar. You come up with an idea - something you want to start or stop doing, a change you want to make, or some project you want to take on. You're gung ho. Motivation level 10...and then an 8, and then a 4. Your motivation wanes, and you don't reach that point you were so determined to get to just a short while ago. It can be frustrating and demoralizing. 

You're not alone if you have ever found yourself questioning how to stay motivated. 

I frequently have conversations with my patients, friends, and broader network about motivation. Whether you're wanting to overcome anxiety or are trying to build a business or get healthier or be savvier in relationships, whatever it is, there are goal-specific skills you'll need in order to be successful.

But that's only half the battle. 

The other half is learning how to reliably manipulate your motivational system. You may not have thought of motivational skills as their own separate entity, but they're critical to your success. You can know all of the effective anxiety management tools, but they won't work if you don't use them. Using them is a motivation issue. You can acquire all of the business, marketing, and industry specific knowledge out there, but you still have to consistently put in the grind. That's a motivation issue. Same thing with health and relationship goals. Knowing and doing are two different things. Getting yourself to do things requires motivation.  

Do you know how to consistently and effectively raise your motivation when it starts to drain, because it inevitably will? If the answer is no, keep reading. 


Myths about Motivation

First, we need to do some motivation myth-busting. Most people have some underlying beliefs about how motivation works that are not only false, but they serve as roadblocks, getting in the way of you reaching your goals. 


1. You either have it or you don't.

Motivation isn't black-or-white. It's also not constant. It comes and goes, at varying intensities. I like to think of motivation on a scale from 1-10. This can be helpful because it better reflects the way motivation actually works. It also opens the door to modify your self-talk. Instead of saying to yourself (or others), "I just have no motivation," which can be problematic because it shuts down further action, you can say, "My motivation is at a 2." That subtle shift acknowledges that there is, in fact, some motivation there, albeit not a lot, which can open the door to raising your motivation by prompting the question, "How could I make it a 3 or 4?" (Notice, we're not trying to jump from 2 to 10. That's pretty unrealistic.) This framework allows you to start to manipulate your motivation. Game on.


2. If you want something bad enough, then you'll be motivated. 

It's not that you're not motivated, it's that you have competing motivations in the same moment. Knowing how your brain tends to prioritize things might help you understand some of the traps you fall into and shed light on how to side-step them.

Our brains have shortcuts built into their programming to help speed up information processing and decision making. When we're on autopilot, which can be upwards of 40% of the time, we'll act according to this default programming, which includes prioritizing according to these rules:

  • short term wants win over long-term ones (Netflix now beats fully rested tomorrow)
  • least amount of energy and effort wins
  • familiar or comfortable beats scary or uncomfortable
  • whatever is more vivid, real, or salient wins (whatever is right in front of me, top of mind tends to be more vivid)
  • whatever maximizes pleasure and/or minimizes pain in this moment wins


 3. It has to come from the inside to count.

I don't know why this belief took root for so many people. It's as though relying on external sources of motivation somehow cheapens it. I'm a realist with a bias toward practicality - if it works, use it!

I love my job, but, cards on the table, there are a lot of days I wouldn't do it if I didn't get paid. Does that diminish the value of what I do? No. Does it somehow cancel out the fact that I showed up and gave my best effort? Absolutely not. 

When intrinsic (internally driven) motivation is low or almost non-existent, as we've already established is going to happen at some point, using external sources to keep momentum going is not cheating. It's resourceful. and it's effective.  


4. You have to wait for it to strike. 

Most people believe that motivation comes before action. Sure, it's easier when it does because motivation is designed to grease the wheels and drive us to take said action, but it works the other way around, too. Action itself can actually generate motivation. This is why prolific writers talk about writing every day even when they're not feeling inspired or motivated. They trust that the act of writing will trigger the motivation at some point. 


Ways to Motivate Yourself

Motivation is a complex thing influenced by many factors, so you're going to need an arsenal of strategies to keep your motivation high. Know that it takes self-reflection, experimentation, and practice to figure out what works for you, so get creative and get going!

For today, though, I want to share a few motivation boosting strategies for you to consider testing out. 


Set Yourself Up for Success

Before we talk about specific motivation enhancing strategies, we need to talk about self-care. Ever noticed that drive, dedication, and follow through all go down when you're tired? I certainly have. 

As humans, we are constrained by our biology, and our systems - including our motivational system - just don't work as well when our basic needs aren't met. If you want high motivation, make sure that you're eating well, sleeping well, moving your body, and doing the other practices that set you up to function at your best. Take the time to figure these out. (Our Self-care [by Design] mini-course helps you create a personalized, effective, guilt-free self-care routine. This program is no longer available to the public, but you can get it through this link).


Internal Motivation Strategies

First, be sure you're setting SMART goals. Then use these strategies to boost your internal or intrinsic motivation. 


1. Connect with your why.

Anytime you can connect your actions to your why, to your values, is helpful. Take some time to do a values write, set your intention at the beginning of the day, or post sticky notes to remind yourself why you want to stay motivated. However you do it, be sure to clearly spell out why it matters to you - the more robust your explanation, the better - and find ways to keep it top of mind (remember, whatever is vidid right now gets prioritized. Make sure your why is vivid).


2. Make it a game.

If you're competitive, use that to your advantage. How can you make it a competition or something you can win?  


3. Do the excuse/counter excuse exercise.

Make a list of the excuses your mind gives you that, in the moment, tank your motivation. Then, write down counter excuses, arguments that refute those excuses. Then, go for the double whammy by writing down why you're going to listen to the counter excuses instead. 


External Motivation Strategies

Remember, external motivation is just as valid as internal motivation. If it works, it works. End of story.


1. Identify and remove momentum killers.

What are the activities, environments, and people that halt your momentum or zap your motivation? How can you modify or remove them? For example, I've noticed that TV can kill my motivation and that it's easier for me to not turn the TV on in the first place than to turn it off once I'm watching. So, I can use that information to come up with a plan like reading instead of watching something at night to get to bed earlier, or I can unplug my TV so that I have to enter streaming passwords again when I want to watch. That extra step might be enough of a barrier to avoid this momentum killer altogether. 


2. Accountability

The social pressure from answering to someone else can sometimes tip the motivational scales. 


3. Let's make a deal.

Set up behavioral contingencies. These are rewards and consequences, the it/thens. If I do X, then I'll treat myself by Y. Or, If I don't do X, then (enter the or else or consequence). These kinds of systems can be helpful, especially in the beginning or when you hit a wall and need to push through. 


When Motivation Fails

Even with solid motivation boosting skills, you're going to fail. When you do, start with some self-compassion. You're human, and it's all but impossible to stay 100% motivated 100% of the time. Then, do some productive self-reflection and problem-solving. Consider what led you astray, then come up with a solution for next time. Then move on. This is not an invitation to beat yourself up or spiral into negativity. That's completely unhelpful and actually hurts your motivation in the long-run. 

So what skills and strategies can you lean on when you need to stay motivated?  


"Success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm."
 - Winston Churchill


Written by Dr. Ashley Smith

Peak Mind Co-founder

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