THE BATTLE WITHIN US ALL…HOW TO STAY MOTIVATED
“How do I stay motivated?” This is a common question among clients who are pressing forward for personal growth but running into a metaphorical wall when it comes to the long-haul of change and growth. Here’s the thing about motivation: It’s not just something that “is” or “isn’t.” Motivation is a force that you cultivate a relationship with. You have to nurture it in specific ways in order to stay motivated.
And also, interestingly, when motivation seems to be absent it’s not necessarily. It’s just that an opposing force has taken its place and is currently in control.
It’s weird to think about, but it’s true. As many counseling and life coaching clients know well, we all have competing goals, all the time. When we’re motivated and taking action towards our conscious goals, we feel good. But we have other goals that are not conscious. And we have other forces in ourselves that often overpower motivation.
How to stay motivated is about gaining self-awareness about those competing forces inside of you (inside us all). This can help you understand what’s happening when you’re getting off track and feeling completely unmotivated so that you reconnect with your motivation when you want to or need to.
First, let’s talk about what this power struggle looks like in action. Here’s what those opposing forces show up like within me. Can you relate? Or are yours different?
Stay Motivated: The Power-Struggle Between Motivation and Instant Gratification
Immediate Gratification sees an opening. It elbows its way past Motivation, to grab the wheel at the helm of my mind.
Sometimes, when Immediate Gratification is in charge, it steers me towards a lagoon of lounging around and making ambitious lists of things I never do (which is a very satisfying substitute for actual activity). Sometimes we careen back and forth between small, time-frittering tasks. Sometimes we drift along, scrolling… scrolling… scrolling. Sometimes it has me impulsively make cookies, which is kind of fun. But we usually just scroll.
Sometimes we sail madly for The Emergency of the Day, firing off emails and phone calls in every direction, and that’s very exciting — but never actually connected to anything truly meaningful or important. Sometimes, I am marooned on a sandbar of stalled time where fifteen, even thirty minutes slide by, when I could be doing something productive, but instead, I am sipping tea and “researching” something that seems inexplicably important at the time but never really is. (How, exactly, are star sapphires formed? I can tell you…)
I am relieved when Motivation finally frees itself from whatever dark corner of the bilge it’s been temporarily trapped in, and strides back in to re-assert its authority. I’m saved.
Immediate Gratification chews its nails and watches Motivation spread the chart out on the table, plot points with sliding rulers, take notes, perform elaborate calculations with sextants and compasses, and then competently steer me towards an attractive destination.
When Motivation is in charge, it prods me to get up at uncivilized hours and do important things I’d not otherwise have time to. It compels me to exert myself, tolerate discomfort, set boundaries around distractions and move forward every day. Immediate Gratification pretends to stand respectfully in the distance, but has a long fishing pole with shiny lures on the end that occasionally dangle in front of my face: Online shopping, trip-planning, the (never true) idea that Something Really Important is happening in the world so I should check my phone right now. Motivation swats them away, keeping the other hand steady on the wheel and eyes on the horizon.
Does this sound familiar? I bet — This struggle lives inside us all. Your counter-point to Motivation might be different. For me it’s definitely Immediate Gratification. For you it might be The Sloth, or Miss Comfy-Pants, or Mr. FOMO. Does not actually matter how this shows up, just that you know how it shows up inside of you so that you’re prepared to deal with it when you need to.
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3 Tips to Help You Stay Motivated
Here’s what I’ve learned over the years about how to keep Motivation in charge most of the time. (And also how to have it be okay to intentionally be unmotivated for a little while if I need to be).
1) Make Friends With Anxiety
Tony Robbins (love you Tony) astutely pointed out that we’re motivated not just by anticipation of positive reward, but by clear understanding of the negative consequences of our actions. This is supported by research in the study of motivation and persuasion. Fear is a powerful motivator.
We (and by “we” I do mean “I”) can lull ourselves into believing that when Immediate Gratification or The Sloth is in charge, it’s really okay. It’s fine. You can spend an afternoon watching the entire series of some dumb show or adding and removing random things from an Amazon cart because it’s just fine.
But what’s actually true is that what we put effort and energy into every day creates our future reality. So indulging Immediate Gratification really equals Future Failure to meet our goals. I’ve found it helpful to also attach a mental image / persona to “Future Failure.”
My own personal vision of Future Failure is a version of me who is basically an exhausted, anxious mess who is always late and who can never find her keys. (I’ll let you have fun imagining your own Future Failure persona — enjoy.)
It also helps to have a self concept that is absolutely not Future Failure. Knowing that the real you is competent, effective, and generally has your crap together is a useful point of contrast.
