We're taught from a young age that "we can do anything that we put our minds to." But what about when your mind is working against you? How do you keep going then?
We all have days when we want to run away and relax on a tropical beach. But, unless you're actually going to drop everything and become a travel writer, it's probably not a realistic escape plan. A better one is to look at how you motivate yourself.
Sometimes it's really easy to persevere. However, motivation can all too easily slip away. Especially if we fail at something.
Failing is not a bad thing in itself, if you learn from your mistakes. But there's a difference between trying and learning, and just throwing in the towel as soon as things get tough or scary.
The Science of Perseverance
Don't blame yourself for sometimes feeling like you want to run and hide – there's actually a science to it all.
You can be flying through a task, only to get bogged down in the detail. You may find it more difficult and more time-consuming than you anticipated. Or, you might be good at coming up with new ideas but lose interest in the execution. After the first wave of enthusiasm, doubts creep in, and you think, "Am I really up to the task?" or "Am I just lazy?"
Research shows that there's more to it than this.
In the Journal of Consumer Psychology, scientists from the University of Winnipeg and the University of Manitoba propose that our motivation changes as we move toward a goal. We're inspired by hope and positive outcomes at the beginning. But, as we continue, we start to focus on responsibilities and the fear of negative outcomes. And it's often this fear that halts our progress.
It can become a demoralizing spiral. You leave a trail of unfinished or poorly handled tasks in your wake. And every morning you lie in bed, hitting snooze on your alarm, filled with the doom-laden sense that you'll never finish or succeed.
We may never know quite how much we could achieve if we tried.
Tips to Boost Your Motivation
Motivation is often the result of an action, rather than the cause of it.
We tend to think that we have to wait for inspiration or energy to hit us, and we get deflated when it doesn't come. Or, we might think that we're doing something motivating or proactive when, in fact, we're not. For example, watching a TED Talk may be inspiring, but it's not the same as taking action.
And action is what we need. Even the smallest efforts to get going create momentum. It might be hard at the beginning, but you know what they say about getting balls rolling, and hard work paying off.
If you ever feel like you've hit your wall, take a look at the following tips. They'll motivate you far quicker than a poster of a kitten and a cheesy quote.
1. Make a List of Goals
Write down your goals and visualize how you'll feel when you hit each one.
Confucius said, "The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones," so start small and focus on high-priority tasks.
But beware of multitasking. Research shows that it takes a lot of mental energy to refocus after you've been distracted. Another study suggests that it takes around 23 minutes to regain your concentration when you switch between tasks. The key, then, is to focus on one important goal at a time.
2. Work Out Every Day
The endorphins produced by exercise can help to reduce stress and anxiety, boost mood, and improve your sleep. What's more, according to a 2015 study, aerobic exercise improves your cognitive functions in a number of ways, including the ability to learn and retain new information. And research published in 2014 shows that exercise also boosts creative thinking.
All of this combined makes you feel good. And it's far easier to stick to your goals when you feel refreshed, and your body is performing at its peak.
3. Make a Schedule and Stick to It
Staying motivated doesn't just happen. We have to set our intentions and choose behaviors that will keep us on the right track. They provide a vital structure that will keep us going, regardless of how we're thinking or feeling on any given day – almost automating the difficult thing we have to do.
Aristotle said, "We are what we repeatedly do," so set dedicated times to work on your goals. Put them in your calendar, and don't book anything else in for those times.
4. Find Your "Whys"
Why do you want to give up? Is it fear of failure, or of what others will say or think? Boredom? Anger? Depression? Exhaustion?
During the Korean War, medical officers coined the term "give-up-itis" for the total apathy and loss of hope that followed a severe trauma. A person with this condition could literally will themselves to die, with no apparent physical cause. It's an extreme example, of course, but it shows the powerful role of our minds in staying well, and how important it is to have something to strive for.
Find the value in what you're doing, to identify why you want to keep going. Is it helping you to reach a larger goal, or benefiting others in some way? You'll feel more invested and enthusiastic when you can see the benefits and the meaning of a task.
5. Find Some Mentors
It's great to want to carve your own path. But successful, motivated people know that everyone needs a hand along the way. So, find a mentor, or more than one, and regularly take time to talk about your goals and receive encouragement from someone who's been in the same boat, and who knows how to steer it.
Open up to colleagues, your boss, friends, and family, too. Mentors don't have to be experts to give you support and offer you a sounding board. Knowing other people have "got your back" will boost your confidence, give you a fresh perspective, and help you to maintain a sense of direction.
6. Stop Comparing Yourself With Other People
Albert Einstein said, "It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer." If you don't believe in your potential, then no one else will, regardless of how good you are. Draw inspiration from those around you, but don't beat yourself up if you're not on the same level in certain areas. And don't be lured by the "greener grass" over the fence. Remember, nobody's life is perfect!
This can be hard in our social-media-dominated world. Often, we only see the happy highlights from those around us – fancy holidays, "dream" jobs, perfect relationships. But what you see online is only half the story. Everyone is facing their own struggles, and everyone has bad days, just like you.
7. Take Care of Yourself and Think Positively
Our brains release dopamine in anticipation of a reward, and this makes us feel good. So, keep track of your efforts and reward yourself along the way. Fill up on mood-boosting foods. Do things you enjoy, listen to inspiring music, and remind yourself of how far you've come.
Surround yourself with positive people who will help you to get in the zone. Should you fail, always look for learning opportunities instead of dwelling on the negatives.
One big "but" – some situations really are bad for you, and in these cases it's absolutely right to stop or give up. If carrying on is making you ill or truly miserable, then it's likely not the right path. Changing direction when this happens can be a powerful way to rediscover your "mojo."
It can be difficult sometimes to judge whether we need to push a bit harder, or are just banging our head against a wall.
Check your purpose, your chances of success, whether you really have to do it all yourself, and what you're going to get out of it. Find the balance between being kind to yourself and being your own boot camp leader!
You don't have to wait for motivation to hit you. But you do have to work to stay on track – take action, organize your goals, and be diligent with your routine. And be flexible: we often give up on goals because we're unwilling to compromise our original expectations. Always think about your "whys" and what you're learning. And when something's not right, feel free to change direction.
Have a look at the following Mind Tools resources to learn more!
"It leads to what the author calls “assertive play” – not brick-on-skull assertive, but self-confident engagement, where people know they have things to contribute, and stake their claim."- Jonathan Hancock