“An object at rest will remain at rest unless acted upon by an external and unbalanced force. An object in motion will remain in motion unless acted upon by an external and unbalanced force.”
Newton’s First Law
What is motivation to you? The romanticized view of motivation is that it’s something that strikes us like a bolt of lightning: “Wow, I should go for a run right now!” or “This project is so exciting that I absolutely need to start working on it.” We have these epiphany-type moments that are so synonymous with the concept of “motivation” that we feel like we need to wait for that overpowering urge to actually do something: “I’ll go to the gym when I feel like it.” “I’ll start my blog when inspiration hits me.”
We misunderstand motivation as this omnipotent force that comes into our lives and helps us create masterpieces. As someone who has gone from doing the least amount of work to get by, to steadily achieving my goals, I’m here to tell you that motivation is not what it’s made out to be. Even when the light bulb goes off in your head, what do you do when the light begins to dim?
For this, I have some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that motivation isn’t a muse bestowed upon the worthy. The good news is that motivation is a skill. You can generate motivation, just like you can cultivate happiness and relationships. If that sounds like it takes work, well, it does. But the results are unquestionable. Motivation is essential to increasing feelings of happiness by cultivating passion, purpose, and pride. Often, the happiest moments are the result of motivation.
One of the biggest issues I had when I was depressed was finding the will to do anything at all. Even doing the bare minimum was difficult, and I just wanted to sleep or be “lazy”. This was a self-destructive cycle because the less I accomplished, the worse I felt about myself, and the worse I felt, the less I wanted to do. Even now, at the happiest I’ve ever been in my life, I sometimes find it hard to motivate myself. I’ll get home after a day of work and want nothing more than to sit on the couch and do “nothing”.
*Note: I added the quotation marks because taking the time for self-care, which may include doing “nothing” or being “lazy”, is not necessarily a bad thing. But that’s a topic for another post.
I had my own light bulb – a spark of motivation – that almost slipped away until I learned how to generate the momentum for sustainable motivation.
The idea for my blog and a desire to tell my story had been building up inside me for years. I kept thinking how great it would be to write with purpose, but I rarely did. Most of all, I cycled through feelings of self-hatred for not actually putting my plans into action. I saw other people living out my dreams and thought, “I could do that, too,” but I never actually did.
My blog started with a little bit of momentum every day. I decided I was going to start waking up early and writing before work. I did it once, and then again, and again. All of a sudden, the idea that had been stewing inside my brain for years came to fruition in about two months. Like most goals worth pursuing, that was only the beginning.
The following 6 methods are research-backed for increasing motivation. There are, of course, many more ways to motivate yourself besides this list, but I compiled this list based on techniques that take advantage of how our brains work to weave motivation into our everyday lives. As with everything I write, I advocate these ideas because I have actually tried them myself and they’ve worked for me.
Make your Goals Tangible
This technique for motivation is so simple that it was actually hard for me to believe that it works. Write down and visualize the goal(s) that you want to achieve. I’m sure you’ve heard this one before and ignored it, but a study showed that writing down your goals on a regular basis increases your chances of completing them by 42%. It’s almost absurd, but looking at my own experience, I can see how the goals that I put onto paper or into text are more often the goals that I actually complete.
After you write it down, make it real through visualization. Visualization is a motivation technique that works by actually creating new neural pathways in our brains. Playing out the act in our minds “primes our body to act in a way consistent to what we imagined. All of this occurs without actually performing the physical activity, yet it achieves a similar result.”
The two types of visualization for priming yourself to achieve goals are outcome visualization and process visualization. So for maximum effect, visualize completing each step toward your goal and then visualize yourself in the moments in which you achieve it. Just like writing down our goals, visualization increases our chances of achieving them.
The 20-Second Rule
No, I’m not talking about food dropped on the ground. Coined by Harvard’s Shawn Achor, the 20-Second Rule is another technique that seems too simple to be effective. The theory posits that if you can make it so that you have to use less time/energy to start an activity, you’ll be more likely to do it. I’ve used this strategy myself in various ways (not limiting myself to cutting out 20 seconds). It may seem too obvious to be effective, but you’d be surprised how many of our actions are driven by convenience.
You can see the effect on a large scale when it comes to transportation in Denmark. In The Blue Zones of Happiness by Dan Buettner, the author recounts the story of how Copenhagen became a healthier city simply out of convenience. In the 1960’s, the city wasn’t the pedal-friendly haven that we now know it as. There was an abundance of traffic, noise, and pollution before the city’s infrastructure was redesigned to make bikes the easiest form by which to travel. When asked why they prefer biking to driving cars, the Danes say that they do it for convenience.
So how can the 20-Second Rule help you? Anyone who has thought about eating healthier knows that experts tell you to remove temptations from your home or office. If I’m craving pizza or chocolate and there’s none in the house, I rarely go out of my way to actually leave the house to go get some or to wait for UberEats. Instead, I end up eating something healthier.
I experimented with the 20-Second Rule myself with a piece of chocolate I had at my desk. For the first day I had it, I put it in the drawer next to me. It would literally take me about three seconds to reach over, open the desk, and grab the chocolate – but I didn’t. I resisted, partially because I forgot all about it. The next day, I put the chocolate on my desktop right in front of me. Needless to say, it didn’t make it through the day.
