I’ve often heard this question, “How do I stay motivated?” This is usually not a useful question to ask, as it frames all problems of action as “motivation problems.” If you see something as a motivation problem, you need to get some of this “motivation” stuff to fix it, which usually means performing some technique of ego-inflation. This level of solution is like saying that the key to all unwanted emotions is to force a smile. While forcing a smile might be useful in some contexts, it’s hardly an elegant solution to the problems of unhappiness! Like happiness, motivation is the kind of thing that occurs naturally when all of you is aligned with your outcome, not something that you “do” directly.
The key to answering “how do I stay motivated?” is first to ask some more questions. If we simply take on some motivational strategy without getting more information, the solution will almost always make things worse. There are usually very good reasons for a lack of motivation that should be directly addressed if we want effective solutions to life’s problems.
I used to work in tech support in college. Some non-techie people were amazed at how I could figure out solutions to computer problems, and figured that I had some encyclopedic knowledge of all things technology. In fact, I had a terrible memory and little training, but I was willing to push buttons and try things until a solution emerged, or until I had spent quite a bit of time on it and it seemed unfixable (not unlike this hilarious comic from xkcd).
Similarly, people often tell me that coaching conversations with me are helpful, but I don’t necessarily have a robust theory of why people are broken or much official training, just some time pushing buttons and seeing what happens (as well as lots of independent study of methods of personal change). It would be hubris to say that I already know the answer to your motivation problem in advance, but in this article I’ll give you a bit of the heuristics that I use to solve such problems, using frameworks from the field of Neurolinguistic Programming (the Jedi side, not the Dark Side). That said, if these things aren’t of much help to you, then feel free to reject them!
What are you trying to do?
Motivation is not some abstract good. For example, if you aren’t feeling motivated to take on a big project when you are already overwhelmed, the last thing you need to do is to “get motivated.” When I did more traditional Life Coaching, one of the main obstacles my clients had to reaching their goals is that they already had too many goals. They had taken on too much and wanted me to help them take on more. This is a major reason I no longer do this type of work, as I’m not willing to help people deepen their neuroses!
If you’re overloaded, you might need to prioritize, have a difficult conversation, set a limit, take a vacation, work on improving your health, or clear your plate of a backlog before naturally feeling motivated again. In each of these solutions, no affirmations, visualizations, “power moves,” motivational CDs, or weekend workshops are needed–just clear thinking and simple actions. In fact, all those motivational techniques are similar to drinking coffee to get through the day–in the short-term they give you energy, but only by borrowing from your future.
I got really good at those types of short-term motivational techniques, only to become hooked on them and deeply exhaust my adrenals in the process. If you too have been suffering from low energy after years of doing too much or over-motivating yourself, I suggest checking out the wonderful book Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome.
Clarity of outcome is critical to knowing what might fit as a precise and effective solution for you. Get clear on what you are trying to do before applying a motivational solution.
What do you want through having your outcome that’s even deeper?
The outcomes we have are strategies for meeting deeper needs. Perhaps you’ve taken on a project to get more exercise, so you’ve begun running a few miles a day. The first week you found yourself excited, but now you feel sore and tired. You ask inside, “What do I want through running that’s even deeper?” and a picture of a healthy, happy you appears in your mind. Suddenly you realize that you have overdone it in the first week of running. Now you feel motivated to just do a brisk walk for 10 minutes today, or maybe even take the day off, knowing that it’s the long-term that counts, not getting fit fast.
By reconnecting with deeper desires, we can evaluate if what we are doing is working, if we are overdoing it or under-doing it. We can also find that natural motivation that comes from deep within. If we continue to ask this question with each deeper outcome, eventually we come to a state of Being like Peace, Oneness, Love, OKness, or Joy. From this place deep within, we can live with far greater ease, taking appropriate actions without need to force ourselves by getting pumped up. See the book Core Transformation for a specific procedure for reaching Core States of being. (Full disclosure: I work for the publisher and do Core Transformation with clients.)
Do you have any objections to pursuing this outcome?
Often a lack of motivation comes from part of us wanting to pursue the goal, and part of us not wanting to. Personal development literature tends to frame this second part as “resistance” and then create the context to “break through.” Sometimes this is appropriate, but often this is too forceful and lacks appreciation for the positive purpose of the objecting part. It’s usually best to assume that every part of your inner ecology has some useful purpose, and trying to remove it or destroy it could have some unintended consequence.
Ask inside “does any part of me object to my pursuing my outcome?” and wait and listen. Pay attention to any inner dialogue, sounds, pictures, or feelings. Let’s say again that you are wanting to take on a big new project. When you ask this question inside, you hear your inner dialogue saying “ugh, I’m so tired–I just want to rest.” Welcome that part of you as if it is a long-lost friend. Invite it to step into what it’s wanting in your imagination, just to see how that feels/sounds/looks.
Once you have fully accepted and empathized with this part of you, ask inside if there is way that you could have both, as in “what if I could take on this new project and have the rest I want?” Use your imagination to see/hear/feel a creative solution that attempts to include both, or at least is an acceptable compromise.
Most people don’t have much practice with discovering and integrating objections, so they fear that they won’t be able to integrate them and therefore don’t even entertain them. With practice, you will be able to integrate most objections in only a minute or two, but it will take some work at first to build a relationship of trust with all parts of your being. Sometimes you’ll have to make a decision that isn’t able to integrate objections, but at least you’ll do so consciously and with appreciation for all parts of yourself. In these cases, you can say to the objecting part of yourself, “Thank you for letting me know about this. I’m sorry I don’t currently have the time or resourcefulness to integrate this objection, but I will do my best to do so in the future.”
How will this outcome fit in with the rest of your life?
Perhaps you are being too rational, plan-full, or productivity-focused overall in your life and need to have more space and unstructured time in order to find the motivation to pursue this outcome. Life is generally best when we lead from our global intuition (otherwise known as your heart) and then plan from there. If our head leads, we can sometimes over-plan our lives, scheduling every moment and aiming for somewhat arbitrary goals.
Perhaps your outcome is doable by itself, but you have too many other things going on and so you’ll need to drop something. Many people in personal development culture do not recognize that we are limited human beings. It’s as if our eyes are bigger than our stomachs and we become “goal obese,” endlessly achievement-focused. Accept your limits as best you can. This can free up natural motivation to work on those things that are truly important.
How will this outcome affect others and the world?
If we only set our goals alone, we can forget that we are social and political animals, that we exist interdependent with everything else. Perhaps you hadn’t realized that if you go running an hour a day you won’t be spending as much time with your kids, and so you’ve lost motivation for running. How could you have both? Perhaps you only need 20 minutes of running a day, or you can do some vigorous playing with your kids instead of running.
A related question is “What would happen if everyone did this?” We often forget to universalize what we are individually seeking, which can lead to ecological, cultural, or economic problems.
In an interview with David Allen, author of the popular productivity book Getting Things Done, Allen mentions that setting goals with a group or with your partner often surfaces different outcomes than setting goals alone. Personal development rarely mentions this, as if we forget that our individual goals and desires impact others, and that our relationships have a kind of reality that transcends our selfish aims. Perhaps we’d be happier overall if we did most of our goal-setting with people we love rather than alone! For example, it is often easiest and most enjoyable to exercise with others than alone, as in playing with children, but we often forget to include others when we think of our problems of motivation and our individualistic goals. Ironically, positive psychology research shows again and again that we are happiest when we have fulfilling relationships, rich community, and lose ourselves totally in an activity we can be fully devoted to that is in service to something larger than ourselves.
Just Doing It
Sometimes the solution to a problem of motivation is to just get started. If you don’t have any objections, sometimes getting going is a problem of momentum than motivation. You don’t necessarily have to feel like doing something in order to start doing something for a few minutes.
Rather than forcing the initial action through pure willpower however, we can gently invite action, noticing any resistance and relaxing through it. Doing something for just a few minutes can be a good test to see if then you have the momentum to keep going.
I find that if I can do just 10 minutes of yoga, then I often start to enjoy it, and keep going for 10 or more additional minutes. I don’t force the first 10 minutes, but do it slowly and with great gentleness and awareness, compassionately and precisely noting pain and stiffness and allowing it to soften with the breath.
Some people have more willpower, heartier constitutions, and more energy than others and can get away with forcing themselves into action. This is fine if you’re one of these folks, but for the more sensitive among us, or for those who want to bring about more kindness in the world, it is worth exploring gentler and more sustainable ways of getting into action. We also project outward how we motivate ourselves inward, so being more kind to yourself you are likely to motivate others in more kind and gentle ways.
Finding Natural Motivation through Alignment
If you have a problem being motivated to pursue an outcome, getting clear on what you are doing, connecting with your deeper desires and sense of self, integrating any objections, and knowing how the outcome fits into the rest of your life and the world can help to get aligned and naturally motivated again. By learning to do these things, we can experience more ease with doing things with less need for techniques of motivation that lead to ego-inflation or forcing.
There are other ways as well to get motivated, including other techniques from NLP, but this is a place to start in terms of exploring the future of personal development and personal motivation. Please add your intelligent and thoughtful commentary in the comments below, and share this article if you feel moved.
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