How to Motivate Yourself: Even When You Don’t Feel Like It

How to Motivate Yourself: Even When You Don’t Feel Like It

The lie we most want to believe is that we’ll have motivation tomorrow. We’re sold the fantasy that tomorrow we’ll be a better version of ourselves and miraculously start meal-prepping and read two books a month. In fact, a billion-dollar industry rides on our ability to dream, but not act. Wondering how to motivate yourself? 

Motivation allows you to build systems to keep you going even when you don’t feel like it. Think of motivation as the hyperdrive switch that helps Han Solo and Chewbacca traverse galaxies. Now, hyperdrive isn’t sustainable when it’s on all the time, but for short bursts, it gets the team from A to B. Or Ɣ. You know what I mean? So let’s activate our internal hyperdrive. 

Step 1: Plan for Failure 

Now, this seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? But the great BJ Fogg, founder and director of Stanford University’s Behavior Design Lab, says that we’re to assume that our future self will be lazy. It’s okay. Take a moment to catch your breath and chant affirmations in the mirror. This statement is in no way designed to dissuade you from embarking on the ultimate “how to get motivated” journey, but rather highlight why we so desperately need it. 

Make it easy for your future self

It’s important to start thinking of your motivation reservoir as a tiny little vessel with random bursts of refilling. Better yet: 

Motivation = short term 

So what the heck do we do? Well, there’s always endless streaming and online shopping. But that’s not sustainable, amiright? So what’s the long-term solution? The equation looks a little like this right now: 

? = long term

Back to BJ Fogg. A popular anecdote he likes to use is where he was on a journey to drink more tea. So instead of waking up in the morning shuffling through the cabinet and putting a pot to boil for some of that leafy goodness, he realized that motivation wouldn’t last. So he set up a tea station including his favorite variants of tea. An electric kettle and easy access to cups meant it was easier for him to reach for tea. Even when he felt for coffee. 

And herein lies the key. He set up a system that allowed him to continue his new behavior even when the motivation was low. He made it easier for his future self. So this is what the formula looks like now: 

Systems = long term 

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Be persistent 

How long does it take to form a habit? Well, the jury’s out and we know the 21-day standard is not only inaccurate but dangerously ridiculous. Imagine training an athlete who never ran long distances before to run a marathon. In 21 days. So if it’s farfetched for the athlete, why would you put yourself under such a load of stress to change something so ingrained in your everyday routine? 

Research reveals that it can take far longer for your brain to adopt a new process. 66 days is the new minimum and close to a year for the max, but here’s the kicker, the research was done way back in 2009! So why are we still touting the 21-day habit mumbo jumbo? Because it’s convenient, and it feeds that billion-dollar motivation industry by keeping you on an endless rollercoaster of motivation to attempt to failure to guilt to shame, and you guessed it, back to motivation.  

Now, if you know that it will take you anywhere from two months to a year to form a new habit, you’re far less likely to kick it after a month. Right? 

So here’s the thing. Even if you have a system, it won’t work until you do. That’s where persistence comes in. 

Step 2: Put it on your calendar

Forget all the gizmos and gadgets that supposedly help you become more productive. I’m talking about those tools that actually distract you from the task at hand. 

Repeat after me: Calendar is king. 

Once you learn how to effectively use your calendar, there’s no need to clutter your phone with apps that will drive you crazy as you discreetly dismiss yet another ping. 

Keep motivational tools to a minimum

Bet this heading caught you by surprise! You were probably expecting a long list of tools, books, podcasts, and conferences that you simply had to attend to get you going. But no, Mando, this is not the way. 

Before we plunge headfirst into this, we’re not saying that motivational tools are bad. What we are saying is not all motivational tools are created equal. You should only use the tools that actually give you a boost and not take up more of your precious resources, such as time and money. 

All these do is add to your already enormous pile of things you won’t get to, which just increases your guilt. So what the heck are we supposed to do? 

Use the bare minimum. Don’t get distracted by the shiny lights and glittery icons. This is a good time to harness your inner minimalist and only use what you absolutely need. A pen, a notebook, a calendar. For those who are fully digital, sure, the Notes app will do.

You’re also going to go through a real big purge. If your biggest area of zero motivation lies in cleaning your house, the job isn’t going to get done by watching 50 YouTube channels that tell you how to clean. Purge, purge, purge. Whittle it down to the one that inspires or motivates the most and you’re done. Spend the minimum amount of time boosting your motivation and when your tank is full, you go for it! 

Just think of it this way, it’s hardly worth going through your stack of motivation tools when it takes 3 hours to build up motivation for a half-hour task. 

How about the wannabe fitness fanatic who has the best gear, books, and videos? Subscription to a gym with all the amenities you could ever dream of? Yet still lacks the motivation to get their kit and caboodle on an exercise bike? It might not be the motivation that you need but focus. 

Let’s talk about focus for a second 

What if the area you’re looking to improve is your overall fitness? You’ve got all your systems in place, gear laid out in the mornings, etc. but you’re still failing to launch. It could be that there is a small component missing: focus. 

Noah Kagan, founder of AppSumo says that the key to reaching his goals lies in the ability to whittle the goal down to its simplest form. Let the simplest form of your goal become your sole focus. 

Now let’s look at your fitness journey. What if you focus on one element and say that you want to be able to run 5 miles in 6 months. Now, it becomes easier to set monthly, weekly, and daily targets to meet that goal. That means that when it’s time to go to gym, you know what is expected of you and what the goal is. 

How about cleaning your house? What if the goal is to be clutter-free every night before bed? Once this becomes habit, it becomes far simpler to add to the list. Before you know it, in a couple of months you’re finding it easier to keep up with the Martha Stewarts. 

Plan ahead and set reminders 

It’s the day before the deadline and you know it takes around ten hours to complete the project, only, it’s 10 PM and the project is due first thing in the morning. If you can relate, it’s either a case of work overload or, dare we say it, procrastination. Yes, that despicable “p” word has landed many of us in a fair load of trouble. 

Face it, when you’re rushing to get the job done, is it up to standard? More importantly, is it up to your desired standard? Prolly not. 

When you plan ahead, you’re able to accommodate pitfalls and distractions more effectively because you’re doing the bulk of the work over a period of time. When you don’t, the bulk of the work likely gets done at number 99. 

So the only natural thing to do is download a productivity tool that… No. You’re going to get out your calendar. A month to view is a good place to start if you have fixed dates for certain projects. Set reminders along the way that encourage you to reach certain milestones by certain dates. It’s hard to ignore reminders when they’re specific. 

When you slowly incorporate this system with persistence, you’ll unlock pockets of time you didn’t know you had. 

Those who are in control of their projects may find it hard to set a clock on a workday. Think project managers or business owners. When you’re able to set mini-goals along the way and you persistently meet those goals, you can put a start and end time to your workday. 

Anyone who has found themselves burning the candle at both ends will know how precious a start and end time is, especially when it feels like other areas of your life are suffering. Work your system before it works you. 

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Tips for getting started 

Getting started is always the hardest part. Knowing how to motivate yourself will require the most amount of effort at the beginning because this is where you’re implementing your systems. Knowing where to start will help a great deal. 

Tip 1: Break down big goals 

It’s a mountain. We know. But waiting until tomorrow, or when you have the perfect pants, or the right color pen is not going to make the mountain any smaller. You know what will make the mountain smaller? Chipping away at it. So cliche, right? But with good reason. 

Before embarking on a project, it’s important to break it down to its simplest form. For instance, cleaning the kitchen after a dinner party. Yes, I know, hire a cleaning service would be simpler. But it doesn’t help my example. So back to the kitchen cleanup. Take a few minutes to create a list and tick it off as you go: 

  1. Pack away or throw out all non-food-related party decor. 
  2. Clear plates and cups of food and drink. 
  3. Pack away leftovers, if any. 
  4. Rinse dishes and place them in the dishwasher. 
  5. Get the dishwasher cycle going.
  6. Wash remaining dishes, set to dry. 
  7. Clean counters of clutter and give them a wipe down. 
  8. Sweep the floor and wipe other surfaces. 
  9. Mop floor, clean sink, and pack away cleaning materials. 

Seems simple enough but until you can see a project broken down in its smallest details, it’s hard to think of the finished line. Any project can be broken down this way and if you still find it hard to get started, it might not be broken down enough. Take that first step and see if you can break it down some more. 

Tip 2: Set a timer 

When you’ve broken down your steps, put a timer to each section. This will help you remain focused because you know you only have a set period in which to complete the task. A great example of a big, hairy goal that needs a timer is saving up for a wedding. Nothing motivates you faster than working your way through a wedding planner. 

Book this by a certain date, buy that by another, and the list goes on. If you’re going to meet your financial milestones, it means placing deadlines on your savings. For instance, if you need $10,000 for the venue in 6 months and you haven’t saved anything yet, you need to put away almost $1,700 per month to reach that goal. 

Tip 3: Eliminate competing motivators 

I know we’re tooting BJ Fogg’s horn in this piece, but the man’s a genius! He knows a little secret about motivation that tends to bite us in the booty because good intentions evaporate like mist on a scorching day when confronted with road bumps. And no, it’s not just social media and endless streaming that compete for your attention.  

For instance, ever wanted to go for a run the next morning only to wake up to a burst water pipe? Or how about finishing your course material ahead of schedule, but your laptop flashes the blue screen of death? 

There are always going to be competing motivators that can potentially derail you from your goals. But the key is to get back on that train as soon as possible. You may also want to consider a plan B or C to ensure you stay on track. In fact, those who are serious about their goals always make another plan. Runners have an extra pair of running shoes, writers have various platforms to get words down on, even moms carry an extra diaper in their handbag. 

Tip 4: Set yourself up for success 

We’ve told you to plan for failure and that is an enormous leap in setting yourself up for success. But the other part that doesn’t have to do with failure, is accounting for all the variables that might come into play. For instance, the weather, a financial emergency, a health issue, family crisis, or even something terrific such as a paid-for vacation. 

Planning for the variables gets you to the finish line. While you may not be able to prepare for everything that might knock you off course, it’s a good idea to start with the most obvious ones. 

Think about the successful people in your life. People who have achieved greatness such as top athletes, academic wizzes, and career moguls. What do they have in common? Self-discipline. Only, with self-discipline, you need to grow it like a long-distance runner grows their lung capacity and endurance over time. That small investment will make a world of difference while setting yourself up for success. 

In a Nutshell 

You already have everything you need to motivate yourself. Be kind to yourself and make it easier to reach your goals by putting systems in place. In fact, the combination of systems and persistence will allow you to build new habits. These two levers, systems and persistence, are critical in building new habits as we know now that a habit takes way longer than the 21 days we were led to believe. 

While motivation innovation vies for your attention, stick to the basics and kick it old school with your calendar and magic marker. If you’re really serious about ticking off those goals, have a look at Ramit’s Ultimate Guide to Habits. Works for him, it’ll work for you!

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  • Dale

    Nice Ramit, I've been huge on systems instead of goals ever since I read this article by James Clear: While it's helped in several ways, I think the biggest benefit was being able to focus on my purpose ("become better at X" or "teach readers about Y"), KNOWING that the goals would come as a byproduct of that focus. It felt like a weight off my shoulders when I first realized it.

  • Carmen

    Awesome piece you have here Ramit! This is going to help me greatly! Thank you!

  • Kalyani

    Ramit, I love the way you differentiate between failures and top performers. I am on module two of ZTL and I had a major setback (literally lost a direct fishing pond of 7,000). I was crushed but then I went back to my top performer agreement and read it over and over. Failure is one step closer to success - it hit home. I read that you had the opportunity to share one of your tested articles with an audience of 400,000 and only 15 signed up. It is far better to have an engaged audience of just 20 vs. a disengaged audience of 2,000. I had two choices - I could either let this setback break me or make me stronger. What did I do? I went back to the drawing board. Thank you for making a top performer out of me, for helping me take one of my best qualities (focused determination) and make it even better.

  • Gino Bulova

    That's Correct!! We need to learn a new habit of positive attitude at all times to reach the goals that we set. Gino Bulova

  • Kurt

    My challenge often is just getting started. I'm regularly unmotivated to tackle a project or task, but more times than not, if I can just force myself to get into it for an hour, I'll feel increasingly motivated and productive, which becomes sort of self-reinforcing. But how to stop procrastinating and just get started… that's the hurdle for me!

  • Our Next Life

    Never seen it put quite that way before: Assume your future self will be lazy. That's a super powerful piece of advice. We'd add to this the power of social support. This is definitely true in fitness, where exercisers who take part in group activity have much higher rates of adherence than people who workout alone. Not quite sure how to build that into financial pursuits, other than blogging about it and getting that positive feedback loop, but good to consider!

  • David

    Here's the thing I struggle with on this: I can have laser guided focus on something and end up getting in shape. But when I switch my focus to something else after achieving the goal, and try to keep the system in place, I lose it. I end up spread too thin somehow. My system for staying in shape breaks down, and I have to switch focus back to it to stay in shape, sacrificing the ability to focus on making more money, etc.

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    It's very hard to comment in your blog.

  • Bhuvi Smith

    It was great reading the measures taken to keep our self motivated as mentioned in your article. Thanks for sharing, It has proved to be a great help. Looking forward for some more related articles.

  • Ranking Lokat

    I agree with this article - it's very practise. When i don't have enough motivation i always listen the speach of Steve Jobs - Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary

  • Susan

    You're right that that is not in any way ironic. But I think your unnsretadding of irony is a bit off. A sober driver crashing into a DUI checkpoint is not ironic either. Situational irony is when the actions of a person have the opposite effect of what was intended. So there is really no way crashing into a DUI checkpoint could be ironic unless you were crashing into the bus to avoid a DUI and it ended up getting you a DUI. I'm glad somebody at least pointed out that what was posted was ridiculously wrong though

  • Dee

    Thanks for this and introducing BJ Fogg, he is awesome and his Tiny Habits has already impacted my life for the better!

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