The 20-Second Rule works in both ways as a deterrent to bad behavior as well as a motivator for good. Is your goal to read more? Put your book right on the nightstand or next to your couch. Bring it in your car and in your bag so that you’re more likely to pick it up when you have to wait at the doctor’s office. Convenience could be the difference between your goal’s success and failure.
This one is linked to the 20-Second theory, and they work especially well in tandem. Motivate yourself by planning to do one tiny part of your goal today. For example, I tested this out by telling myself, “I will write for 1 minute today.” It’s such a small commitment that it’s hard to talk yourself out of it. I use this technique a lot in various time increments, but the point is to make your plan so easy to do that you can’t say no.
When I set the intention to write for one minute, I fulfill my minute requirement and often end up writing more than what I told myself I would. One minute can lead to five minutes. Five minutes often leads to ten. Even if you just hit your small goal, you’ve still accomplished something. The great part is that you can start very small and build your way up over time. Now, I can set a one-hour goal for myself if I have a good amount of time and I’m feeling energized. When I’m feeling really lazy, I can still give myself the one-minute time frame and know that I got something done, no matter how trivial.
You can separate your goals by time, but also by incremental tasks. If you have to clean your room and you’re dreading it, start with a small goal. Fold 5 shirts. File 5 pieces of paper on your desk. Pick up just 1 item off the floor. You’re already a little bit closer to completing the whole thing, and you might end up doing more than you expected.
We tend to do more than we plan when micro-tasking because of the Zeigarnik Effect, which gives our brains an urge to finish what we start. So start small and find yourself exceeding your expectations naturally.
Use your Body Clock
If you’re in tune with your mind and body, you probably notice that you have periods of energy and periods when you crash. This is no coincidence and it’s not merely a product of your activity. The human body has a circadian rhythm that dictates our behavior. In Daniel Pink’s When, the author discovers that humans consistently follow a path of performance through the day. Most commonly, it’s a peak, trough, then recovery. “Time of day explains about 20 percent of the variance in our performance on workplace tasks. So timing isn’t everything, but it’s a big thing.”
There are many nuances to actually using this pattern to your advantage depending on your personal circadian rhythm and the types of tasks – but let me give you the heuristic that I use myself. Be aware of your personal rhythm. Does your “peak” hit early in the morning or later at night? When do you feel the most focus and motivation naturally?
For example, I know that I feel most focused and energized in the morning. I exercise in the morning and tackle the tasks that require the most focus. I know that once I get home from work, it’s a lot harder for me to go to the gym or to do tasks that require my undivided attention. Figure out when you are most effective at doing different tasks – those that require concentration, creativity, or physical strength – and make time for them accordingly.
Your high score on Angry Birds isn’t going to advance your life outlook or improve skills transferrable to the real world. So what do games have to do with motivation? Games activate the pleasure circuit in our brains, releasing dopamine and making us feel good. Gamifying has become a hot topic in psychology and consumerism because turning something into a game is a great way to motivate us, or get us addicted.
Playbrush uses this concept brilliantly by connecting toothbrushes to smart devices and leading kids through games as they brush their teeth. In this case, racking up high scores is actually good for your oral health. Even children can be motivated to do the most mundane tasks if they’re turned into games.
Take the Fitbit or any other fitness tracker. I own a Fitbit myself, and I can attest to the fact that it has helped me be more active because it gamifies otherwise unexciting activities like walking. I get a little rush of satisfaction when I hit my step goal for the day. Fitness trackers take the gamifying concept even further by letting us compete with our friends. My employer occasionally hosts step contests to see which office or individual racks up the most steps over a few weeks and you can compare your “score” to your coworkers in real time. The last contest didn’t motivate me to start running five miles a day, but I did go out of my way to take those extra steps to try getting ahead of my competition.
Take advantage of your brain’s natural reaction and gamify your goals.
The last motivation technique in this list is the most difficult to implement, but the most effective by far. A habit can be one of the most powerful motivators. Anyone who has ever tried to quit smoking, drinking, or overeating runs up against the immense force of habit. Habits actually rewire our brains, and as I know from my battle with depression, changing the brain is no easy feat.
People often ask me how I wake up early to go to the gym. At this point, this routine has become ingrained to a point where I feel off if I don’t go to the gym in the morning. That’s the beauty of habit – it may be difficult to build it, but once you have it, it’s more difficult to break it than it is to continue. A habit may take anywhere from 3 weeks to 2 months to solidify as a result of a psychological “habit loop”. Repetition causes an action to go from the prefrontal cortex (where the brain makes decisions) to the basal ganglia (where it becomes automatic). You’ll exert less energy by going into auto-pilot mode and your motivation will come naturally the deeper the habit roots in your brain. Use the 5 aforementioned motivation techniques to build the habit, and once you’ve done so, it will become an unalienable part of your life and identity.
If you sit and wait for motivation to come to you, you’ll probably never complete your goals. Motivation is about creating your own momentum, no matter how slow it may start. I overcame my depression the same way – with small, consistent choices that generated momentum for change in my life. At times, friction and obstacles worked against my forward motion. But if you follow Newton’s law and apply your own consistent force, you’ll be a little bit closer to achieving your goals every day. That, in itself, is something you can be proud of.
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