Staying Motivated

Staying Motivated. Psychology Fanatic article header image
Staying Motivated. Psychology Fanatic
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Let’s be honest for a moment. Most of the time it’s not a matter of knowledge holding us back; it’s our lack of ability for staying motivated. We know what we must do; we’re just not doing it consistently enough to make a difference. If we can solve the motivation issue, most the vexing problems holding us back would vanish. We fail and go back to the drawing board, seeking ways to sidestep the primary cause for failure—lack of ability to stay motivated. Perhaps with somethings there is an easier way, but, often success is obtained by simply getting our hands dirty, putting in sweat equity and earning the reward.

We’ve all been there. In a moment of excitement, we decide we are just going to “do it.” We’re going to lose that weight, go back to school, or start saving money. We imagine a better life, and make some kind of commitment to change.

We may dawdle in new behaviors for a while, do a few exercises, search the internet for job offers, or forego the bowl of ice cream. Yet, before habits take hold, we slowly drift back to our comfortable norm, eventually abandoning the goal. Laziness wins the day, imprisoning our life, again.

​”​Motivation encompasses the desire to continue striving toward meaning, purpose, and a life worth living.” 

 ~Psychology Today

Flashes of Motivation

We have flashes of motivation—an internal push to change. Sometimes a disappointment screams, creating enough sorrow to initiate change. Other times, we just catch a vision of the possibility for a better life. We triumphantly proclaim, “I’m going to go do it.”

Flashes of motivation are not the problem. The problem arises when the flashes die and fiery embers cool. Our motivational fire turns to doubt and then ashes. We fail to stay motivated. We must fan those flames, keep them alive, throwing more combustible fuel on our dwindling flames.

Staying Motivated by Riding the Wave

A crucial first step for success is to ride the wave of precious  motivational flashes. Jump on your dreams before they fade, breaking back into the flat waters of normalcy. It doesn’t take much for us to retreat to sameness. Sameness feels comfortable. Change is stressful. We naturally default to the cozy failures that are permanent fixtures in our dreary lives.

The great late Forty-Niner defensive lineman Fred Dean, known for not lifting weights, once told a reporter, “certainly, I sometimes feel like lifting weights. But, I just sit down and the desire goes away.” Based on Mr. Dean’s success, we know he did plenty of other things to keep his competitive edge. However, his comments struck me. Often, we do just that. We have a flash of motivation, and instead of acting on it, we sit down and the desire quietly goes away without a fuss. We fail to stay motivated if we fail to act when experie3ncing initial pushes of motivation to act.

“We seem to have a natural aversion to persistent effort that no amount of caffeine or inspirational posters can fix.”  

~Ayelet Fishbach | Harvard Business Review

Honoring the Flashes of Motivation

A key to success is to honor these flashes, understanding  their transitory nature, and maximize their energy without hesitation. For small tasks, we use motivational energy to complete the project without delay. For fulfilling larger dreams, waves of motivation will not sufficiently last to pull us through the necessary days, months and years of committed work. We need a better plan for staying motivated.

​Building Foundations for Action  During Motivational Flashes 

We need both gentle and persistent nudges to motivate sufficient action to attain distal goal. A key tool for successful achievement is using motivational flashes to create environmental structures that keep the dream alive and continue to push action when we lose steam.

Nudges come in both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. These rewards can be either positive or negative reinforcers. We also nudge continued action with reminders why the goal (at least at some point) is important to us. We also must implement a variety of psychological tricks and tools that ease the burden of action when motivational wells run dry.


Rewards are ever-present, lying at the heart of most behavior. Life naturally provides rewards for action—or punishments for inaction. Yes, laziness rewards. The most notably reward of inaction is comfort.

A helpful tool for staying motivated continued action is structuring a reward system that supersedes natural rewards of inaction (comfort, amusements).

Positive and Negative Reinforcers

​Positive rewards celebrate positive actions, such as working out four days in a row, or losing ten pounds. Negative reinforcement is punishment for negative behaviors. Negative reinforcement is not evil, just not as affective.

Science suggests that celebrating positive actions has a greater impact on behavior change than punishing negative behaviors. We capitalize on this finding by setting more action goals built on positive behaviors and rewarding successful completion of those behaviors.

​”​If you don’t have a positive plan of action, using negative motivation can make you feel helpless and may even reduce your motivation.”

Intrinsic And Extrinsic Rewards

Intrinsic Motivation:

Deci and Flaste suggest that intrinsic motivation is at the heart of “healthy behavior and lasting change” (1996, page 9). Intrinsic motivation is pursuing first-order values. We love for the sake of loving. Intrinsic values our key to staying motivated.

