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The Art of Staying Motivated

Staying on track isn't about willpower but handling the underlying problems.

Key points

  • Staying motivated isn't about willpower but overcoming the underlying obstacles that can arise at the beginning, middle, and end stages.
  • Beginning challenges include confusing "shoulds" and "wants," having vague goals, getting lost in the means and losing sight of the ends.
  • Build into your overall plan ways of offsetting your challenges: Having support, setting a realistic pace, having a clear vision.
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The idea of needing to stay motivated doesn’t quite make sense: If you’re motivated, motivation shouldn’t be a problem. Unfortunately, for too many of us, and for a lot of good reasons, we can run out of gas—on a project on the job or in your personal life—and, if so, you’re not alone. But the problem isn’t always what you think it is. If you have a difficult time moving forward, there are usually other problems under the problem that are derailing you.

The key is to unlock those underlying problems, and for this, it’s helpful to sort them into beginnings, middles, and ends. Here are some of the common culprits:


  • It’s a should not a want; it’s someone’s else’s idea and not yours

Shoulds are about the rules in your head—you should call your parents even though you don’t feel like it, or you should take this job or work on this project or get more exercise because they are good for your career or health. Shoulds usually come from others—their rules, priorities, what your friends or the media say—and you can feel guilty or anxious if you don’t follow them. Motivation doesn’t come from shoulds, but from wants—those gut reactions, that sense of excitement, that drive. The gas quickly runs out on shoulds; it’s the wants that keep you going.

  • Your goals are too vague

You’re thinking of a camping trip. Great! But if you don’t have a clear destination in mind, you wind up hemming and hawing and never getting started, or you hit the road but are drifting around, never settling, getting confused, or lost. Sometimes, this is part of the process—you drive around because you are exploring—or like brainstorming, the brainstorming itself is intentional, a step towards a specific goal. Knowing where you ultimately want to go keeps you on track.

  • You get lost in the means and lose sight of the ends

You have the goal, but do you really? The danger here is confusing means and ends. Going back to school is a means towards a new end of starting another career. Getting divorced or learning to control your drinking may be a means to the larger end of having healthier relationships or better health. If you lose sight of the ultimate goal, the steps along the way can seem pointless and overwhelming.

Middles: You don’t anticipate the slump

You have a clear goal and are passionate about it, but then you start to flag after a few weeks or months. Here, we find the folks packing the gyms on Jan. 1 but have quit after two months, or the novice novelist who has a drawer full of unfinished fifty-page books. The slump is normal—the adrenaline wears off, the middle-stage grind slows your progress, you decide that this isn’t working or that you have a better idea.

Endings: Self-criticism and crashing

Some folks can move through the beginnings and middles and crash near the end. Often this is about their critical voice piping up telling them the product isn’t good enough, or panic over others’ reactions, or they simply are burned out and quit.

Staying motivated

  • Look back on your patterns: Where do you get stuck? The beginning, the middle, the end? What derails you? Try to solve the underlying problem.
  • Start with clear passion: Make sure you are emotionally invested in the endeavor. Do the gut check: Would you want to do this if no one made you, or if you didn’t get paid to do it?
  • Have a clear vision: Look for the ultimate goal—to change your appearance rather than following through on a diet, to complete and try to publish that novel, to have a healthier lifestyle.

Think now about what you can do to offset the slump, getting support from friends, breaking down what you need to do into smaller, daily tasks so you don’t feel overwhelmed and discouraged. Set a pace with realistic deadlines to avoid burnout. If you know that if you can be hyper-critical of your work, get the feedback you need from others to stay on track or to pump up your courage to put your accomplishments out there.

Staying motivated isn’t about white-knuckle willpower but about knowing your particular challenges and having strategies to overcome them. By learning to work around your weaknesses, you can build on your strengths.

More from Robert Taibbi L.C.S.W.
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