Even if you’re living out your dream career or studying something you’re passionate about, productive work can feel like a grind.
Maybe you’re dealing with the tedium of working on a spreadsheet. Or maybe you’re simply distracted by summer sunshine. Or maybe you’re super stressed by a looming deadline or exam.
In any case, your to do list items aren’t always attractive. In the midst of that, learning how to get motivated can feel like a critical—but hard to obtain—skill.
In the following article, we’ll look at four steps for how to get motivated when everything feels like a grind. But before we get into practical steps, let’s look at what motivation is, and why it’s so dang difficult.
What is motivation and why is it so hard?
Motivation is the reason for why we do what we do.
Motivation can be as simple as hunger, which motivates you to reach for that donut (er, apple). Or it can be as abstract as a desire for personal fulfillment, motivating you to start a business because doing so affirms your identity as a creative thinker.
When you’re motivated, work is easy. But motivation itself can be difficult to find. And sometimes you have to do the work, whether you want to or not.
When the task at hand is desirable, simple, or exciting—and you’re feeling great—motivation is easy. But when the task at hand is overwhelming or tedious—and you’re feeling bored, burned out, or purposeless—motivation can feel darn near impossible.
Scientists are learning that motivation is deeply intertwined with emotion. Motivation is not just the result of receiving extrinsic rewards. It’s often the product of a combination of emotions, deeply held beliefs, and life experiences.
For example, you may be motivated to run a marathon because you were told that you were a poor athlete as a kid, and you want to prove people wrong. Or you might be motivated to change jobs because you’re angry at your boss for making critical remarks.
Motivation can have its “origins in non-language structures of the…brain.” In other words, we don’t often know how to articulate why we do what we do—making motivation difficult to explain.
Despite being difficult to generate, motivation is a wonderful thing. It’s the catalyst for action. It helps us act, achieve, and function. The trick is, you’ve got to know how to harness motivation to make it work for you.
How to motivate yourself to do anything
1. Identify a Goal
The first step to getting motivated is to identify a specific goal. What is your lack of motivation holding you back from accomplishing?
“Goal” here is used more in the sense of something you have to do, like work or chores, rather than something you want to achieve, like win a prize.
Maybe you’re having trouble staying focused on a particular project at work. Maybe you’re putting off a household project. Or you could be finding it hard to integrate a new healthy habit into your life, such as working out regularly.
Once you can hone in on what you’d like to accomplish, getting motivated becomes easier. Different tasks or goals may demand different types of motivation and may have different “blockers” that are sapping the energy and drive required to get them done.
2. Identify blockers
You can’t remove blockers to your motivation without identifying them first.
Knowledge is truly power, and knowing what’s robbing you of motivation can help you be strategic about making a plan for overcoming, defeating, and removing the emotions or distractions that are keeping you from your best.
First, think about your goal. What kinds of emotions do you immediately feel?
Maybe you’re tackling a lengthy PowerPoint presentation for work. When you think about the project, you feel a sense of anxiety about whether you’re qualified to actually succeed. As a result, the task at hand feels impossible.
Maybe you’re in the process of starting a non-profit, and you’ve gotten lost in the paperwork. Thinking about the administrative tasks at hand brings to mind bigger questions about your goal. Will your non-profit even make an impact?
You could be finding it difficult to learn how to get motivated to lose weight. The pressure to lose that next 10 pounds makes you feel insecure about your current weight. You’ve started to associate your value with the number on the scale.
Or, you could be feeling too tired to get motivated to clean, study, work out, or finish your work.
Finally, depression can affect motivation. If you’re feeling an unusual lack of interest in things that typically give you joy, or you’re experiencing insomnia, a lack of appetite, or other symptoms associated with depression, then seek the counsel of a mental health professional.
3. Remove blockers
By now, you’ve identified your goals and your blockers. Time to do the work: Remove your obstacles and get motivated! Here are some common blockers.
If your goal feels meaningless…
Researchers have found that people are significantly driven by their basic psychological needs, including the needs to be independent, to connect with others, and to be effective and successful.
That being the case, your task might feel meaningless if it’s no longer meeting one or more of these needs. To realign your task with meaning, think about why it makes you feel a sense of a) integrity and authenticity, b) social connection, or c) mastery of a specific skill.
When your goal meets one or more of these needs, you can take action knowing that your task has both purpose and meaning.
If your goal feels ineffective….
Maybe you’re having trouble getting motivated to work out because you’re not seeing results.
You may want to be more strategic about tracking your sessions. How much time are you spending on exercising? How many calories are you burning? Are you consistent?
To get motivated to exercise, try revamping your workout approach by integrating time tracking tools and other tracking technology to evaluate how much you’re actually doing at the gym or on your mat.
If your goal feels impossible….
Feeling overwhelmed? Maybe your goal is massive, vague, or very difficult—and the task ahead feels impossible to achieve.
To get motivated to accomplish an “impossible” goal, you simply need to break it down into bite-sized chunks.
If you’re writing a book, for example, don’t consider the whole piece. Just take it chapter by chapter.
If you’re starting a business, don’t think about everything you need to do at once. Think about what you need to do for the next two weeks, and schedule out accordingly.
Or, if you’re renovating your own home, break it up into separate tasks: paint, carpentry, reflooring, etc.
The key to accomplishing your bite sized tasks is to schedule them out and stay accountable.
If you’re too tired to succeed…
Then get more sleep.
Scientists have found that sleep actually acts as “maintenance and repair” for your brain.
If you’re not getting the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep per night, then reduce your screen time and change your schedule so that you can get sufficient sleep and get more motivated.
Making sure you’re not overworking can be step 1 in avoiding burnout. Keep track of your work hours with Toggl.Get started for free
If you’ve got too much to do…
Here’s a strange phenomenon: You’ve got an endless to do list, and yet you’re paralyzed.
Rather than motivating you to action, your tasks make you feel unable to move forward on anything, whether that’s cleaning your car or studying for a big exam.
The solution? Sit down and make a list of priorities based on both urgency and importance. Set aside items that are neither urgent nor important for later, and then take on one task at a time.
If you don’t feel like it…
If you “just don’t feel like” accomplishing the tasks at hand, then you might need to dig a little deeper. If you’re tired or depressed, then get the sleep or the help you need to feel your best.
4. None of the above is working. Now what?
You’ve tried all the strategies listed above and you’re still feeling unmotivated.
It’s time for reinforcements: tools, technologies, and tips that can give you that extra boost of motivation when all else seems to fail.
Here are a few ideas for getting your mind and body into gear for getting things done:
- Create a work playlist. Music releases dopamine in the brain, which helps to regulate motivation. Put together a list of music that you love to help you jumpstart your motivation, whether you’re washing the dishes or writing an email.
- Track your time. Better time management can help you become more efficient, effective, and motivated to get things done. Tracking your time can give you the insight and accountability you need to meet your goals.
- Procrastinate! Sometimes, procrastination can be a strategic way to get things done. Rather than worrying about getting everything done right now, take a look at urgent priorities and put off what needs to get done later until later.
- Find your flow. Sometimes, motivation can be hard to come by because you’re feeling distracted or unfocused. The Pomodoro Technique can help you focus on projects, homework, or studying by dividing your work into short, 25-minute bursts interspersed with 5-minute breaks.
At the end of the day, learning how to motivate yourself looks different for everybody. Keep experimenting with new techniques, tools, and strategies and see what works best for you.
A final note on motivation
Ultimately, staying motivated always has a reward—whether that’s a greater sense of self-worth, a personal treat, or reduced stress. Remember that anyone can get motivated. All it takes is a little self-awareness and strategy. Good luck!