Ryan and Deci describe intrinsic motivation as a principle source of enjoyment and vitality throughout our life. They say that in many ways it “is almost spiritual” having to do with the feeling itself. They continue, “it is vitality, dedication, transcendence. It is one of those experiences that can be called ‘more than ordinary moments’” (2000, page 45).

​Extrinsic Motivation

​Extrinsic motivations is effort to achieve a reward outside of ourselves. We are more motivated at work when the work is engaging, relying on our creativity, and skill than a job where we do our obligatory eight hours and flee. The effort and energy drag on our wellness.

We need a paycheck; I get it. Many jobs are a second-order endeavor. We work for a paycheck to pay for shelter.

Complexity of Rewards

​Rewards are not simple. Most behaviors are motivated by a mixture of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards both for performing positive behaviors and avoiding negative behaviors. Trying to unravel every underlying reward is impossible, we just do our best to seed the desired path with rewards that keep us motivated.

Ultimately, intrinsic rewards for positive behaviors will serve us best. We feel good (the reward) when we exercise (the behavior). When we achieve this monumental intrinsic reward system for positive behaviors, work towards a goal flows effortlessly.

External rewards have a place; they also assist us in our efforts to stay motivated. Last week I celebrated a 7 month grueling website reformatting effort. After 500 hundred hours of work, I finished this monumental task, celebrating the achievement by opening a bottle of Champaign. 

While the bottle of Champaign alone would not be enough to motivate the work, it was a nice treat, providing an extra push as I neared completion.

Conflicting Rewards

I caution against external rewards that conflict with the overarching goal. For example, rewarding yourself with a break from the work of doing the very thing you are attempting to accomplish. We shouldn’t reward ourselves with a fatty, high calorie meal for keeping a strict diet for a week. The reward undermines the overarching goal. These rewards expose our distaste for the task, interrupt momentum, and require difficult reengagement. These rewards are akin to rewarding a recovering substance abuser for successful detox with a trip to the bar. Rewards should motivate continued effort, not invite disruptive breaks.

Healthy alternatives rewards can be creatively implemented, eventually integrating the new behavior into an intrinsically rewarding endeavor. For example, reward three weeks of gym attendance with a massage, or perhaps, a change of pace workout, such as a swim or a run on the beach.

Reminders of Purpose

Friedrich Nietzsche famously wrote, “If You Know the why, you can live any how.” However, purpose isn’t always so simple. Purpose contributes mightily to setting goals but the vision seems to fade. Life gets in the way.

We aren’t singular in purpose. We have many goals. What is forefront in one moment often slips in priority as the kids scream, bills come in, and aching muscles beg for rest. 

We must keep our “why” alive. If we don’t routinely bring our original dream back to the surface, staying motivated to do the work will wane. A few ways to do this are:

  • Write goals down along with the reasons for the goal
  • Review progress regularly
  • ​Journal writing 
  • Dream boards
  • Join groups that share the same purpose 

​”​Find the value in what you’re doing, to identify why you want to keep going. Is it helping you to reach a larger goal, or benefiting others in some way? You’ll feel more invested and enthusiastic when you can see the benefits and the meaning of a task.” 

~Faye Bradshaw

Psychological Tricks and Tools

Tricks work. Sometimes we need to fool ourselves into dong what we want to do. We must make the path easierGrit alone will not do. To ease the burden, we should use initial motivations to set in motion plans that make continued effort easier. We can put in place structures that push us forward when the original motivations shift.

The Goldilocks Rule

​James Clear suggests we set goals in a sweet spot, demanding effort but not overly difficult. When goals are too easy, we get bored; when too demanding, we get frustrated. We must find the middle ground, enough to keep us engaged, experiencing progress. Clear explains, “humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities. Not too hard. Not too easy. Just right.”

Setting the right goals is essential for staying motivated. Difficult goals that may overwhelm need to be broken down into bite sized digestible morsels. We need routine enjoyments of success.

Inform Others of Your Goals

​Often we keep our goals to ourselves. We do this for a variety of reasons, but one of the most salient reasons is ego protection. When we fail at a goal and nobody knows, we save ourselves the shame.

We don’t want to feel shame for failing. However, shame avoidance robs the extra extra boost to move forward. Knowing our friend will ask how the workouts are going may give an extra push us to go to the gym when we feel like staying home.

Supportive Others can be a significant source of strength assisting with staying motivated. We must use them.

Accountability Partners

​Working together with someone strengthens motivation. When two people work together, they hold each other accountable. Breaking a commitment to ourselves is much easier than breaking a commitment with a friend (and ourself).

