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How to Stay Motivated in Tough Times

Nine tips for staying upbeat even when reality is bringing you down.

Key points

  • We can't always stay hopeful under duress but there are ways to stay motivated.
  • Emotions influence our interpretation but one can be a hopeful realist.
  • It's useful to stick to your guns on one carefully chosen goal and be adaptive in how you try to reach it.
  • It's not the end of the world 'til the end of the world.

It’s not easy staying hopeful when things are falling apart, at home, at work, or in the world. But sometimes that’s just what you’ve got to do. So how?

A week ago, I had lunch with a 91-year-old family friend, Dan Ellsberg, a famously influential political activist who started our conversation by volunteering that his life work hadn’t really had any influence. For all his effort, he hadn’t made a dent in the state of the world.

It’s an old topic between us. We’re both romantic realists, one definition of liberal as opposed to being a naive romantic or a cynical realist. No matter how rough reality gets, we don’t give up. At Dan’s age, he’s still taking TV interviews and writing op-eds and trying to keep us away from the nuclear brink.

Later that week, I spent two days with my most hopeful friend, a futurist who does good business predicting a bright future as practically inevitable. He knows I think it’s iffier than that and suspects I’m not as optimistic as I should be. I keep telling him that though I keep reality-checking his theories I’m no less optimistic than he is.

But am I? Can one be? Can you face a worsening realities with no effect on your hopefulness? Who has that much control over their feelings? Can you be just as hopeful a day after a cancer diagnosis as a day before?

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Our feelings drive more of our behavior than we feel like admitting. We like to pretend that we weigh ideas on a scale bolted to the level surface of unbiased logic when, really, our emotions tip the scale like it’s on the deck of a heaving ship. We feel more than we think. We rationalize more than we’re rational. How, then, could we face overwhelming disappointment and remain optimistic?

Is it even wise to remain steadfastly optimistic no matter how bad the writing on the wall gets? When you’re in a hole, should you stop or keep digging? If you stop at the least disappointment you’ll never get anywhere. If you keep digging no matter what, you risk becoming the kind of fool who calls down up to sustain their optimism.

Here are a few thoughts on how to stay motivated through hardship:

  • Eyes on a single prize, flexible on the sub-prizes: Have one goal and adjust whatever sub-goals in response to discouragement. I think of this as like having terminal cancer with the sole goal of doing the most you can to survive. You might pin your hopes to one treatment and when it fails, shift deftly to another.
  • Neither optimism nor pessimism nor possumism: Romantic realists know they need the news; they don’t play possum, hiding from reality. They’re romantic like oncologists or criminologists. To maximize their chances of good outcomes, they attend to the obstacles. They also know that, like cleaning house, it’s something we have to do over and over. There will always be disease and crime. They’re not naive enough to think they can end it.
  • Know the boat will roll: Romantic realists roll with the news. They’re like savvy entrepreneurs who recognize that they have to believe in their goals but not so much that they’re blinded to reality. Entrepreneurs fail two ways: being too self-critical to promote their idea or too self-romanticizing to adjust their strategies with changing circumstances.
  • Motivated regardless of hope: People are social creatures of habit. Habits keep us going more than we notice, especially social habits, reinforced by what people expect of us. Relying on habits, we can stay motivated and agnostic about how things will turn out. Hope isn’t the only motivator. We mostly keep doing what we’re doing rather than checking every minute to see how we’re doing. Obama said “it’s not the end of the world ‘til the end of the world.”
  • No spoilers: People often act like they already know for certain how things will end—great or terrible, like people who spoil movies for you. They opt for know-it-all certainty over anticipation and doubt. They become doomscrollers, amassing evidence that confirms their worst fears, or the reverse, dream-scrolling only for inspirational platitudes about how they’re destined to succeed. It can feel safer to escape the tension inherent in romantic realism but it isn’t.
  • Counter-tip the scale: When you’re feeling discouraged, read some of the good news about reality. For example, news about the tech solutions we’re finding now that we’re facing the big problems. And conversely, when you’re feeling hopeful that’s when you can afford to face harsher realities.
  • Use your clutch pedal: Raising children, I stumbled on this Mr. Rogers tune that makes a point that’s easy to overlook. Feelings and thoughts don’t make things come true. It’s all about whether you act on them. There’s a clutch pedal between perception and action. When you’re down, you’re down, but pumping the clutch, you don’t have to act like you’re down. At least not as impulsively as you would if you didn’t have that clutch.
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  • Bad but not your fault: There’s a big difference between feeling disappointed and feeling ashamed. It’s worth remembering that you didn’t make this world. You didn’t design humankind. You didn’t even design yourself and your situation. It’s easier to carry the burdens of this world if you remember that you’re a guest here.
  • Pick your prize carefully: Some people’s ultimate goals are way out there—even evil. They’re the kind of folks we wish reality-checks would wake up. So, one final word on prizes to keep your eye on. Your grand goal may sound heroic when you declare it, but imagine your enemies declaring the same goal. If they’d feel just as heroic crowing your theme as you do, you haven’t really got a clear prize in mind and could just be romanticizing yourself by pretending it’s exclusive to you.

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Gopnik, Adam (2019): A thousand small sanities: The moral adventure of liberalism. NYC: Basic Books.

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