12 Feb

How to stay motivated

I’ve seen that a lot of people appear to struggle with how to stay motivated.  Most people make resolutions for themselves, but more often than not the resolve to stand by those resolutions fizzles out over time.  It can be a difficult thing to decide what one should (or shouldn’t) do with themselves, but even when this has been worked out, how can a person stick by their original plans?  And how can a person account for why they were raring to go one moment, but totally apathetic the next?

I’ve struggled with establishing and breaking habits as much as anyone, but I think in that time I’ve been able to improve a little.  To a certain degree that’s down to knowing myself and whether I’m likely to stick to a given goal or not, but for the most part I think there are some insights able to be had that are general enough to apply to most people.  The ones I feel I’ve identified I’d like to share here.

The pitfalls of motivation

The first is to recognise that our resolve fluctuates over time.  When you’re making your plans you feel one way, but when it comes to enacting them you’re liable to feel another.  Take the person who goes out for the evening and commits to only buying 4 drinks; later in the evening, the person is having fun and suddenly the reasoning behind their plan loses all power of persuasion, and by the time they come home, they have the receipts for 8.

The implication of motivation changing according to time and circumstance is that having a plan to do or avoid a certain thing is not enough.  It’s inaccurate to assume that the present you and the you who must endure your resolutions are identical.  Because of this fact, it is unwise to let the success of your plan hinge on something so erratic as your motivation.  If you are constantly imbued with enthusiasm and energy for bettering yourself then this may not be of concern to you, but I know in my case it makes all the difference.

The second thing to note is that reason for the drinker was not effective.  You might have very good reasons for wishing to adopt or break a habit, but these cannot be depended on to speak to you in times where temptation is present to counter them.  People who are urged to give up smoking or change their diets – even when told that if they do not then they will die – are often for one reason or another seemingly incapable of doing so, even when they wish they could.  This clearly illustrates that reasons alone are in many cases not powerful enough to triumph in the forming and amendment of habit.

If it is not reason that governs our behaviour, then what is it?  I think behaviour is to a large degree emotional.  When we consider what we want to do, we get different feelings associated with each course of action we consider.  Unaccountably we feel positively about one thing and not about another, even when the way we feel is consciously and knowingly contrary to our best interests.  Dismissing these emotions is not easy with respect to how to stay motivated.

Because our behaviour is linked to our emotions, and because we exert little conscious control over our emotional life, it is difficult to see how we can overcome it.  What has worked for me is to take a multi-pronged approach.

The role of discipline

The first prong is to confront those emotions head-on.  I wrote in a The budo lifestyle that discipline acts as a counterbalance to temptation; if we cultivate discipline, we in effect strengthen our conscious mind to withstand the lesser-cultured ambitions of our subconscious.  This is the major strategy in overcoming base desire with more cogent aspiration.  Will power has been shown to operate similarly to a muscle1 – in other words, if you use it it grows stronger, and if you don’t it withers.

The implication of will power behaving like a muscle is that we can seek to improve on it over time.  By merely doing things regularly that require will power, we get better at exerting will power in general.  We become disciplined and in effect it feels like it takes less effort to do a given thing than if we were undisciplined.  So in practical terms it’s not just that we have ‘more’ will power, but we might also say that the things we want to do require less of it.

In order to develop will power a person needs to find things to exert it on.  My personal solution has been to create various challenges for myself – some of them are personally beneficial, others ethical and yet more are arbitrary.  There are a large number to choose from so I would suggest to pick some that are congruent with your life’s goals, but a note on arbitrary challenges: the arbitrariness of a challenge adds to the difficulty in that it deprives you of listening to reason at all.  It is one thing to commit to a challenge with some obvious benefit, but another to do something that has no discernible benefit whatever.  Ethical challenges are somewhere in-between; they don’t benefit you in a tangible sense, but they do provide you with the sensation that you are living in accordance with your convictions, which is a feeling not to be underrated.2

Tricks for staying motivated

The second prong is to employ tricks that circumvent a dependence on will power.  These are generally specific to the activity in question.  One trick that I find works in general however is to commit only to beginning an activity, since beginning a (short) thing is disproportionately harder than finishing it once you have started.  For example, when I’ve decided I ought to go for a run on a particular day, going for a run feels like a large amount of effort and I may not feel like it.  However, simply putting on my running shoes and closing the door behind me is much easier and I’m consequently less concerned with how to stay motivated.  What I say to myself, then, is that if I do put on my shoes and close the door behind me, if I feel like it I can come straight back in again.  This never happens however, as once I’m outside the house with my running shoes on there seems little point in not going for the run.

