How to Get More Motivated
Trying to be healthier, but struggling to get off the couch? Learn how to get more motivated with minimal effort.
For a long time, I saw lack of motivation as laziness; if you tell yourself to work out more but instead lie on the couch all day, then you’re lazy.
This misconception was exacerbated by the fact that I could push myself to do most things — both the things I wanted to do, and the things I didn’t.
This isn’t to say that it was easy for me to push myself, but I did it anyway. And I prided myself on my work ethic and determination to get things done, even through — heck, especially through — discomfort and unhappiness (a quality that may seem admirable from the outside — wow, you’re so disciplined! — but can really take a toll on happiness).
But this was an extremely limited view of motivation, and, unfortunately, one that I think most people subscribe to: that the “optimal” motivation is the goal-oriented, self-derived motivation, the “tell yourself to run every morning and just do it” motivation.
The reality, though, is that motivation is quite complex, and it takes many forms.
If you’re seeking how to get more motivated, the key is not to try to change yourself, but rather to (a) better understand yourself and the types of things that most compel you to act, and (b) craft an environment that triggers your innate motivation.
What is Motivation, Anyway?
People typically don’t seek motivation to watch Netflix; that just happens naturally.
Instead, we try to cultivate motivation to do the things we know we should do, the things that we often truly want to do but that will yield some short-term discomfort. In the case of health, we’re talking about goals like working out more and eating better; while it’s surely possible to genuinely enjoy these things (and I do encourage everyone to find that enjoyment), these activities, for the most part, are not as fun, easy, and instantly-gratifying as scrolling through Instagram or watching Tiger King.
When people seek out motivation, then, what they’re really seeking are ways to get themselves to do things they know they should do, despite not necessarily feeling like doing them. They want to know how to exercise, despite not feeling like going to the gym. Or to eat better, despite wanting to eat pizza and ice cream for dinner every night.
Some people might expect motivation to be a happy, fun, effortless thing — that people who work out do so because they just love exercise and never waver. But I think most people realize that this is a romantic vision; most people know that they won’t always feel the warm fuzzies about challenging goals, and that the solution is to strengthen the drive to achieve those goals despite obstacles.
So, how do we do that?
How to Get More Motivated
1. Identify Your Motivation
For some, a clearly-defined goal is motivation enough. But most people need an additional motivation — some other reason to pursue a goal that adds an extra “oomph” to push them forward. Here are some examples:
- The “other people” motivation: If it’s for someone else — if someone else has asked you to do something or is relying on you in some way — you’ll do it in a heartbeat. (Sometimes a non-human, like a pet or even an app, can yield a similar response.)
- The “future self” motivation: Doing things for your future self — even the 2-hours-from-now future self — is more compelling than doing things for your current self.
- The “if it makes sense” motivation: If you’ve done your research and convinced yourself that you should be doing something, then you’ll follow through.
- The “rebel” motivation: If someone tells you to not do something, you’ll do it anyway (and vice versa — they tell you to do something, and you refuse).
- The “should do” motivation: If it’s something you think you should do, regardless of how dull or painful, and regardless of whether that “should” is internally or externally imposed, it will get done; the goal itself is “weighty” enough to provoke movement towards it.
So, how to get more motivated? Identify the type of motivation that feels most compelling to you. If you can’t get yourself to eat better on your own but thrive on a program like Weight Watchers, you’re not weak — you just need external accountability to reach your goals.
As another example, let’s say you want to work out at 8a tomorrow morning, but just setting that expectation in your mind doesn’t quite do it for you. Before you yell at yourself for being a lazy-piece-of-you-know-what, consider the following:
Would you make that 8a workout if…
- You promised a friend you’d do it with them? Or you made a deal with your friend that they can only exercise if you do?
- You signed up and paid for an 8a workout class?
- You’ve set a goal of 10k-steps-a-day, and this morning workout will help you get there?
- Your FitBit will yell at you if you don’t?
- You want to be more productive, and you’ve done extensive research that’s convinced you of the power of a morning workout to achieve that?
- Someone told you, “I bet you can’t make it through this 8a workout class.”?
- That 8a workout was instead a “sometime in the morning” workout?
It might also be helpful to think about patterns from the past: What has motivated you before? When have you been successful with achieving a goal or adopting a new habit? What thing do you work hard at, even if you feel lazy in other areas of your life, and what makes that thing different?
There is no single best way to inspire motivation; the best way for you is the one that will get you to that 8a workout with the least resistance.
Now, identifying your motivation and triggering it once will almost certainly not get you very far; initial motivation can help spark movement towards a goal, but it likely won’t be enough to ensure follow-through. This is a particularly true for goals that require consistent, regular effort — things like exercising daily, as opposed to exercising just once.
That’s where other strategies come in — strategies both to stoke the motivation fire and to minimize obstacles to your motivation.
2. Cultivate Your Motivation
Motivation is often a fleeting thing–I’ve had plenty of moments in which my motivation to do something lasts all of 2 seconds.
This isn’t to say that motivation is useless, but it does take some work to keep strong.
Naturally, the strategies you employ will depend on the type of motivation you resonate with. But, whatever the case, the goal is to remind yourself regularly of the motivation, in a way that doesn’t consume a lot of energy itself.
Assuming you’re trying to exercise more regularly, here are example strategies to cultivate long-term motivation (check out this article for even more):
- The “other people” motivation
- Hire a personal trainer; become accountability partners (or workout buddies) with a friend; tell your kid they can eat ice cream for dinner any day that you don’t exercise.
- The “future self” motivation
- Make a vision board that captures your desired future; conduct a daily meditation in which you imagine being your future self, reflecting back on all you’ve accomplished; train your mind to think of your future self whenever you hit a mental block (e.g., if you struggle to make it to the gym, imagine how amazing you’ll feel afterward).
- The “if it makes sense” motivation
- Write down the reasons why you are exercising (e.g., increased energy) and schedule a daily reminder to revisit them; journal about the benefits you notice after each workout; regularly read articles or watch videos on exercise research to keep your interest strong.
- The “rebel” motivation
- Remind yourself of the freedom you will achieve by being fit (freedom to live a long time, to engage in all sorts of activities and adventures); join an ambitious race that people don’t think you can finish; find fitness challenges online or via apps.
- The “should do” motivation
- Articulate your goal to exercise more, write down your plan (how often? what type?), and translate that plan to your calendar; record your progress for extra momentum (e.g., use a workout app to track daily steps and workouts, record the weights you use to observe strength gains, add $1 to a savings account for each day you exercise).
3. Remove Blockers to Motivation
If there were no obstacles in our way, then motivation would propel us through life to do all the things we want to do, need to do, and should do. But life presents many obstacles, and even a strong motivation isn’t always powerful enough to plow through them. To let our motivation flourish, we should also seek ways to remove the obstacles from our path, or at least minimize their impact.
While it’s impossible to outline every possible obstacle, here are a few common ones:
- Inconvenience: Even minor inconveniences can be enough to derail an effort. Pack your gym bag ahead of time, sleep in your workout clothes, get some at-home workout equipment–do what you need to do to make exercise as convenient as possible.
- Decision fatigue: Making decisions drains our mental energy and makes it more difficult to stick to habits and work towards goals; the more we can streamline our lives and eliminate unnecessary decisions, the better. Schedule your workouts ahead of time (even better: work out at the same time daily), delegate your workout planning to a coach / app / program, and pick out your workout clothes the day before.
- Lack of support: While some thrive on others’ doubts, most of us feel run down if we’re not validated and encouraged by those around us. Seek ways to surround yourself with people who have similar goals and values, or consider hiring a coach to be that supportive figure.
- Change: Particularly when working on a habit, a change of scenery can be disruptive. This “change” can be a vacation, a move, or even an impromptu meeting. Whatever the case, change can shake up the structures we’ve put into place to support our goals and habits, and they can be exploited to excuse ourselves from healthy behaviors (e.g., “I’m on vacation, so I can eat whatever I want.”). Beware of how different types of change affect you, and brainstorm ways to keep yourself on track despite them.
Motivation = Discipline
Some might say that motivation is overrated — that instead of learning how to get more motivated, we should be learning how to build discipline.
But I think motivation is discipline.
Discipline isn’t about doing things with zero motivation; even the most disciplined people have some reason, some drive, to do what they do (even if it’s just to prove how disciplined they are).
Discipline, instead, is about cultivating our innate motivation. It’s about understanding ourselves and the things that drive us. And, most importantly, it’s about crafting an environment that allows our motivation to thrive.
At the least, let’s stop chasing after motivation that doesn’t come naturally and then ripping ourselves apart for not having our s*** together. Not only is this exhausting, but it’s damaging to our sense of self-worth and -efficacy.
Instead, we can decide to honor the type of motivation that compels us the most, and to focus our energy on finding ways to trigger that motivation.
Perhaps there’s some internal work that can be done to shift our “motivation triggers” — to cultivate, for example, a greater obligation to personal well-being if others’ needs always feel more important.
But we can do a heck of a lot in the meantime.
(For a full run-down of how the above strategies and tips apply to the healthy eating realm, check out this article on how to start eating more healthfully.)
What type of motivation works best for you?