How To Maintain Your Motivation
We all have moments when we struggle to feel motivated. But what is motivation, and what can we do to feel more motivated?
“Don’t say you can’t when you really mean you don’t want to.”
I guess as a kid I was prone to saying “I can’t” when struggling to learn something. Every parent has heard that cry as their child tried to acquire some new skill or just to arrive at the right answer in maths homework.
My father was always keen for me to understand that your willingness to try is more important than getting it right the first time.
He made his career repairing electronics. While some equipment faults repeated themselves, many were one-offs that required trial and error to fix. I often think about how frustrating that work might’ve been. But he found joy in carefully tracing through a circuit. He’d often share a joyful story over dinner if the fault had been a particularly challenging one to discover and repair.
I think about his example a lot when asked about finding motivation. The most motivated people I’ve met all seemed to enjoy solving difficult problems. Not because they had saintly patience; they were just as likely as the rest of us to be annoyed about being stuck in traffic or having a flight delayed. But they seemed to relish a challenge, and trusted in their ability to overcome the obstacle or acquire the skills needed to do so.
What Is Motivation?
When we talk about motivation we’re often bringing together two different kinds of questions. On the one hand, motivation is about the choices we make, and where we devote our time. Why did some kids spend their afternoons doing extra homework while others mastered sports, or music, or hung out with friends? This relates to our goals, values, and our personal visions of what we want from life.
On the other hand, motivation is about how we keep going or stay focused, especially when faced with difficulties, frustrations, and setbacks. It’s the “I don’t want to go to the gym” or “I can’t be bothered cooking a healthy meal” problem. And this relates more to our attitudes, frame of mind, and personal resilience.
Conversations about motivation usually begin with a discussion of Abram Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow suggested that people were primarily motivated to satisfy basic physical needs, and found the motivation to achieve higher-level needs (such as belonging, esteem, or self-fulfillment) only if those basics were met.
Recent research casts doubt on this, and finds a simpler set of needs (autonomy, relatedness, and competence) to be the most important for finding a sense of motivation.
Autonomy is the feeling that we have a choice about what to do and how to do it. Relatedness is the feeling of belonging; feeling safe and connected to other people. Competence is the feeling of working towards competence, and from there, on to mastery.
Notice all of these are feelings. We can’t find our motivation or help others find theirs through abstract rules or effort and reward games. Motivation comes from engaging with and learning responsibility for our feelings. Only if you travel inwards to understand your feelings will you understand why on some days you feel like doing that thing, be it exercise or answering e-mail. On other days, you don’t.
We Lack Motivation When Faced With The Ambiguity Of Learning
It’s at school that many of us face our first major motivational challenges. Paying attention in class or finishing homework feels hard. In many ways, school and the model of forced learning isn’t a good template for the rest of our lives. But learning does continue to be an area of life where motivation can prove difficult to find.
Learning creates ambiguity. We come face to face with things we don’t know or understand, or are unable to do well.
The ambiguity of learning in beautifully summed up in this quote from Tara Westover’s brilliant memoir, Educated:
”The skill I was learning was a crucial one, the patience to read things I could not yet understand.”
– Tara Westover, Educated
Learning is uncomfortable. Those important motivational feelings, of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, are all challenged when we try to learn.
The key to this is patience; learning to relax into the ambiguity of learning. This is central to mastery of pretty well anything. Impatience makes us short-sighted and reactive. It’s hard to focus, avoid distraction, or deal with unhelpful feelings when you’re in an impatient frame of mind. You need to be OK with the messy uncertainty of trying new things, experimenting, occasionally failing, and slowly piecing new knowledge together.
Understanding your character strengths is a helpful way to move from impatience to patience. One thing I do is to assign one or more of my top seven character strengths to all my projects (I wrote more about this here).
So, when I’m facing a chore or task that isn’t motivating me, I can reframe it in a more helpful way. An e-mail I don’t want to write becomes an exercise in honesty and bravery. That household chore I’m putting off is a way to appreciate beauty and excellence. The article I’m struggling to finish might be an opportunity for creativity or a way to express my love of learning.
We Lack Motivation When There’s Too Much Friction
Another way we lose our motivation is when the path seems to be full of obstacles. I like to call this friction. It’s the amount of resistance we face just trying to start. Friction limits your power, leaving you with less to show for your efforts. It can show up in the spaces you inhabit and the systems you use. And friction is deeply personal. A messy desk (or desktop) can be chaotic for one person and a source of inspiration for someone else.
The key to overcoming friction is design. Take control of your physical and digital environment. Shape it to suit you. Make sure things are where you need them. Choose tools, processes, and workflows that complement the way you think and your style of working.
Our rooms think on our behalf, encouraging activities based on how we have laid out our things in them. We can do a lot to remove friction and make our work easier by learning from the way in which chefs set up their work stations. And we can tame and control our software by setting it up to suit us (like I’ve done with Scrivener, which I’m using to write this article).
This isn’t the same as being neat or tidy. In fact, I don’t even like the expression “tidying up”. It’s an abstract and infinite chore. How tidy is tidy enough, anyway?
Removing friction is about being ready. Cutting down the time it takes from wanting to do something to being able to do it. And making it easy to keep going. Not having to search when you need a file, or pen, or tool.
We Lack Motivation When The Path Feels Overwhelming
Sometime we face so many challenges, disappointments, and setbacks that reaching the goal feels overwhelming. You might ask yourself if it’s just too hard. A crucial part of coping with this situation is our mindset.
Specifically, how we think about our abilities, skills, and even our intelligence.