In another example, say I wish to write a blog entry.  Writing an entire entry might seem too troublesome and I might put it off.  On the other hand, if I ask of myself only that I write two paragraphs, then it is easier to begin writing and again I’m not concerned with how to stay motivated for it.  However, once I’ve begun writing, the process is in motion and I feel like I may as well continue.  So long as I don’t get distracted and my chain of thought broken, it’s not particularly difficult to write until I’ve said the things I feel I sat down to say.

This trick can be applied to all sorts of activities, but it does distinctly apply only to doing things and not avoiding doing them.  According to what it is that you want to do, this tactic may or may not be of service.  There is likely to be some means to ease the way in which you approach the activity in question though, and a little thought and creativity may help to reveal it.

Removing motivation from the equation

The final prong is to remove the reliance on motivation at all.  If you feel that your activity depends on feeling motivated, whenever you are not motivated you are liable to forgo your activity.  If, however, you view your level of motivation as irrelevant – that in any case you must do the activity – then things become significantly easier.  Once again, you have alleviated your concern for how to stay motivated.  This is best illustrated when the impetus comes from some external source.  Consider why you get up every morning for work or school – it is because, all things considered, you simply must.  If you don’t want to then all the worse for you, but it doesn’t stop you.  If I set my alarm on a day when I have no need to get up, my chance of actually listening to it is critically diminished.

Imposing external consequences

The challenge, then, is how to use this to one’s advantage in the absence of consequences.  The most obvious solution is to manufacture those consequences by oneself; a common method is to give a significant sum of money to a trusted person under the condition that they pay you back a certain amount for each successful completion of your activity, but with the threat that if you miss an activity they are free to keep your money.  Another type of imposed consequence is to reward or punish yourself in regard to permitting yourself treats such as takeaways or leisure time.  These are more difficult however since they require further discipline in order to enact them.

I personally dislike the imposition of external consequences, since I would prefer to feel that I have achieved something by my own accord.  Additionally I feel I don’t care enough about money to benefit from trying to earn it back from a friend, and I don’t necessarily trust myself to stick to whatever rewards or punishments I commit myself to.  Ideally I want to do always what is best, so if my ‘reward’ was best for me then I should have it anyway, and if it wasn’t then I shouldn’t have it regardless of success elsewhere.

Connecting to transcendental ideals

The method I favour for instilling the feeling of necessity into prospective behaviour is to connect it to greater things that I care more about.  Although I may not care particularly about watching an online university lecture, since it would not harm me in the scheme of things to put it off ’til tomorrow, I might disallow it if my doing so was connected to something more important like my ideals or self-esteem.

For example, one of my life rules3 is Resolution.  It exhorts me to “resolve to do what I ought” and “perform without fail what I resolve.”  If I determine there is a thing I ought to do, not doing it directly transgresses this rule and given that I care very much that I live according to my rules, it makes something trivial like not watching a university lecture a matter of significant concern.  Another rule is Perseverance, which tells me to “never disengage from a resolution or goal for the lack of self-discipline.”  Knowingly breaking two rules at once would be deplorable – it’s simply not an option, so somehow I find it within me to watch the lecture.

Creating a chain of success

I appreciate however that most people don’t have anything analogous to use in place of these rules lest they adopt them themselves.  Happily I have another example of tying the trivial to the non-trivial.  This technique involves constructing a chain of keeping promises to yourself.  At the beginning, there is not much weight to the chain, since it is empty or it has few links in it.  If, however, you have managed to keep the last 15 promises to yourself, the preservation of this chain becomes a matter of greater importance.  At 15 promises you’re secure in trusting yourself that if you make yourself a promise, your future self will keep it.  Is not-keeping this new promise really worth throwing that trust away?  It becomes harder to justify.

In order to better establish the importance of this chain, I’ve found it beneficial to keep a spreadsheet.  I expect I’ll write a future entry specifically on the spreadsheets I’ve kept since they’ve proven very practicable to me in maintaining my commitments, but in essence there is a column of green, with each cell in the column representing a promise kept or an activity completed on a particular date.  If I fail in keeping my word to myself, instead of a lovely green cell, a red cell is added.  Given my nature of disliking incompleteness, I hate the idea of having my lovely green column interrupted forever by ugly red.  In effect, I take advantage of a personality quirk of mine – my effort is directed towards preserving the column, and completing desired activities becomes a by-product of this.

This is in actuality a common motivational tool.  It’s the same as having a calendar and marking each day with an ‘X’ every time you successfully make it to the gym.  It’s encouraging to visually see your progress, and it’s much more fulfilling to have a month full of X’s than an empty page of calendar.  If, however, like me, you do happen to have particular idiosyncrasies that can be marshalled into helping you achieve your goals, then they should be taken advantage of.  It’s most likely worthwhile to undertake a certain degree of introspection to unearth or decide how to apply them as in the spreadsheet example.

How to stay motivated using self-image

The last thing to say about this prong is that I find it particularly effective to attach meeting my goals to my image of myself.  This is related to preserving the chain of promises to yourself: you want to think of yourself as trustworthy.  When I commit to a goal, what makes motivation irrelevant is that I have no option to fail, since doing so would fall contrary to my view of myself.  For example, with vegetarianism it requires no motivation whatever, since eating meat would mean I wasn’t someone who cared about sticking to his understanding of ethics.  Even when I am drunk and uninhibited, I don’t eat meat – it’s just not who I am.

This, I think, may only work for people with high self-esteem.  If you think highly of yourself, you will have a certain conviction behind achieving the kinds of things consistent with your self-worth.  A person with low self-esteem might feel at times that success is out of their reach, and if I believed I would ultimately fail, I certainly would be tempted to throw in the towel sooner rather than later.  In order for tying goals to self-image to be effective, you must already have a strong self-image to begin with.  It is a good thing however that sticking to one’s commitments helps to establish that self-image, so if it cannot be used now, it may appear as an option in future.

How to stay motivated: don’t rely on it

In the last section I talked about the eradication of one’s reliance on motivation.  This, I think, is the true secret behind maintaining one’s commitments.  The way to guarantee success is to make failure impossible; insofar as a person can do this, they will walk hand-in-hand with fortune.  The other techniques are valuable in bringing a person to the point where they can start to make a transition to seeing their commitments as an implication of their character.

A word of caution: Of course, some goals are more difficult to maintain than others.  If seeking to build a chain of promises kept or to increase self-esteem, it’s prudent to avoid challenges that can be easily or accidentally failed.  The belief in success is extraordinarily valuable (so long as it remains tempered by an accurate view of the world).  I’m reminded of a quote by Henry Ford: “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t – you’re right.” Although, if it were me, I’d amend the quote to end with “you’re probably right” so as to avoid the indulgence of wishful thinking.

If you can achieve a true command of yourself, motivation is not important.  What will underpin your success isn’t that you’re motivated to do, but that you actually do.  If your doing becomes assured, motivation is left neither here nor there and you won’t have to worry about it.  You won’t have to rely on motivational quotes and videos like so many of us do.  This article is to a degree a misnomer then – it’s not so much about how to stay motivated as it is about not needing to.

There are few shortcuts in the road to success.  Becoming disciplined takes requiring discipline of yourself – and for extended periods of time.  Whatever your goals are, you should expect to commit yourself wholly to them if you wish to achieve them.


  1. See this article from Life Hacker. 

  2. The belief that one lives ethically and intentionally is in my experience a significant boon for one’s self-esteem. 

  3. I have a number of life rules I attempt to live by. I’ve found this system to be beneficial both in encouraging ethical conduct and in bolstering self-discipline, so would recommend a similar system to anyone to whom it appeals. 

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