But the power lies in this part: Envisioning Future Failure and then linking that negative vision to something pleasurable (like watching TV). Doing so “reframes” the activity in not just an intellectual way… but an emotional one.
Reminding yourself that: “Future Failure would totally sit here for five more hours and watch this entire season. But I’m not Future Failure. I’m generally competent and effective. I know that I’m not just watching TV, I’m loosing the opportunity to [insert important goal here], or feel competent and effective. Choosing to watch TV instead of doing what I know I actually need to do means that I’m choosing to not feel good about myself or my outcomes.
Watching TV is not a benign activity when it’s a conscious decision to fail or embrace something you don’t want. When it becomes associated with unpleasantness and failure instead of pleasure, you’ll feel less comfortable with it. Miss Comfy-Pants doesn’t seem quite as comfy anymore. Then it’s easier to reconnect with Motivation. (Motivation doesn’t watch a lot of Netflix, in case you’ve guessed).
Anxiety gets a bad rap. To be a little anxious is a good thing. Go ahead and worry about what will happen if you DON’T follow through. Immediate Gratification will seem less like a laid-back friendly buddy, and more like a flaky, chain-smoking neer-do-well with trembling hands. You’ll run right into the arms of clean-cut, trustworthy Motivation. And bask in his/her/it’s approval as you competently and effectively do the darn dishes already.
2) Don’t Get Exhausted or Confused
I don’t know about you, but I’ve noticed that when Immediate Gratification takes over it’s because I’m either tired, or because I don’t know what to do next.
That awareness helps me 1) Not beat myself up for getting off track once in awhile and 2) Regroup. Because in the ebb and flow of motivation, sometimes you really do need to rest and re-group before moving forward again.
Motivation will flag if you get burnt-out. It is not a reasonable expectation to stay motivated all the time. And if you do get a surge of motivation, don’t go crazy and try to achieve big huge goals quickly. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. Build time for rest and renewal into your day, every day. Just stay the course and keep working towards your goal a little bit every day too.
But you’re not going to be perfect all the time. You can be laser-focused and achieve an important goal and then…. Drift for a little while. And then sooner or later you’ll look around and say “Hey. What am I doing?” and then you’ll have to reconnect with Motivation.
This requires looking at your map again, to see where you are in the arc of progress. This is why it’s so important to have written goals, and a clear plan of action to refer back to. This is especially true when you have a big goal with lots of twists and turns.
You can make a lot of progress, but you will periodically falter. At those moments you need to pause and re-orient yourself as to where you are now and what needs to happen next. Without that clarity Immediate Gratification will jump right in, swing the wheel around and head for Vegas.
3) Do a Little Bit Every Day
In order to keep Motivation in charge long-term, you must intentionally check in with it every day. You need to have conversations with it. You need to have a relationship with it, and take influence and guidance from it. This helps you stay committed to Motivation and less inclined to get jumped by The Sloth or Instant Gratification.
They’ll still whisper at you like the conduct-disordered teenage friends you had in junior high who were always trying to get you to do morally questionable things with them, but you will be able to say, “Nah guys, I’m busy” when you had a huddle with Motivation first.
The way I maintain my relationship with Motivation is by journaling. I just check in with myself: “What’s the most important thing for me to be doing today?” And then write about it for a few minutes. I often re-write my goals in order to keep track of what I’m doing and why. When there’s an ebb in motivation, or when I loose track of The Most Important Next Step, this moment of touching base re-orients me and helps me prioritize my time.
But the single most important thing I’ve found is to create a routine where time for me to work on my goal is blocked out every single day. It is much more important for you (us) to work consistently than it is to do huge amazing things once in awhile. Twenty minutes of jumping around in front of a work-out video every morning is much more effective than a big heroic three-hour work out once a week.
When you work a little bit every day, you know what to do, and you have the time to do it. You don’t have to start over every time you re-engage with a project. You don’t have to re-motivate yourself. You just stay the course.
So: Go forth and cultivate a little anxiety, don’t over do it on any given day, check in with Motivation and “The Plan” frequently, and create routines that support progress. Also, be kind to yourself. It is 100% okay to indulge a little instant gratification, or sloth-ness, or comfy-pants wearing sometimes. It could be that those parts of you are also healthy and good, and helping you get other important needs met like the need to relax, rest, and unwind. Those are not bad things.
There’s light and dark in all things, and the key to long-term happiness and success is finding balance through it all.
I hope these ideas, mental strategies, and Jedi mind-tricks help you cultivate a healthy balance between the competing forces inside of you.
Let me know how it goes!
xoxo, Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.