Carol Dweck is renowned for her work on the power of having a growth mindset. She studied two ways in which people think about their intelligence. Those with an entity belief considered their abilities to be fixed. You’ve either got what it takes to master something, or you haven’t. Whereas those with an incremental belief see themselves as being able to increase their abilities. Just because you can’t do it now doesn’t mean you can’t eventually do it, after some effort.
The consequences of this are huge for motivation. People with an entity belief are more likely to feel disheartened by any struggle. The incrementalists will see that same struggle as part of the natural process of learning. Most surprisingly, the entity belief holders, after a setback or failure, will perform badly at things they were previously good at, with the effect of the struggle becoming so bad they learn to feel helpless.
“In fact, some of the brightest kids prove to be the most vulnerable to becoming helpless, because they feel the need to live up to and maintain a perfectionist image that is easily and inevitably shattered.”
– Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning
Overcoming this challenge involves developing what Dweck calls a growth mindset. I wrote at length about this here.
A growth mindset embraces challenges, persists despite obstacles, sees effort as the natural path to mastery, learns from criticism, and finds inspiration in the success of others. A fixed mindset, by contrast, avoids challenges, gives up when faced with setbacks, sees efforts towards mastery as pointless, ignores useful criticism, and feels threatened by others’ achievements.
The key to all this is perspective; putting your beliefs about yourself and your goals in the right framework. The limited mindset sees intelligence and other abilities as fixed, as things you have in order to look smarter than other people. The comparison is everything. But the growth mindset sees abilities as things you grow over time, that allow you to reach higher and higher goals, and your own satisfaction is far more important than comparison with others.
Living with a growth mindset, you increasingly find the motivation within yourself, your own ability to make challenges interesting to you, to learn and develop, and to gain satisfaction in what you do.
Remember Your Achievements
Sometimes we lose motivation because we’re so focused on the future. We’re jumping to the next challenge and expecting our motivation to turn up right away. Or we’re constantly imagining ourselves in the future and focusing on our goals.
But sometimes the key to being motivated is to look backwards. Remember your achievements. Consider the times you’ve overcome setbacks, faced down disappointments, or struggled your way to success.
Too often we complete a project, finish an essay, or ship a product, then switch immediately to the next thing. We don’t celebrate the success. Or mark it some way, so we’ll remember it in the future. As a result we don’t live with an awareness of the progress we’ve made; the way in which one experience builds on another to get us where we are now. Holding onto this sense of movement in our lives is crucial, because motivation’s favourite partner is momentum.
“Motivation is the fire that starts burning after you manually, painfully, coax it into existence, and it feeds on the satisfaction of seeing yourself make progress.”
– Jeff Haden, The Motivation Myth
Regular reviews can help you with this. Whether it’s weekly, monthly, quarterly, yearly, or a combination of all of them, making time to look over your life can help you remember how much you’ve achieved. The technology doesn’t matter; app, paper and pencil, whatever you like — just find a way to remind yourself of how far you’ve come and the effort you’ve put in.
It’s so hard to feel motivated if you see everything you do as starting from scratch. But nothing you’ve learnt is ever lost or irrelevant. And if you take the time to consider it, you will realise that your life story is full of reasons to believe you can face your challenges today.
Some Notes On Motivation And Mental Health
Your motivation will be affected by your emotional, mental, and physical well-being. Our eating, exercising, and sleeping patterns can drift over time. It’s easy to slowly reach a point where our body is behaving differently. And changes to our emotional and mental balance can be even more subtle and harder to detect. I wrote a whole series on creativity and mental health. And it required a whole series, because there are so many aspects to this.
If you notice a significant or sudden change in your motivation, it would be good to talk to someone about it. This change could be part of something bigger, and there might well be a way to address it. Discuss it with your doctor, or consider seeing a counsellor or therapist.
We can become so obsessed with getting things done that we forget how the way in which we do things affects us. If we don’t take care of ourselves, we won’t just lose our motivation. We’ll lose the ability to do anything well.
“We must train ourselves. Not to make spoons or jewelry or paintings or chairs but to be more competent, more forgiving, more patient.”
– Gary Rogowski, Handmade
Motivation Feels Easy When We Don’t Need It
Our worst instinct when faced with an absence of motivation is to try harder. You might tell yourself to just concentrate or stick to your priorities, but it isn’t always that easy. Especially if you haven’t done the work we discussed above.
One thread that runs through our whole conversation here, from learning to processes, mindset and mental-well being, is coherence. Having a coherent picture of how we want to live and what we want to achieve.
One possible response to this is to set lots of goals. This makes us feel like we have a plan, like we’re in control. But having a long and complicated list of goals also makes us fragile, unable to cope with change or take advantage of unexpected opportunities. We’re assuming there might be only one path to the things we want from life, when there might be several paths.
Having fewer big life goals can sharpen our focus on how to reach them. And clarifying how we want our daily life to look can also give us a path to solving the many small obstacles along the way (the “imagine your ideal” day exercise is helpful for this).
You can think of it like this. Have two or three big goals for your life. Then make sure your desk is organised, turn off notifications, check your calendar for important appointments and commitments, and get to work on the things you need to do this week.
Most important of all, motivation isn’t some mysterious force outside your control, a magical power that’s sometimes available and sometimes not. You have everything you need to find motivation, manage the way you feel about motivation, and build a life that makes motivation available to you. Devote less of your energy to worrying whether you will feel motivated and more of your energy to building mindsets, processes, and work flows that make it easier for you to feel motivated.
“Incredibly successful people set a goal and then focus all their attention on the process necessary to achieve that goal. They set a goal and then, surprisingly, they forget the goal.”
– Jeff Haden, The Motivation Myth