How to get – and stay – motivated
by Hannah Moss
One of the most common challenges my clients seem to face is the issue of procrastination. How do I stop procrastinating? I’ve got all these tasks to do, but I don’t seem to be able to get them done. How do I motivate myself? And then, even if I do manage to get started, how do I stay motivated and not slip back into procrastination again?
In this post, I’ll break it down by looking at what motivation is, how to get more of it and how to stay motivated so you can smash through those tasks like a pro.
What I mean by tasks
Firstly, a word of clarification. When I talk about tasks in this article, I’m referring to any task or action that you intend to complete. These could be smaller, even mundane tasks, like sending an email to someone or completing a work assignment. Or they could include more significant, life-changing actions, like applying for a new job or speaking up about something that’s been bothering you for a while.
With larger, more complicated tasks, these usually need to be broken down into a set of smaller tasks before you can get started. But getting motivated applies to all of these. In order to start any kind of task, we need to feel motivated to do so, and that comes easier for some tasks than for others.
What is motivation?
Did you know that the word motivation is derived from the Latin word ‘movere’, meaning to move? According to encylopedia.com, “Motivation can be broadly defined as the forces acting on or within a person that cause the arousal, direction, and persistence of goal-directed, voluntary effort.”
So, contrary to popular belief, we actually have to make a move first, before we can become motivated. We can’t just sit on our arse, waiting for motivation to magically happen! Rather than getting ready to start something, we actually need to start in order to get going. And then motivation will grow from there.
To help us understand motivation more deeply, we can break it down into its constituent parts:
Motivation = motive + action
When we do this, we see that we first need to understand our motive for wanting to complete the task at hand, and we then need to take the action required.
Understanding your motive
The first step in getting motivated is to understand your motive for wanting to take action. You need to dig deeper into your WHY.
- Why are you intending to do this task?
- Why is it important to you?
- How do you want to feel?
- What do you want to achieve and why?
You won’t be able to move forward if you don’t clearly know your WHY. Let’s break this down further.
Are you doing it for yourself or others?
Your WHY needs to be personal to you, to fulfil a need in yourself. If it’s only to do with what other people think and about proving something to others, then it won’t be a strong enough motive for you to keep moving forwards. So, you might want to reflect more deeply on this.
Whatever the task or action is that you’re intending to complete, are you trying to prove you’re worth it, or good enough, or capable enough, or ultimately seeking approval? If so, then it’s not really about you and you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. In this case, you’ll find it very hard to get – and stay – motivated.
Of course, some tasks ARE actually about doing things for others, especially if they involve some kind of charitable or voluntary action. In this case, as long as your motive is genuinely to help others, and not about proving yourself or seeking approval, then that’s a clear enough reason.
Is your WHY a should, a could, or a will?
Think about the task before you and consider which of these categories it falls under:
- Should: people-pleasing; driven by what others might think; being pressured by others.
- Could: you have a choice; weighing up the options; deciding whether you will or won’t do the task.
- Will: making an empowered decision; being clear about your intentions.
If it’s a should, can you turn it around into something you do want to do? Can you believe you want to do it and turn it into a could?
If it’s a could, you have a choice of whether to turn it into a will or a won’t. Being motivated not to do something can feel just as empowering, as long as you’re clear about this.
If it’s a will, then be very clear about your intention to actually complete the task, and find empowerment in making this decision.
Of course, some tasks are required of you by others and you have a responsibility to complete them. This is often the case for work-related or duty-bound tasks. So, the trick here is to see if you can turn these shoulds into coulds. Can you reframe the task at hand so that it’s coming from a more empowered place?
For example, you might be thinking, “I really don’t want to do this report. It’s a lot of effort, will take ages and I’d rather be doing something else.” But, can you turn this around into, “Although this report is challenging, I’m going to tackle it because my boss will appreciate it, the company will benefit from it, and I’ll feel good once it’s done. Plus, it probably won’t take as long as I think anyway, once I get stuck in.” Seeing the positives, or reframing the task in a different light, might help you to feel more motivated to complete it.
What will the outcome be?
See if you can look ahead and imagine yourself having completed or not completed the task. How will you feel if you complete it? What’s the worst that will happen if you don’t complete it? Answering these questions might help you to change the should to a could, and the could to a will (or a won’t).