​Accountability partners may not be working on the same goal, but each partner checks regularly on the progress of the other.


Art Markman PhD explains that “a consistent mapping means that the behaviors you perform to achieve a particular goal are associated with some set of circumstances in the environment that is always the same.” He continues, “when you always perform a particular behavior in a unique environment, habits are easy to form” (2015, location 531).

If our goal is working out at the gym, we need a routine that leads up to the exercise. I ride a stationary bike. I have a routine that begins with turning on the bike, mixing a Gatorade with water, and putting on my riding shoes. This simple routine always begins with flipping on a power switch. However, once the power switch is on, the rest of the routine flows without effort. I found I don’t need motivation to ride for an hour, I just need to stay motivated long enough to flip the switch, requiring only a small push with my finger.

Changing Unhealthy Routines

Breaking habits works much the same way, except we must disrupt routines, rearrange our environments that lead to the disliked behavior. For example, if you always grab a Twinkie from the cabinet when making lunch, move the Twinkies to a different cabinet. Force yourself to think about choices you prefer to abandon.

  • Put your credit cards in a different pocket in the wallet 
  • Reverse your shopping routine, start on the other side of the store
  • Put the television remote on the other side of the room
  • Move the soda to the outside refrigerator
  • Delete the twitter app icon from your home screen

Use the power of routine to your advantage. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein wrote, “first, never underestimate the power of inertia. Second, that power can be harnessed” (2009, location 217). Success is often a matter of changing inertia, breaking old routines and establishing new ones. 

In the science backed book Influencer, the authors emphasize that “it is the lack of thought, not the presence of thought that enables our bad behavior” (2013, p. 94).

Obstacle Planning

No matter how motivated and purposeful our goal, we will encounter obstacles—plenty of them. Our ultimate success comes from surviving the wallops of unpredictable events. We need precise plans for implementation. But just as important as the implementation plans are plans for surviving obstacles.

Jeremy Dean PhD, founder of PsyBlog, suggests preparation for obstacles with “if-then” plans. If this happens, then I will respond this way. These plans automate escape routes when troubles are encountered, lessening the need for thinking during critical moments.

Dean provides these examples in his book Making Habits:

  • “If I feel scared of the dance class, then I will remember that everyone is a beginner and scared of looking stupid.”
  • “If I feel too tired to practice the piano after work, then I will first listen to some inspirational music to help motivate me” (2013, location 1770).

We can’t risk leaving critical responses to times when our minds are over-taxed. Creatively write out dozens of “if-then” responses. The practice greases your mind for finding solutions. Even when the exact obstacle wasn’t forecasted, this practice of finding solutions eases the burden of thinking on the spot.

Surviving Lapses

An essential “if-then” plan must be in place for lapses. They happen. We slip. Whether the lapse is in sobriety, diet, or relationship behaviors, we must have a planned attack for getting back on track.

As a personal trainer, I always emphasized a key to fitness is our ability to start to work out—again. With fitness, we encounter injuries, outside interference, and temporary motivation insufficiencies. The belief we will never lag in determination is foolish.

My grandpa warned me after being bucked off of his horse, “don’t let that horse beat you, get back on her.” What was true on the dairy farm is true in life. We must courageously get back on that horse.

We must avoid at all costs our oh-the-hell-with-it reaction to failure. Certainly, we can evaluate the appropriateness of a goal, examining the match-fit between goal and our desires; however, we never want to quit a doable goal because it is a little more difficult than we planned. Truthfully, most worthwhile goals are a little more difficult than we plan.

We must meet the challenges by designing plans that maximize our motivations. We must ride the waves of temporary drive to construct paths that make dream fulfillment possible. Accordingly, we can improve motivation, staying engaged longer; however, just as important is plans that keep us on course when motivation wanes, when the wave flattens, and we must look for the next wave to lift and push us on our exciting journey of becoming.

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Dean, J. (2013). Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick. Da Capo Lifelong Books; Illustrated edition.

Deci, E. L., Flaste, R. (1996) Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation. Penguin Books; Reprint edition.

Grenny, J., Patterson, K., Maxfield. D., McMillan, R., Switzler, A. (2013). Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change, Second Edition. McGraw-Hill Education; 2nd edition.

Markman, Art (2015) Smart Change: Five Tools to Create New and Sustainable Habits in Yourself and Others. Tarcher-Perigee; Reprint edition.

Ryan, R., & Deci, E. (2000). Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.

Thaler, R. H. & Sunstein, C. R. (2009) Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Penguin Books; Revised & Expanded edition.

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