On the go? Listen to the audio version of the article here:
For many people, it’s challenging to find motivation. After a long day, it’s hard to find the energy to go to the gym, study, cook, or clean. Or maybe you’re looking to start that hobby you’ve been putting off.
Perhaps you are looking to make some significant changes to your daily habits, such as stopping an addictive substance or behavior, facing your anxiety, or overcoming depression.
Whatever your goal, it’s essential to develop a strong sense of motivation to propel long-term change.
As an addiction counselor, I’ve carefully studied how to increase motivation. Although many of the techniques I use require dialogue in a counseling context, I’ve summarized some of the core lessons to help you find motivation:
- Inquire into what is preventing you from acting
- Meet your unmet needs
- Clarify your values and strengths
- Build momentum through small actions
Let’s delve into each of these four areas and look at how you can apply these lessons to increase your motivation to change.
Table of Contents
Inquire into what is preventing you from acting
We tend to emphasize change without giving enough thought to what is motivating us to stay the same. It’s like revving the engine on a boat while ignoring the anchor in the water. You wouldn’t blame the engine for not having enough power; you’d just pull up the anchor and try again.
This is the problem with willpower. It’s not enough to sustain long-term change. If you’ve ever made a new years resolution and broke it a week later, you’ve likely chalked it up to a lack of willpower.
In the addiction field, this way of changing is often referred to as “white-knuckling.” It means you are just holding on tight and hoping for the best, feeling heavily deprived and not dealing with underlying issues.
Willpower alone can get you through a difficult moment, but like running a boat full-throttle with the anchor down, it’s not a sustainable long-term way to maintain motivation.
When you fully appreciate what is holding you back, you can start making changes; otherwise, the anchor operates unconsciously in the background, sabotaging your motivation.
Consider the following questions carefully:
What are the benefits of not changing?
Consider what you gain by not changing your behavior. Perhaps there is a level of comfort, security, certainty, familiarity, or other benefit associated with your current approach. Perhaps it’s easier to keep your expectations lower, so you don’t risk disappointment or embarrassment if it does not work out. Whatever your reason, take it seriously as a reasonable option that makes sense.
What are the drawbacks of changing?
Consider the current benefits you’ll have to give up if you decide to change. In addition, consider the additional challenges you’ll be required to face if you choose to change. Maybe you’ll have to experience fear, uncertainty, boredom, or disappointment if the change does not bring the result you expect.
What are the drawbacks of not changing?
Now consider the disadvantages of continuing with your current situation. Perhaps you will experience dissatisfaction, miss out on something, not meet a deadline, or some other form of consequence to your health or well-being. If things continue this way, what is a realistic long-term result?
What are the benefits of changing?
Lastly, consider what you could potentially gain from making this change. Perhaps you will experience more joy, purpose, meet an important deadline, or gain improvements in your mental/ physical health. If you make this change, what long-term benefits might you gain?
Approaching change by considering the whole picture allows you to gain a self-compassionate perspective. Rather than beating yourself up for not changing, you can compassionately understand why you may have been choosing not to change despite the potential benefits of change.
Approaching change in this way also allows you to gain a realistic perspective of the costs and benefits of changing, allowing you to gain further motivation if benefits significantly outweigh the costs.
Meet your unmet needs
If you struggle to find motivation, there may also be an underlying unmet need. Unmet needs are another version of the anchor holding you back.
Unmet needs can be physical, psychological, or social. Let’s consider each area in further detail.
Meet your physical needs
Motivation suffers significantly when physical needs are not met. Consider how you feel when you’re underslept, hungry, too cold, too hot, ill, tense, or in an uncomfortable chair.
A popular acronym in 12-step recovery is HALT, which stands for hungry, angry, lonely, tired. These are some of the most common underlying issues preventing you from functioning optimally. If you’re feeling unmotivated, HALT before going forward because you might have a big anchor in the water.
Bring your awareness to your body and notice what it might be needing. If you notice an unmet physical need, you can tend to it. If you’re unable to meet that physical need right now, such as rest, you can have compassion for your current situation and recognize that’s just the way it is “right now”.
In the long-term, focusing on meeting more of your needs allows you to function with more energy, a clearer mind, more patience, and more overall motivation.
Meet your psychological needs
One of our basic psychological needs consists of a sense of autonomy.
In simple terms, autonomy means we need to feel like we have a sense of freedom and control in our lives. If you feel overly constrained, consider ways to gain back a sense of freedom and control.
For example, if you are trying to gain motivation to eat healthily and exercise, you can take control over the process rather than feeling constrained by the rigid rules imposed by diet culture.
This can mean adding an element of play to whatever you intend on doing. Rather than following rigid rules consisting of what you think you “should” be doing, find a way to put your own personality into it.
When it comes to diet and exercise, this could mean engaging in things you genuinely find fun or interesting and getting creative with different recipes.
