Ever felt like all the excitement you initially had to hit a goal took a wrong turn somewhere, leaving you furiously searching for how to find motivation in the face of faceplanting? We’ve been there. Truthfully, finding motivation, and then maintaining it, is challenging, especially when you’re trying to do something new. Or difficult. Or just about anything other than crash on the couch after a long day at the office. After all, if it was easy to find self motivation, you’d already be doing it, right?
And it doesn’t help that most of the advice out there tells you to “just do it” or questions your self-worth if your motivation is waning. And thinking positively, while something we’re totally behind, doesn’t necessarily help if there’s no concrete way to apply it to your goals. What’s more is that endless pep talks aren’t always the most effective way to get shit done. So now what?
How to Find Motivation: Don’t Leave It to Chance
Here’s seemingly contradictory advice on how to find motivation: Don’t count on it in in the first place. Set up systems instead—repeatable habits that get you doing what you want to do. No motivation required.
Let’s say you want to start working out more regularly. You could keep telling yourself that going to the gym helps your productivity and isn’t that hard, so you should just shut your laptop and do it. Or, you could make small changes in your life and create systems that make going to the gym much easier and part of your default routine. So even if your brain isn’t feeling it and your mountain of email calls, you’re getting it done because you set up your life that way. That second one sounds better, right?
Here are some science-backed ways to stay motivated without needing motivation, and just an FYI, we’re going to follow the upped workout goal the whole way through. Because moving a little more has big effects on your productivity, happiness, and outlook. And because a lot of the research about how to find motivation relates to exercise. But you can apply these strategies to just about anything, so don’t walk away if your fitness habits are already top notch.
Make it a group effort
Here’s how to get motivated without even realizing it: Bring others along for the ride. It can help your system work in two key ways:
- Increasing enjoyment
- Providing accountability
First, working out with someone else (ideally someone you like) has been shown to help make exercise more enjoyable. Double points if you take that exercise outside. And the more you enjoy what you’re doing, the more likely it is that you’ll keep doing it.
Secondly, the people in your life can help provide accountability so that you actually do what you say you will. And we don’t know about you, but we’re big on keeping promises around here. Even having strangers see when you exercise—like some apps strangely allow you to do—can help motivate you to form a new habit.
So surround yourself, virtually or in real life, with people who are willing to ask you what exercise you’ve done today. And take them with you tomorrow.
Some people say exercise is its own reward. In a perfect world, we would all be those people, but many of us aren’t. For those of us who don’t see long runs and weight lifting as end goals, rewarding yourself for getting it done can help you get moving in the first place. It can also keep you going when you’re struggling with how to find motivation.
There’s evidence that rewarding yourself to start a new habit can create motivation that lasts even when you stop rewarding yourself. Which is great, because depending on what you choose as a reward, they can get expensive. Many of us really just need something to get us started on the path to a good habit, and that’s where those rewards can be helpful. Just keep them small, so they don’t become more important than the exercise itself.
And be careful about rewards that set up potentially problematic associations. I.e., yes, you can have a burger even if you missed the gym. No, you don’t need to “earn” it.
Keep track of your wins—and losses
You’re putting in work to build your system, but you might not realize how much work if you’re not paying attention. We’re talking specifics here:
- How many minutes of exercise you’re fitting in
- How many miles you’re running
- How many reps you’re doing with how much weight
Keeping track of all the exercise you’re doing can help you feel more confident about your ability to keep going. And tracking keeps the focus on your own goals, rather than contradictory recommendations from sites or advice from people with different fitness levels. In other words, it reminds you that you’re doing this for you. Plus, knowing that your hard work is being tracked can help motivate you to get it done. After all, who doesn’t love seeing exactly when they hit their goals? How else do you know when to celebrate?
Of course, it won’t be perfect all the time. That’s okay—it means you’re human. A lot of research, including this study from Harvard Business School, shows that one of the best motivators is overall progress toward a goal, even if it’s small. And that leads us to our next tip…
If you ask Stanford psychologist and habit-change master BJ Fogg how to find motivation, setting small goals would be his answer. As in tiny. Why? Well, he has a whole course on it, and we have a whole post reviewing that course. But in sum, the smaller the goal, the more likely you are to reach it, which gives you positive emotions that in turn, prompt you to keep going.
So how does that work in our example? If you haven’t run more than a block in over a year (guilty), you might want to think like this:
Old goal: Run a marathon
Why it doesn’t work:
- It’s too large
- It’s unrealistic to go from running nothing to busting out 26.2 miles
New goal: Run 10 minutes without stopping
Why it works:
- It’s small enough to feel manageable
Once you’re riding the high of hitting that one, keep it going by setting your next target. Now you’re making moves—one tiny step at a time.
Change your environment
Getting to the gym can be kind of a hassle, especially if it’s far from home or requires a pit-stop at your place to change. When your environment isn’t right, regardless of the reason, it’s hard to motivate yourself.
Enter two environmental hacks:
- Make your gear work for you
- Make getting to the gym, or just moving in general, as convenient as possible
Let’s talk gear first: Researchers have found that clothes can affect the way people act and the way they see themselves. Maybe you’ve heard of dressing for the job you want? Same concept, but with athletic wear.
Try packing up your workout gear the night before and changing into it before you leave the house or work, instead of waiting until you get to the gym. And put it on even if you don’t feel like it. This will help you feel like a person who works out and make you more likely to get on the treadmill. Another trick? Make sure your clothes make you feel good. When your sneakers make you feel strong and fast, you’ll be inspired to be stronger and faster.
And now for the convenience factor: Even the best-fitting, most-stylish workout gear won’t help if getting to the gym takes too much of your time and energy. Research backs this up—your environment is a greater predictor of your behavior than your personality. Find a way to make it easier for yourself. Here are some ideas:
- Join the gym down the street
- Invest in some home workout videos
- Walk around your block a few times
The easier you make things for yourself, the more likely you are to create an exercise habit. And remember, habits make up your default system, which places way less emphasis on motivation.
Set up reminders that connect with your current actions
You probably already understand the importance of calendar reminders—how else would you remember your marketing meeting and also make it to after-work drinks on time? We’re going to take this just a step further.
Setting reminders is especially helpful when you connect them with something you’re already doing, suggests research. So make your current behavior part of your reminder to do your desired behavior. Still with us? For example, you could set up a calendar reminder that prompts you to change into workout clothes when you turn off your computer. You’re turning your computer off anyway (at least we hope you are), so you’re tying your desired behavior into that current action. And that makes you more likely to do it and to keep doing it until it’s just automatic.
Systems keep you going when your motivation runs out
The best part about setting up systems is that they don’t rely on something as shaky as motivation. So if you notice yourself asking everyone you know how to find motivation, realize that you might be asking the wrong question. The answer to changing your behavior is all about your habits.
Your turn: Ever wondered how to find motivation when you don’t have any? What systems have you set up that take motivation out of the equation?
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Author: Erica Hersh
Erica Hersh is a health writer, editor, and communications strategist based in Boston, MA. In 2014, she fulfilled her lifelong dream of being on Jeopardy. She did not, however, fulfill her dream of winning on Jeopardy.