Personally, this usually serves as my biggest motivator for completing a task. If I’ve planned to go for a run, but I don’t really feel like it, I think about how I’ll feel afterwards. I always feel more energised and focused after a run, and tend to experience more clarity and productivity in my day. So, if I feel my motivation lagging, I remind myself of this and it usually gets me out the door!
7 steps of motivation
One of the most useful tools I’ve learnt as a wellbeing coach is the 7 steps of motivation. This is a process where you dig deeper into your motives, layer by layer, until you reach your ultimate, underlying WHY that’s probably driving many of your life decisions. Every time I’ve been through this exercise myself, I’ve arrived at an epiphany moment by the 7th step. I’ve discovered that my ultimate WHY often has seemingly no connection to the original task!
So, you start with the task at hand, by answering the question, “What do I want to do or how do I want to feel?” Once you have an answer, you then ask yourself, “Why is this important to me?” Then you keep repeating this question for each of your answers, until you reach 7 steps. You can then create a statement, using your first and last answers.
Usually, you would write the first thing that comes into your head, as that’s your intuitive voice. However, if your mind starts getting in the way and questioning your first answer, take a few moments to pause, close your eyes, journey inwards and see what arises. This will help to bypass the ego and whatever arises will be coming from a deeper, more intuitive place.
Here’s a real-life example of one of my own experiences of going through this process:
- I want to: get fit again (I want to feel: fit and healthy).
- Why is this important to me? Because I feel great when I’m fit.
- Why is this important to me? Because feeling great externally makes me feel great internally.
- Why is this important to me? Because when I feel great internally I feel more confident and motivated.
- Why is this important to me? Because feeling more confident and motivated ultimately makes me happier.
- Why is this important to me? Because when I’m happy I can better relate to the people around me.
- Why is this important to me? Because my relationships with other people are one of the most important things in my life.
Final statement: I want to feel fit and healthy so that I feel happier in myself, which in turn improves my relationships with other people, which is one of the most important things in my life.
As you can see in my example, the reasons I really wanted to get fit again were actually to do with how I relate to other people in my life – something I couldn’t have predicted before doing this exercise!
How to take action
Now that you understand your motive for completing the task ahead, it’s time to take action. And the best way to do this is to break your task down into smaller, more manageable steps. What’s the smallest, simplest step you can take today to move you closer to your goal, even by a tiny amount?
Remember: motivation starts with action, so you have to take action first and you’ll then feel more motivated to keep going. Let’s look at a couple of examples.
Couch to 5K
Let’s say you want to get fit, so you sign up to Couch to 5K. The app doesn’t tell you to just get up and run 5K the first day, because it knows that’s a pretty tall order for most people (as much as an app actually ‘knows’ anything). And that you’re not going to feel motivated to continue if you feel defeated at the first step.
Instead, the app breaks down the goal into more manageable steps. You start with some jogging interspersed with walking, slowly increase the time and intensity, build up to full interval training and eventually run 5K non-stop. Each day you go out, you celebrate your achievement and resolve to run a little further and faster next time.
However, even before you get to the actual running, there are plenty of preliminary tasks you need to complete first. So, your tasklist could look something like this:
- Decide to get fit
- Decide on running as your preferred activity
- Decide whether to run on your own or with an organised group
- Download the Couch to 5K app (or podcasts)
- Research which running shoes to buy (I recommend going for a gait analysis, which is offered free in many running shops)
- Buy the shoes
- Sign up to a group or plan your first solo run
- Get out there!
As you can see, there are plenty of decisions to make and steps to complete before you even start running. Each of these tasks is an important part of the journey and shouldn’t be dismissed. Instead, you should congratulate yourself after making these decisions and completing these tasks. Tick it off your list, feel empowered and move on to the next step. Onwards and upwards!
Finding a new job
In this example, let’s say you want or need to find a new job. Thinking about this as one whole task might seem very overwhelming. Where on earth do you start? Again, you start by breaking it down. What are the smaller tasks you need to complete to get you there? Perhaps something along the lines of:
- Check how much notice you need to give your current employer
- Review and update your CV
- Research the best places to look for the kind of job you’re after
- Register with online job sites, if applicable
- Sign up with recruitment agencies, if applicable
- Buy newspapers and other advertising publications, if relevant
- Complete job application forms and save the content for future use
- Research possible interview questions and do some prep and practice
- Attend interviews and hopefully find success!