If you struggle with yo-yo dieting and a lack of motivation to exercise, I highly recommend checking out my article on how to heal your relationship with food. In that article, I share insights from my time as a personal trainer and my Master’s thesis on problematic media depictions of weight loss.
Meet your social needs
Trained as a sociologist, the power of social connection has been one of my biggest passions.
Social isolation is a significant factor when it comes to motivation. Although we understand the importance of social connection for mental health, we often neglect its role in motivation.
If you feel lonely, isolated, or ashamed, it’s challenging to find motivation. We are social beings. Just as plants need water to thrive, we need a sense of social connection.
If you notice you have been feeling isolated, reaching out and connecting with others allows you to gain a sense of connection and social support. This is one of the major reasons why 12-step groups have been so powerful for persons with addiction.
For more on this topic, check out my article on the impact of isolation on addiction.
Clarify your values and strengths
Many people go through life feeling like they are sleepwalking, just going through the motions.
On a macro level, you may feel compelled to follow the standard middle-class life template of career, marriage, house, kids, promotions, retirement. On a micro level, you may feel compelled to keep showing up to the same job and doing the same things because it’s familiar, and you can’t really see any other options right now.
This situation reminds me of a great line from a song by Metric:
“Buy this car to drive to work. Drive to work to pay for this car.”
Just following orders and going through the motions without emotion can be highly unfulfilling. This lack of fulfillment creates an existential void. We then try to fill this void with entertainment, substances, or material things, but they only provide a temporary distraction from the underlying sense that something is missing.
Let’s take a look at how to escape this “never enough” situation and step off the hedonic treadmill.
Focus on ‘being’, not ‘having’
In our Instagram-obsessed consumer culture, we try to fill the void by having the picturesque image of success and having the most followers. Some people try to have the best vacations so they can get the best photos and get the most likes.
With all of our focus on having, we forget about being. We forget what it means to be present, be in genuine connection, and living in alignment with our deeper values.
The great psychoanalyst, Erich Fromm, talked about this distinction in his book, To Have or to Be? where he states:
“If I am what I have and if what I have is lost, who then am I? Nobody but a defeated, deflated, pathetic testimony to a wrong way of living.”
The antidote to this unfulfilling way of being is to let go of the need to constantly compare oneself to others.
The need to compare ourselves to others comes from a desire to belong. By having more stuff, we feel like we’ll gain acceptance. In reality, this attempt to gain acceptance by climbing the social pyramid merely creates a further sense of disconnection from others.
As previously discussed, this sense of social disconnection depletes long-term motivation and fuels short-term coping strategies such as an addiction to social media. For more on this topic, see my article on why we are addicted to social media.
Prioritize ‘why, not ‘how’
Another benefit of uncovering your core values is that it gives you a “why,” which provides a sense of purpose.
So much of the current self-help content is focused on “how” to do something without first addressing the “why”. We want the quick fix of “three simple tips to the perfect life” without having to delve into what is driving us to seek change.
Focusing all of our attention on the “how” is another reason why change is often so short-lived. When I tell people I was a personal trainer, the first question is usually about how to eat or how to exercise. I’m always super cautious not to simply give someone a “how”. Merely giving someone a perfectly optimized workout plan is likely going to result in a new-years-resolution-style of motivation.
Rather than setting someone up for motivational failure, I like to start by inquiring into their reasons for making this change.
In his classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl recites a quote by Friedrich Nietzsche:
“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”
This means having a compelling sense of why we are doing something motivates us to figure out how to overcome the obstacles.
Victor Frankl’s profound sense of purpose motivated him to continue striving when faced with forced labor in multiple Nazi concentration camps. Surviving these camps, he lived to publish his psychological insights and develop logotherapy, a therapeutic approach designed to facilitate a sense of meaning in life.
By clarifying your why, you can operate based on intrinsic motivation rather than extrinsic motivation. In simple terms, it means you’re doing something because you genuinely want to, rather than feeling compelled by an external reward or punishment.
Intrinsic motivation is powerful and long-lasting, whereas extrinsic motivation is short-lived. For more on the distinction between these two types of motivation, see my article on how motivation works.
Recall past strengths and abilities
One of the most important aspects of motivation is your confidence in your ability to overcome an obstacle in a particular context. The psychological term for this is self-efficacy.
Distinct from your overall self-confidence, your self-efficacy varies depending on your sense of mastery over a particular type of task. For example, you may have high self-efficacy when troubleshooting problems at work but low self-efficacy when dealing with interpersonal conflicts at home, or vice versa.
When talking to clients about change, I like to inquire about their strengths by asking about their employment, education, hobbies, or interests, in addition to noticing other times they have been able to overcome a difficult task.
Validating strengths and past accomplishments is a powerful way to instill self-efficacy. By recalling these things, you build a sense of control over your current situation.
It can be challenging to validate our own strengths since we are often our own worst critics. If you are not currently engaged in ongoing counseling, here is a way to get yourself outside your head and uncover some content to help you build self-efficacy.
