I’m back again to tell you that motivation is crap and you should stop trying to rely on it.
The thing you’re looking for, again, is self-discipline.
But as you’re working on building self-discipline, and even once you’ve become a fairly disciplined person, motivation can come in handy sometimes.
Is it a reliable way to keep yourself moving toward the life you want? Definitely not. Is it a useful little feeling that can help you get moving when your discipline is struggling? Sure. Motivation is a great supplement to self-discipline, and one that I’d argue is necessary to staying disciplined long-term.
So while your ultimate goal is to practice building discipline, having a few motivational tricks in your back pocket gets you through the rough spots. Here are a few of my favorites:
The 5 Second Rule
I’m putting this first on the list because it’s the first trick that I used to start building more discipline when I decided I wanted to change my life. It works.
The 5 second rule is simple: as soon as you have that “I should” thought, you count down from 5 to 1, and when you get to 1, you get up and go. You get started on whatever thing it is that you didn’t want to do.
I know it sounds like it wouldn’t do anything.
But it does. It really works.
The 5 second rule overrides your brain’s desire to hesitate. You can almost feel it working.
What typically happens when you start a sentence with “I should” or “I have to”? It’s almost always followed by “but” and then an excuse. You’re afraid, or you don’t want to, or whatever. We’re great at making excuses.
The 5 second rule blocks that excuse-making. Rather than thinking of reasons why you aren’t going to do the thing, you’re counting. Rather than hesitating, you’re acting.
Revisit Your Why
That’s part of the secret. Disciplined people have motivation. They are motivated. And that motivation runs so deep that it’s a part of who they are as a person. Their motivation is why they do what they do. And that Why is also the direct result of their actions.
Sure, you can motivate yourself with a reward and I’ll talk about that in a moment, but if you want to stay long-term, deeply, unbreakably motivated, you have to have a Why.
If you need help finding yours or aren’t quite sure what I’m talking about, start here.
Once you’ve got your Why figured out, revisit it when you need it. Your Why isn’t something that you figure out once and then you leave it alone.
Your Why should grow and evolve with you. It should travel with you and be on your mind on a daily basis.
When you don’t feel like working, remind yourself why that work is worth it. How will this benefit you? Why does this matter to you? What are the results of working on this thing and how good will you feel when it’s done?
Take a few moments to really explore what is coming if you put in the work. And, yes, this next step that you need to take matters. This homework assignment matters. This practice session matters. Every step you take matters because success doesn’t come overnight. Success is a result of consistency.
If you aren’t feeling motivated, find a quiet place to sit with your feelings for a few minutes. Consider where you are and where you want to be. Imagine how you’ll feel when you reach that goal and how you’ll feel when you’ve completed the next task. With enough exploration and searching for your Why, you’ll start to feel excited about moving forward.
Create a Mood
This method for building motivation is a little more fun but a little less long-lasting than the previous two.
Have you ever noticed that when you put in a little effort to go work someplace new—maybe a coffee shop or the balcony of a hotel—it’s a little easier to get to work. You’re feeling excited and a little more serious about your work. There’s this air of “I’m a real person doing real work and it is Focus Time,” that helps you get settled in.
I know that when I don't feel like working, a change of setting and mood can help me find the energy I need to work. Cleaning my space, moving off the couch and to my desk, making a cup of tea, going to the library, or finding a good playlist are all little things that put me into a more productive mood.
When you create that “I’m on top of my game” feeling, it’s much easier to follow through with action.
That said, it’s easy for this strategy to turn into procrastination. First, you think, “I’ll just clean the area around my desk,” which turns into cleaning the kitchen, then doing laundry, then making a cup of tea, creating a playlist, and driving to the library, which ends up being a waste of time.
To combat this, I set a time limit and set up a *Freedom session that prevents me from wasting too much time. Then, I have a little time to get into a productive mindset without it turning into procrastination.
As great as intrinsic motivation is, sometimes you just don’t care. Yeah, you want to graduate with a 4.0 or eat healthier, but you don’t want to do those things right now. They’re a problem for future you.
In those situations, I find that bribing myself with some sort of treat really is the best way to get moving. I don’t think this is a particularly groundbreaking idea, but hey, don’t fix what isn’t broken, right?
