How to Stay Motivated

When I first started working with therapy clients in my own private practice, I never anticipated the volume of conversations I would be having with them about motivation. This is not a complaint. I love helping people get to the bottom of what is going on inside them at a deep level. But the frequency of these conversations seems to point to something universal underlying this ubiquitous struggle.

If you are currently struggling with motivation, let’s zoom out for a moment. Look at the overall picture of your life. What are you spending most of your time doing? Why? Do you feel like you have a good sense of where things are (hopefully) going? If you do, do you have a good sense of the reasons WHY you want things to go that way? Are those reasons based on your own authentic values and not someone else’s, societies, or your mom’s or dad’s? Do you know what your authentic values are?

If you answered, “Uhh. . .” to any of those questions, then that would be the place to start, way before we get into motivation “hacks”. Any set of hacks or tricks to help you feel like the duracell bunny when you honestly don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing, you maybe don’t even like what you’re doing, and you maybe have some unexamined reasons for trying to do that thing in the first place. . . . will be a very short-term (and short-lived), superficial solution.

So if you really care about getting to the bottom of your struggle with motivation, pause what you are doing right now, stop reading this article, and journal out your answers to those questions before continuing. You can use an awesome core values list like the one James Clear makes available on his website to start getting to the bottom of what yours are. Challenge yourself to choose your top 5. (Like, if you were stranded on a desert island and you could only take 5 values with you, which ones would they be? It doesn’t mean you have to abandon the other ones. Just narrow down.) Then your top 3. Then your top 1! Is your life organized around living in alignment with that value (and ideally, with each of those top values)? If not, pause right here and do some long, hard thinking and journaling about how you might rearrange your life, goals and priorities to put your most authentically prized values at the center. Oh, and a happy side effect of this: You might find that the elusive butterfly of happiness seems to alight more frequently on your shoulder when your life is organized around your authentic values. But I digress!

So let’s assume you’ve got all that stuff figured out. You know your authentic values, your life, time and energy are all organized around them, you have a good sense of where things are going in your life and a good sense of the deep reasons why. Some coaches call this ‘the why that makes you cry.’ To find a ‘why that makes you cry,’ ask yourself why you’re doing something, and then ask yourself why again, and then again, until you touch the bedrock of something really tender underneath. For example, “Why are you taking your daughter to the park?” “Because it makes her happy.” “Why do you want to make her happy?” “Because her happiness is my happiness and I would die for her.” You get the gist. Typically it will take more than two whys to get there. And this brings us to our first . . . “trick”. (I don’t like the word “hack”. I’m tempted to write #sorrynotsorry. Whoops! I just did.)

Post your deep why somewhere visible. Post it above the place where your alarm goes off so that you see it when you make the choice NOT to press snooze every morning 😉 Post it over your work desk or working area. Put it into your phone as a reminder with a daily alarm. Tattoo it on your hand if you need to. Just make sure you don’t forget it. Make sure it is ever present, resounding in your head like a bell.

This might sound really basic, but take inventory of your basic self-care routine. I mean really basic. Are you getting enough sleep (roughly 8 hours) every night? Are you able to get in roughly 3 reasonably healthy meals per day? Are you drinking enough water? If you answered, “Uhh. . .” to any of those questions, then that might be another place where we need to go back to the drawing board. If you are experiencing food scarcity, please look for a hunger relief organization near you, like Feeding America. (Also, I wish things were different and I wish it didn’t have to be “on you” to pull on your bootstraps and figure out where the nearest hunger relief organization is, if there is one nearby. I wish we all took care of each other better.) Additionally, you may think you are getting enough to eat but still have a nutrient deficiency, which can impact your energy levels (and therefore, your motivation). If you go to your PCP for a regular checkup, you can ask to have bloodwork done specifically checking for any type of nutrient deficiency you may have.

Though nutritional suggestions (beyond the paragraph above) would be beyond my scope of practice, it should go without saying that whatever foods and supplements seem to support your body’s natural sleeping and waking cycles should be the ones you stick with. Overdoing it on caffeine because you’re experiencing fatigue or low motivation can have the opposite of the intended effect, interrupting your body’s natural sleep rhythms, leaving you morse tired during the day, and more likely to reach for more caffeine, perpetuating the cycle. Similarly, alcohol interrupts your body’s natural sleep cycle, impacting your energy and motivation levels the next day. Also, I know this is not the hip thing to say right now, but studies do seem to strongly suggest that marijuana does have an impact on overall motivation, so take a look at that as well.

Another thing you might try is a little bit of good ol’ behaviorism. In other words, build a reward system into your calendar and into the way you get things done. Set measurable, realistic, achievable goals for the day and for the week, and plan in advance to do something really nice for yourself if you meet those goals. Something you would actually really be excited and happy about. Plug it into your calendar ahead of time so that you are actively looking forward to it as you start working on things during the week.

Another thing you might consider is that you are simply trying to do too much. When we set impossible goals for ourselves, it can be totally overwhelming and paralyzing and then we revert into doing nothing at all. Return to the previous paragraph. Set reasonable goals for yourself. It will only increase your ability to stay motivated.

Additionally, we all have different motivation ‘styles’. Some people are more accountability-oriented. Some really need to know WHY they’re doing something in order to feel motivated to do it. Some have a more ‘rebellious’ motivation style and will feel de-motivated literally because someone else told them to do it. Some (lucky ducks) have a more type-A style and they will get things done just because it’s in the calendar. Figure out your style and leverage it. Example: If you need accountability, build accountability into your lifestyle. It will keep you motivated.

Lastly, some clinical concerns like depression can have a serious impact on motivation. If you’re not sure whether or not depression might be part of the picture for you, talking to a licensed therapist can really help. Click the red link below to schedule a free 20-minute consultation to find out if therapy might be right for you.

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