Think of someone you trust, such as a parent, a partner, a friend, a family member, a colleague, or a manager. If there is someone you trust in more than one of these areas, consider trying the exercise with a few different people.
Now imagine I asked this person about your strengths. What would they say? What stories might they share regarding your past ability to overcome difficult situations? What personal characteristics would they point out (e.g., loving, determined, resourceful, creative, analytical, etc.)?
If you’re comfortable, you can even directly ask them these questions.
Once you’ve contemplated this area, consider how you can draw upon these past strengths and abilities in your current situation.
Build momentum through small actions
Beyond contemplation of one’s strengths and abilities, self-efficacy is built in practice by seeing evidence of own abilities.
Consider things you have already completed. What steps have you already taken toward your goals? If you haven’t taken any direct steps, are there any indirect things you may have done in preparation to take action?
If you have not yet taken any actions, consider one small thing you can do today or tomorrow that would likely get you slightly closer to your goal.
By completing a task, you get the reward of a small win. Getting this small win increases your motivation to complete the next task, leading to greater rewards as you build trust in yourself.
Some people find it helpful to create checklists of the small tasks they want to complete in a day. The smaller the task, the more you can add to your checklist. Each time you check off a completed task, you get a sense of accomplishment, leading to further motivation.
Another benefit to focusing on small tasks is that it keeps you from feeling overwhelmed when tackling everything all at once.
This is why the popular 12-step phrase, “one day at a time,” has been so powerful for many people in recovery. If one day at a time is too much, try focusing on one hour at a time or one moment at a time.
Back to the previous question: what is the next small task?
Don’t announce your goals
Another common mistake associated with focusing on lofty goals is the tendency to announce these goals to others. Although some people believe this helps hold them accountable, it often does the exact opposite.
By announcing your goals, you get external praise and validation. Jumping in head first, you develop an identity associated with your goal. Rather than focusing on small steps, you try to cash in early on the reward of the end goal by making it public. This makes focusing on the small steps seem dull in comparison, preventing you from gaining a sense of reward from the process itself.
A study on this phenomenon states:
“…when other people take notice of an individual’s identity-related behavioral intention, this gives the individual a premature sense of possessing the aspired-to identity.”
Once a premature externally validated ego identity develops around one’s end goal, it also diminishes one’s level of humility toward the small steps necessary in the initial phase of change.
Stay in the humility zone
Developing an ego identity regarding your end goal is like using cocaine to feel confident. You get a short-term benefit at a long-term cost.
Since long-term motivation requires the ability to find rewards in a series of small steps, a lack of humility prevents you from engaging in the small tasks that offer these consistent long-term rewards.
Small steps seem less exciting than taking massive initial actions that are more noticeable and impressive to others around you.
For example, if you want to run a marathon, it would be wise to start slow and run shorter distances, slowly building your way up to the goal. This would require the humility to start small. Without humility, it is tempting to overdo it and get burnt out since you are constantly focused on your current lack of competency compared to the end goal.
Comparing your current self to your idealized future self sets you up to never feel like you are enough, leading to a constant sense of disappointment throughout the change process. This is the opposite of the humility zone where you appreciate each tiny bit of progress, leading to long-term motivational momentum.
12-step recovery programs build this into their programming since the first step requires admitting you are powerless over the substance/ behavior. In addition, before speaking at each meeting, members introduce themselves as an alcoholic or addict. This helps members get into the humility zone, setting them up to find gratitude in each small step toward recovery.
Focus on the next step
As previously mentioned, the 12-step recovery phrase, “one day at a time,” can teach us a great deal about motivation. In addition to making each day into a small step, the program has a series of steps facilitated with the social support of one’s peers.
Focusing on the next step makes changing feel less overwhelming since you have a sense of structure, direction, and the humility to appreciate the process.
If you want to create your own customized set of steps, consider trying the SMART principle.
This goal-setting method allows you to focus on daily, weekly, monthly, and annual goals. Each goal is not an end-point but a step on the path toward your long-term goals.
Here are the aspects to consider when creating a goal:
– Specific: Is this a specific goal, or is it too broad?
– Measurable: How would you measure progress toward this goal?
– Achievable: Is this a realistic goal?
– Relevant: Is this meaningfully connected to your values?
– Time-bound: What is your timeline/ deadline for this goal?
I hope this article helps you find the motivation to make significant long-term changes in your life.
Although counseling is a great way to expedite the process, you can start gaining motivation today by using the tools provided in this article.
First, inquire into what is preventing you from acting. Then focus on meeting your unmet needs, clarifying your values, and building motivational momentum through small actions.
If you are looking for even more insights into how motivation works, I highly recommend checking out the book, How We Change (And Ten Reasons Why We Don’t) by Ross Ellenhorn. There are many powerful insights in this book and you can even listen to the audiobook version for free if you haven’t yet signed up for Audible’s trial.
As always, I am looking for your feedback, so I can continue to refine these ideas in future content.