There are two important things to remember when using external sources of motivation:
1. Don’t choose a treat that will undo your progress. Your motivation for going to the gym can’t be a donut.
2. Be careful not to become too reliant on rewards. When we rely too heavily on rewards to get ourselves moving, it becomes easy to lose sight of why we’re doing what we’re doing. Then, if those external rewards go away, it can be nearly impossible to keep moving forward. Occasionally bribing yourself to get to work isn’t typically going to be an issue, but if you consistently need some sort of reward to get moving, start looking into other things on this list instead.
Work for 5 Minutes
Often, getting started is the hardest part. We don’t want to get started because we’re anticipating all the potential discomfort that may come from the work that needs to be done.
If you’re staring at a mountain of work—hours of writing or cleaning, for example—your brain isn’t going to want to get started. It knows that it won’t be pleasant, so it doesn’t want to.
But the vast majority of the time, that thing you need to do isn’t nearly as unpleasant as you’re expecting it to be, and to find that out, all you need to do is get started.
Instead of focusing on the whole task ahead of you, focus on the next five minutes. Work for five minutes. If, after those five minutes, you have no desire to keep going, then you can quit. But most of the time, you’ll find that it’s not nearly as bad as you expected it to be, and you’ll keep going because accomplishing something that you needed to do feels good.
Even if you end up quitting after five minutes, if you return every single day and do just five minutes a day, that’s more than 30 hours of work in a year. You can make real progress with just five minutes a day. Consistency counts.
A slightly more difficult version of this concept lies in the Pomodoro method where work is done in 25 minute chunks. This also takes the pressure off because you know that after 25 minutes, you get a break, so if working for 5 minutes has been helping you, test out Pomodoros.
Do Some Self-Reflection
Long-time readers know that I’m a huge fan of regular and intentional self-reflection.
So often, we go through life without thinking about why we're doing what we're doing. We have a schedule, we have things we’ve been told we have to do, and so we do them. We don’t stop to think about why we’re doing them or if they’re the right things for us to be doing.
Feeling unmotivated to complete something—especially something that you typically feel motivated to do—serves as a great prompt to remind you to reflect. Are you feeling burned out? Out of balance? Did you used to enjoy this activity and now you don’t? What changed?
Let your lack of motivation be a reminder to reflect. Take a step back and ask yourself how you’re really feeling. What is it about the activity that makes you not want to do it? Is this something that you even need to be doing?
Depending on what conclusions you reach, you may find that you need time off from the activity, or you may be better off asking someone else to do it for you, either temporarily or permanently.
Or, often, feeling unmotivated is a sign that it’s time to pivot. Many of us spend so much time in search of something that feels “right” and when we find something that feels good, we want to stick with it forever. But sometimes, what’s right at one time won’t be right at a later time. It’s okay to pivot. It’s okay to find new interests and explore new things and take a step in a new direction.
This is something that I did recently with my Instagram. For the last several weeks, I was feeling unmotivated to post on Instagram. I like sharing with you guys, but I was burned out and unexcited about it all.
After reflecting for a bit, I realized that I had turned Instagram into a chore. Rather than sharing things that interested me, I had fallen into the Instagram game. I worried about hashtags, post times, and engagement, and it took all of the fun out of sharing my life.
So I’ve decided to pivot. Rather than aiming for a post a day, I’ll be posting less often and using fewer hashtags. I’m focusing on posting things that matter to me and that I want to share. This has taken the pressure off and made Instagram something that I again enjoy using. I actually want to post now.
If you’re feeling unmotivated, especially if you previously enjoyed the activity, it’s a sign that it’s time to reflect. You might need a new direction.
Find a Partner
There’s a reason that study groups and gym buddies exist. Other people are often great motivators. Many of us respond better to outer accountability than we do to inner expectations. If you struggle to meet your own expectations, teaming up with a friend might help to get moving.
(You might also find The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin to be a helpful read.)
Check in with your friends. You’ll likely find that they also have goals that they’ve been struggling to work toward. Find some common ground and set aside some time each week or month to dedicate to working toward your goals together.
Depending on what it is that you’d each like to work toward, you could work together at a coffee shop, work out together, meal prep together or study together. Get creative.
To take this one step farther, you could easily pair this with the “treat yourself” strategy. You’re already with a friend, so why not commit to working for the afternoon and then doing something fun together as a reward? You could plan an after-work workout followed by a movie or an afternoon of writing together followed by dinner.
Do you have any strategies for staying motivated when you need it? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments.