A woman reading a book and refusing to get motivated as she's surrounded by piles of papers.

Do you lack motivation to do what needs to be done every day? Are you so overwhelmed you don’t know how or where to start?

Motivation is a feeling, so it naturally ebbs and flows. Dr. Julie Smith writes that it’s important to treat it as such and, therefore, not let it get the best of you. In her book Why Has Nobody Told Me This Before?, she shares four techniques that can help you overcome a lack of motivation.

Keep reading for Smith’s practical advice on how to be more motivated and do what you need to do.

How to Be More Motivated

Smith notes that many people struggle with a lack of motivation that prevents them from working toward their goals. This is because motivation—the feeling that you want to do something—is a fluctuating emotion, and, when people wait until they feel motivated to start a task or project, they may never start it because that feeling might never return. However, you can train yourself to start projects or tasks even when you don’t feel the urge, and, in doing so, you can accomplish more and spark the feeling of motivation you initially lacked.

Smith’s advice on how to be more motivated comes in the form of four techniques.

(Shortform note: In Smarter Faster Better, Charles Duhigg agrees that you can increase motivation by taking action instead of waiting to feel motivated, and he explains that this works because making the choice to act helps you feel in control, which increases your confidence and drive. He argues that some kinds of choices make you feel more in control than others, particularly rebellious actions that break unspoken rules or challenge the status quo—for example, sitting in a different seat in class, or wearing something unusual and fun to the office.)

#1: Start Small

Facing a large task can feel overwhelming, which can make you put off getting started. Instead of trying to accomplish something big all at once, focus on achieving smaller goals along the way.  

(Shortform note: People who live with depression often experience profound overwhelm facing normal, everyday tasks and a debilitating lack of interest in the activities and goals they normally feel pleasure and passion for. This condition is called anhedonia in psychology, and starting with small tasks and activities may be particularly important for people who suffer from it.)

#2: Pace Yourself

To keep motivated on long-term projects, be consistent in your efforts. If you aim to do too much too quickly, you’ll burn out. Work on your goal in manageable chunks and take breaks as needed so that you stay rested and refreshed.

One benefit of keeping your efforts consistent is that they’ll turn into habits, which will remove the need for you to feel motivated to do them. Just as you don’t have to feel motivated to do things like put on your shoes before going outside, you won’t need to feel motivated to do things like sit down and work on your project if it’s become an automatic part of your daily routine.

#3: Visualize Your Future

Keep your goals in mind and visualize the person you want to become. This can encourage you to keep moving forward even when you’ve lost energy. Also, anticipate obstacles you may encounter so you can plan how to meet them. This can help you stay on track when you face setbacks that might otherwise push you off-course.

(Shortform note: In Learn Like a Pro, Barbara Oakley and Olav Schewe suggest setting three types of goals to help you pace yourself and stay connected to your vision of a better future: big-picture goals (like transitioning to a new career) that keep you inspired for the future; intermediate goals (like gaining new skills) that contribute to your broader goal; and daily tasks (like updating your resume) that build toward your intermediate goal. Oakley and Schewe also acknowledge the power of habits in cultivating motivation but focus instead on the importance of changing unhelpful habits that get in your way of taking action.)

#4: Acknowledge Your Progress

Pat yourself on the back with kind, encouraging thoughts when you’ve met a small goal or milestone as you work toward your larger goal. These kinds of “rewards” give you a hit of dopamine, which can encourage you to keep going.

(Shortform note: Although acknowledging your progress is a private and internal experience, psychology experts would still define this type of reward as “external,” which creates extrinsic motivation. External rewards include things like money, treats, and praise—even praise coming from yourself. On the other hand, intrinsic motivation is the drive to do something for the inherent satisfaction of the activity itself. People are intrinsically motivated when they can act independently, feel that their efforts matter, and gain satisfaction from learning and gaining skills.)

How to Be More Motivated: 4 Techniques From Dr. Julie Smith

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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