Staying Motivated

This was first published on my mailing list The Looking Glass. Every week, I answer a reader’s question.

Photo by JM Fumeau

How do you stay motivated?

I’m always amazed how you are able to keep the writing goals (and I can imagine many other goals) you’ve set at the beginning of the year, even in the midst of holidays or vacations. Most of people (including myself) have challenges to keep a new year resolution, keep motivated and keep the commitment. I’m curious what keeps you motivated and persistent while there are so many other things going on. Do you have those moments that you’d just want to give up or be comfortable (lazy)?
 
I wish I had some secret sauce to share here, but like all of us, I often struggle to remain motivated. There have been far too many days where I woke up brimming with optimism, planning to obliterate my to-do list, only to be find the hours sneak away from me with nary an item checked-off and no one to blame but myself… and perhaps the siren song of the internet’s endless entertainment options.
 
Recognizing this weakness was holding me back from achieving all my work, writing, and family aspirations, I set out to change my ways. I believe that motivation is a muscle. Like any physical skill, you can improve your motivation with regular exercise.
 
There’s no secret sauce, but here are a few of the ways I’ve practiced getting and staying motivated:
 
Get started. The biggest hurdle is always the first step. Tasks always seem more daunting in the abstract. Once I start, I always feel a small sense of satisfaction in having broken the inertia and taken that first step. I try and set microgoals that get me past the start, like “write the first paragraph, and then eat a snack.” Usually after the first paragraph is complete, I’ve got enough momentum going that completing it seems far more feasible. 
 
Give yourself more time. Procrastination feels miserable and will result in higher stress and lower quality. I should amend the above to “Get Started Early” as that’s how I find time for goals that are important and meaningful to me, not just urgent deadlines. I block out a few hours on Saturdays or Sundayafternoons when the kids are napping to write, and I protect that time carefully. 
 
Shut down your inner critic. Amplify your inner cheerleader. I’ve found it’s simply not productive to beat myself up. It’s already a problem when I’m being lazy, but if I start going meta and worrying about all my lazy tendencies, I feel even more discouraged. If this sounds familiar, try breaking this cycle with a dose of positivity. Tell yourself you’re not a “lazy person”, but you may be having a “lazy moment,” and like all things, the moment will pass. Once it does, and you’re seeing signs of progress, pause and just give yourself a pat on the back.
 
Visualize the process, not just the destination. I’ve often heard the advice of painting a clear picture in your mind of your goal. Visualize what success looks like — what have you accomplished when all is said and done, and how does that feel? While I’m sure that’s well and good for many people, I find this form of visualization to be pretty daunting. Often I’m just getting started and thinking about a distant future that will take months or years to achieve can be overwhelming. To be sure, you need a sense of direction and purpose, but the visualization I find more helpful to break out of lazy moments is simply imagining the process. What will it look like to jot a quick outline, or write that first paragraph? Painting these small pictures of myself actually doing the work helps me realize my overarching goal is just a series of small, completely achievable actions.
 
Visualize your laziness to keep it under control. The funny thing about visualization is that, often times, imagining something can give me such a strong sense for an experience that it can serve as a replacement. So, when the temptation hits to idly check my phone or head to the fridge for a snack, I catch myself, pause, and try to visualize the distraction. “Okay… what would it feel like to pull out my phone? Hmm… I’d see some new notifications and e-mails, I might watch some videos or read some articles… alright, all this can wait. For now, I’m going to keep writing.” And boom — I’m back on track in a matter of seconds, instead of caught off-guard in an endless viral click-fest.
 
Break it down. I’m a heavy user of Free Online Word Count tools, where I can paste in a blob of text and see how many words I’ve written. This is because with any writing goal, from massive to medium, I like to break it down into more measurable chunks. For example, if I want to write roughly 2,000 words this week, I like to think of it as 300 words each day. 300 simply isn’t too bad… there are already more than 500 words in this article! This process of breaking down huge objectives into manageable tasks is a technique I use time and time again.
 
Watch the clock. Time box your tasks. I don’t like it when hours pass and I’m not sure where the time went. And so, I like to be intentional in my relationship with time. I’ll plot out the next few hours, specifying how long I hope to spend on each of my broken-down tasks, and give myself aggressive-but-achievable estimates for each chunk. Then, I’ll set timers to help keep me ahead of the clock, and I’ll track how long I actually spend on each task. While at first this can lead to disappointment — “Why is everything taking longer than I expect?!” — with practice I’ve calibrated more accurate estimates. And, in all cases, being able to tell myself “you’ve only got 28 more minutes to write this” can provide a healthy dose of focus.
 
Give yourself rewards. Not all my time-boxes are tasks. I’ll layer in some rewards as well, like 5 minutes on my phone, or 10 minutes to walk around outside or eat a snack. However, as these are “rewards”, I only get to enjoy them when I’ve been meeting my own expectations for time-estimates.
 
Set the mood with music. I have different playlists to help pump me up. In particular, the Daft Punk Tron Soundtrack gets heavy rotation. :) 
 
Seek social support. It’s dangerous to go alone. Take friends along by sharing your goals and progress with the people closest in your life. I always tell my husband about my writing goals so he can keep my honest. 
 
Practice meditation. The thing that surprised me the most about meditation, which I practiced for 10 minutes every day at the beginning of the year (via the Headspace app), is that it’s not actually about clearing your mind of all thoughts. Rather, as an exercise, it helps you build control over your busy brain, allowing you to stay focused on the present moment or task at hand. Even just with 10 minutes of practice each day, I started catching myself more often when my thoughts were wandering, and learning to better direct my attention.
 
If all else fails, ask yourself if you’re trying to win the wrong game. Simply put, if no amount of effort can help you get motivated, there may be something flawed in your premise. Is the goal you set for yourself something you authentically want, or are you simply pursuing it because your inner critic is telling you that you should, without you actually enjoying the process or being truly passionate about the purpose? While all the techniques above can help fend off some temporary laziness, there’s no replacement for intrinsic motivation. I truly enjoy writing, weaving together words to better understand myself and hopefully help others a bit too. More than anything else, that’s what keeps me going.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you’re able to muster up the motivation this week to make it happen.


To ask a question or follow along weekly with more Q&As like this, subscribe to The Looking Glass mailing list.