How Do I Stay Motivated? The Heuristics of Solving Life’s Little Problems

By Duff McDuffee on September 2nd, 2009 1

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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24 responses to “How Do I Stay Motivated? The Heuristics of Solving Life’s Little Problems”

  1. @cathduncan says:

    Great post, Duff. I've found the stuff around integrating all parts of yourself and appreciating the positive intention within the parts that you had been judging, resisting or trying to disown to be one of the most useful personal growth tools. I also tend to find that many of my clients come to me saying their problem is that they don't have enough motivation, and they realise that their lack of motivation was often a part of themselves letting them know that they didn't want to do that thing because they had just been wanting to do that thing because they thought that's what you're supposed to do to be successful. When they release their ideas about what they 'should" do and start exploring what they want to do (in a gentle way, rather than an obsessive, manic way), they're naturally motivated to do it.


    • Glad to hear you have had similar experiences with clients regarding motivation.

      I almost included some NLP stuff on motivation strategies, anchoring, and submodalities of motivation, but honestly I haven't needed to use those things with most clients I've seen for it's been more of a problem of objecting parts.

      Keep on doing great client work,

  2. Heiki says:

    Very interesting post. I've been trying to understand the levels of abstraction relating to needs and parts and goalsetting and time management for awhile now; it is the first time somebody else seems to be into it. Not something most NLP writing touches.

    • A lot of NLP writing is more simplistic, often only discussing basic anchoring or strategies, with no explicit checks for congruence and ecology (i.e. objecting parts inside, or how this change will affect others and the world). Most folks into NLP and personal development also assume that the goal/outcome is a given, rather than something that is a strategy for meeting a need.

    • Thanks, Heiki. Most NLP does not value congruence or ecology (inner and outer interactions), and much NLP writing online at least is simple anchoring or strategy elicitation when in fact the amazing things about NLP are in the precision and elegance that is possible.

      Most personal development in general tends to assume that one's outcome or goal is a given. I tend to see all outcomes as strategies to meet underlying needs.

  3. Gina says:

    Your post speaks to me as I just let go a what could have turned out to be a very lucrative business partnership.
    Long story short I work as an independent contractor and when asked to join (as in incorporate) I lost all motivation in the project (I've been involved enthusiastically for 4 years).
    When I asked for a pause in the negotiations and took a week to be with my needs, feelings and intuitions without more input from the other partners I found my peace.
    I was not needing to motivate my self (as I originally thought) I was not to sign on the dotted line…this partnership was not for me…no matter how financially stable it might make me 🙂
    I saw in my space of stillness things I could not change and could not accept. I may have never seen these deep issues had I thought I just needed to motivate myself to keep moving forward. The lack of energy and creative juice was a sign to stop and look before proceeding not that I was lacking motivation, energy or guts!
    My energy and creative vigor returned as soon as I resolved to follow my heart and say no thank you.
    I sleep well and enjoy a guilt free simple life and wish such joy to all.

    • I've turned down many a lucrative business partnership for the same reasons.

      I find natural motivation when the projects I participate in are in harmony with my values and intuitions.

      Keep on following your heart,

  4. Good point! Training for self development would be wasted if you are lacking of self motivation. To stay motivated sometimes needs help from other people. It is better if there would be someone that will remind you of what your goals are and encourage you when you’re feeling down.

    • I do think that sometimes the only person who can give you that encouragement and reminder is yourself, and it is useful to revisit one's deepest motivations for doing and being often. Having friends and loved ones who are supportive is also of utmost importance. And my main point in this article is how important the *how* of motivation is, that "motivating one's self" often involves an unnecessarily large amount of force, when more intelligence and self-understanding is usually a more elegant solution.

  5. Meghashyam says:

    I understood the essence of your post as being – "Follow your heart and the motivation will come. If you do that and still can't be motivated, raise your self discipline by just starting to do the task anyway. "

    I very much agree with you.

    Sometimes though even in tasks where the outcome is very much desirable, we may not be motivated in the short term because of our state of being – maybe we are just feeling lazy that day or maybe we are dealing with a smaller part of the greater whole and the smaller part is uninteresting though the larger part is awesome.

    A few days ago, I was submitting my site to directories and I found that task to be very uninteresting. Yet I found writing for my site and the whole purpose of the site to be very inspiring for me. So then I decided to alternate mechanically submitting to deserving directories with reading an addictive harry potter book which I loved. 1 hr of boring work was followed by 0.5 hr of harry potter. This idea worked and I found that I was inspired to work for that one hour in the hope o getting to read 0.5 hr of interesting stuff I liked. Methods like this then may be useful in the short term when completing boring parts of an inspiring project.

  6. Casey says:

    I really liked your perspective in examining the underlying aspects of motivation. An additional point I would add is that motivation can be related to one's physiological state and overall energy level. Low motivation may also stem from having low energy, and improving your general health level through exercise and diet may result in a greater ability to take action.

    • Yes, excellent point Casey. I've found that having low energy can actually be a result of adrenal fatigue, which might be more common than most people realize, as the adrenal glands secrete the "stress hormones" and most people nowadays are under a lot of stress.

      One of the recommendations for adrenal fatigue is moderate exercise, starting very gradually and increasing slowly over time. Some people get fatigue from overtraining, never taking a break from their exercise programs.

      And yes, diet is very important to overall health. I feel so different especially when I don't eat sugar or caffeine, and have healthy meals at regular time periods.

  7. Walter says:

    I think motivation should be incorporated in the habits of the mind. Life is full of discouragements and unless our mind is capable of overriding its effect we cannot stay motivated to do the things we want accomplished. 🙂

    • I do think that cultivating a connection to what is deeply important is important, and that this leads naturally to motivation. I am wary of "overriding" any aspect of mind, for we cannot get rid of any part of ourselves–it's like the right hand overriding the left, which usually creates long-term inner conflict. That we connect with our motives regularly is certainly a good thing. *How* we motivate ourselves is also important.

    • I should add that in some contexts, force or overriding is the most expedient choice. If your child runs into the street when a car is coming, grabbing them forcefully out of the road makes the most sense. Same with demolishing a wall in order to build a new one–you do it with a sledgehammer because that's the best tool for the job.

      But in general, I find the motivation techniques of personal development to involve an inappropriately large amount of force, like using a sledgehammer for hammering a nail.

  8. Constance says:

    Often in our culture, just being still is not valued. I found a need to be still and at first thought there was something wrong, but it was needed.

  9. Lee Moore says:

    Good stuff Duff! I've been sensing some of this intuitively in my life lately, but was very nice to see it articulated and fleshed out. Thank you!

  10. […] I wanted to share with you a helpful blog post from my friend, Duff McDuffee, on motivation. […]

  11. Wonderful blog! I found it while surfing around on Yahoo News. Do you have any tips on how to get listed in Yahoo News? I’ve been trying for a while but I never seem to get there! Cheers

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