- Remember to let any job boards and agencies know once you’ve found your new job
If you stay focused on your tasklist and keep working through the steps one by one, this should stop you getting too overwhelmed by the bigger task at hand. Remember to celebrate your successes along the way and appreciate how far you’ve come.
How to stay motivated
Ok, so now you’re well on your way to smashing through that tasklist. But how do you stay motivated, especially if you have regular, ongoing or repetitive tasks to complete?
Become an optimist
According to Brian Tracy in Eat That Frog, it’s all about optimism: “To keep yourself motivated, you must resolve to become a complete optimist. You must decide to respond positively to the words, actions, and reactions of the people and situations around you. You must refuse to let the unavoidable difficulties and setbacks of daily life affect your mood or emotions.”
From Martin Seligman’s 22-year research, Brian Tracy reports that optimists have four special behaviours, all learned through practice and repetition. Optimists:
- look for the good in every situation,
- seek the valuable lesson in every setback or difficulty,
- look for the solution to every problem,
- think and talk continually about their goals.
Interestingly, I can’t help noticing the connection here with resilience. In my post 5 ways to become emotionally resilient, I talk about optimism being one of the keys to resilience. Looking on the bright side and finding the silver lining in every situation can help us be more resilient. And the more resilient we are, the more motivated we’ll be to keep going.
Remember your WHY
If you’ve done the work to dig deeper into your motivations for wanting to complete a task (which hopefully you have, otherwise staying motivated will be much harder for you), don’t forget to return to this regularly. The clearer you are about WHY you’re doing something, the more motivated you’ll be to keep doing it.
If we take my example of the 7 steps of motivation, my ultimate WHY for wanting to get fit was to improve my relationships with other people. Seeing as these relationships are so important to me, that’s a pretty strong motivator for wanting to keep going.
Focus on the outcome
As I said earlier, this is often one of the strongest motivators for me. If you have an onerous task to complete, think about how you’ll feel once it’s done. Will you have a sense of achievement or success? Can you give yourself a little reward for completing it? Will you actually feel happier, more confident or more energised once it’s done?
Thinking about the outcome of the task – about who or what will be affected or how you’ll feel once it’s done – can be a really powerful factor in keeping you motivated. And, so often, the thought of completing a task is actually much worse than the task itself! Can you think of a time when you put off doing something because you thought it would take ages or be really challenging, only to find it was actually much quicker and easier than you thought? If you’re anything like me, you can think of quite a few!
Make it a habit
If you have a regular or repetitive task to do, the best way to make sure you keep doing it is to turn it into a habit. Can you make a ritual or routine out of it? Is there something else you do every day or week that you do without thinking? If so, try tacking this new task onto it so that they become associated together and the new task also becomes something you do without thinking.
Our brains are hard-wired to resist change, because of the amount of energy it requires to do new things. So, whenever possible, our brains automate our behaviour and create habits, because habits are energy-efficient. This does require a certain amount of persistence. But, if you can find consistency in your task completion and turn it into something habitual, you’ll need a lot less motivation to make it happen.
And try not to beat yourself up if you miss a day or your habit slips up. As psychologist and author Kimberley Wilson says, “Your brain will resist investing energy in these new pathways, so falling back into your old ways doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t want it enough or that you lack willpower – it’s just your brain trying to save energy.” (Source: Psychologies, Feb 2022)
Celebrate your successes
Finally, don’t forget to keep patting yourself on the back every time you complete one of your tasks, no matter how small. It can seem very daunting when you look ahead to all the tasks you still need to do. It’s far more motivating to look back at how far you’ve come and all the tasks you’ve completed so far. Well done!
And if you need a further incentive, you can always give yourself small rewards when you reach certain milestones. Just make sure the rewards are appropriate in size and content to the task at hand!
If you’d like some personalised guidance and support to dig deeper into your WHY so you can get – and stay – motivated, why not sign up to one of my 1:1 coaching packages. And what’s the first step in that process? Book a free discovery call to see if we’re a good fit for working together: