Here’s how to stay motivated for a long time [Precise strategies]

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People often advise, “you need to stay motivated” or “you need to feel the motivation from within.” However, it’s easier said than done. The very act of finding the right motivation feels like something that needs a lot of motivation. Ironic, right? How does one find it? This article will show you how to find self-motivation, so you can do anything you set your mind to.

What is motivation?

Doing something needs energy. If you are willing to do something, you necessarily need the energy to do it. But that’s not enough. You also need the intention to do something. That’s motivation. It’s the capacity to use energy AND have the intention to use that energy for a goal. These goals can be at multiple levels:

  1. Day to day functioning
  2. Future planning
  3. Satisfying physical and mental requirements

In psychology, motivation is related to “conation.[1]” Conation is all those mental things that make you do something purposefully and start goal-directed behavior. Not to be confused with cognition.

The right kind of motivation: Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation is a psychological & biological force[2] that comes from your brain, mind, genes, and biological systems to do or avoid something for the inherent reward, enjoyment, and satisfaction of doing it. The activity and the intention to do it is itself the reason for doing it. It fuels curiosity and exploration. But it often first begins with curiosity. You’ll naturally find intrinsic motivation occurs for things you find “interesting.” It does not depend on the environment or other people. On the other hand, a psychological or biological force that comes from the environment or other people/objects is extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation comes from external rewards unrelated to the task/goal and pressure from something else. Intrinsic motivation is valuable because it can be a more satisfying & sustainable force to drive behavior for the positive feelings associated with it. It is easier to study or build a start-up if you are intrinsically motivated. Intrinsic motivation is internal to one’s existence. Extrinsic motivation depends on external rewards & punishments. Staying motivated for a long time means one has to find intrinsic motivation. We’ll look at it in detail here.

Should you be motivated all the time?

Want to be motivated all the time? Think twice. We are not meant to be motivated all the time because that is just not how we function. Our battery goes down. Our energy supply has an ebb and flow. We need to recover from all the work our body does to stay alive. That’s exactly why we use our phones to recover from a hard day. Our mind needs time to lose the pressure and regain its optimal functioning. This is best done with sleep. So, sleep enough. Can’t get enough sleep? Maybe you can try these tactics. Focus on relaxing when you are stressed because the longer you are stressed, the more you’ll rely on habits and do everything you can to reduce purposeful effort. It’s harder to do things when your body and mind are already spending their energy on recovery.

Want to stay motivated? Here are 4 important techniques

1. Identify all psychological and physical needs you have, and work to satisfy those needs. 

We have a need[3] to accomplish something, the desire to belong, the need to get in a relationship, etc. Bring this to the surface of your mind and tell yourself that your entire being is supposed to use those “needs” to “drive” you “toward” some “goal.” Visualize how you can do this, and then start with at least the first 2 steps. Keep your needs at the forefront; remain aware of those. Instead of setting the goal as a task, it might help to use the tasks as intermediate steps to achieve a goal. For example, the task you need motivation for could be studying for an exam or asking “I will satisfy my psychological need to feel accomplished in 6 months.” Some common psychological needs are:

  • A need for high competence
  • A need for verifiable achievement
  • A need for belonging
  • A need to connect with people
  • A need to feel secure
  • A need to feel in control of one’s life
  • A need for independence
  • A need to reduce uncertainty
  • A need to make sense of the world
Want to stay motivated? Figure out what your psychological needs/desires are and then tell yourself that your entire being is supposed to use those "needs" to "drive" you "toward" some "goal." Click To Tweet

2. Reduce the energy required to do things using habits. 

Habits are so routine that you do not need the conation (intent & motivation) to achieve a goal. Brushing teeth, bathing, eating food at regular intervals are habits. But when you are depressed, even these fail. The conative ability itself goes down. That’s when you have to rely on simpler habits + psychological need satisfaction. Always try to develop easy habits that get things done. Want to go to the gym? Keep a habit of feeling “stretched” and ready with gym accessories. Taking rest is a way to reduce how much energy you’ll use too. Always keep some time to recover from what you deem as work or effort. Our brain readily relies more on habits when we are stressed[4] out, so it is important to develop efficient habits before stress demotivates us.

Our brain readily relies more on habits when we are stressed out, so it is important to develop efficient habits before stress demotivates us. Click To Tweet

3. Use rewards as goals and use them to feel better. But only for a short while. 

Seeking rewards can actually reduce motivation. That’s called motivational crowding-out.[5] Rewards interfere with intrinsic motivation, which is the best type of self-motivation – it lasts longer and uses less energy (and even helps you get out of work burnout[6]). Your brain shouldn’t be in a conflict like – “Should I do this for the reward OR should I do it for myself?” The answer should almost always be “for yourself” unless it is money, improving a relationship, or for a grander vision you have. That vision could be altruistic, spiritual, or even something like justice. Exceptions always exist, but the point is to use rewards as little as possible because external rewards can vanish and leave you crippled. That’s why upvotes and likes on the internet can be a powerful motivation only until it leaves you demotivated when you don’t get enough.

Your brain shouldn't be in a conflict like – "Should I do this for the reward OR should I do it for myself?" Long-lasting motivation comes from a personal reason. Click To Tweet

4. Find a healthy balance between familiarity and novelty in your work.

Researchers have described a concept called Optimal incongruity[7], which is the motivation fueled by excitement, high mental arousal, feeling challenged, doing something new, curiosity, and high expectations. When people feel a gap between[8] their mental state about doing something and the nature of the activity itself, it creates motivation. For example, when people are using a skill that is slightly below the required proficiency, it motivates them. Similarly, if we notice something we don’t know completely but understand bits and pieces of it, it drives curiosity to fill that knowledge gap and that motivates us. Generally, if there is a little bit of novelty and challenge in doing something that is at least partially familiar, it helps us stay motivated. Optimal incongruity makes things interesting and facilitates an exploratory mindset. The way to hack this concept of optimal incongruity is to notice things you understand and are familiar with and then pay attention to new information or a higher skill level that helps you fill up the missing gaps (aka incongruity). If the gap is moderately large, the mental arousal is high and it motivates exploration and curiosity. If the gap is non-existent, it creates boredom.

Losing motivation? If there is a little bit of novelty and challenge in doing something that is at least partially familiar, it helps us stay motivated. Regain motivation by moving from the familiar to the unfamiliar in small steps. Click To Tweet

What if you are not unmotivated and are just procrastinating?

Perhaps you do not lack motivation. Perhaps you are just procrastinating. We procrastinate when emotions overwhelm us, and it’s hard to deal with something that’s causing those emotions. Here’s how to counter it.

  1. Tell yourself it’s ok to start slow, as long as you are doing a little extra.
  2. Be mindful and don’t do anything with irrational goals and expectations or self-judgments. Stay in the present. Do it for the process, not the end goal. Work on your goal once you at least develop a basic habit of doing something.
  3. Learn to tolerate negative emotions. Do whatever you can, but this is it – the one thing you can do to overcome procrastination if things like ADHD do not cause it. If it is some perfectionist attitude, learn to be ok with being average. If it is fear of failure, learn to grow from mistakes, so you are ready to see success.
  4. If you are procrastinating an exploratory action like studying for a new subject or finding solutions to problems, pay attention to what is interesting or least uninteresting. Start there and then move toward things that initially seemed “boring.” Chances are they won’t be as boring as they seemed because you’d have already found something less aversive while exploring.

What if you can stay motivated for a short time but not long enough to get things done?

Tell yourself why your desire satisfies your psychological needs; it’ll refresh your memory about why something is important. When you make the outcome of your actions relatable, believable, and tangible, it’ll be easy to convince yourself to do something and keep that motivation high enough to do just a little bit more every time. There are 5 steps to do this properly.

Step 1: Identify your psychological needs; it’ll give the intrinsic motivation.

Step 2: Identify things you desire; they’ll be naturally rewarding.

Step 3: Select something you desire that necessarily aligns with your psychological needs; that’s a reason to stay motivated.

Step 4: Change your self-talk to put an interesting spin on how your work satisfies your desire; it’ll help you make sense of why something is important.

Step 5: Visualize (literally, by closing your eyes and thinking) a believable and relatable outcome of your work that highlights positive things like success, feeling good, confidence, and self-directed pride.

How to tap into “intrinsic motivation” using the “HAPPEN” model

I propose using the “HAPPEN” model.

  • H – Have a want, need, or desire.
  • A – Align your desires with actions.
  • PP – Use push & pull effects.
  • EN – Enter the flow state.

Tell yourself your motivation has to “happen.”

Have a want, need or desire

Many, many, many psychological needs are at the heart of motivation. Ask yourself questions like – what do I want to feel like? What do I want more? What do I want less? Do I feel safe? Do I feel like I belong? Who do I look up to? What am I expecting? These are hard questions. But, these questions will help you understand what you need. That’s the source of intrinsic motivation.

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Align your desires with actions

Your next step is to align your psychological need with something you can do. Will learning a new skill fill some psychological needs? Will talking to new people satisfy that need? Think about all things that you can do for your needs. You can list them down in a journal or discuss them with a friend. Brainstorm and find possible solutions for the sake of it. Don’t pre-filter your solutions by a lack of commitment to use them.

Use push and pull effects

Now, create a push & pull effect. Your psychological needs are in the present. However, they say something about your future. They describe what you wish to have, what you desire later. That is your vision & reason. It is what gives life some meaning. It creates purpose. When you have a purpose or meaning, it “pulls” you to do something. When you have a need, it “pushes” you to do something. You may feel pushed to feel more accomplished and you may feel pulled by living a life you feel more comfortable in, for example.

Enter the flow state

Finally, experience positive emotions & the satisfaction of overcoming negative emotions while doing something. That creates a sense of intrinsic reward. It’s personal & private. You’ll feel it at a deep level. One way to achieve this sensation is called getting into the flow state. That’s when you feel one with the task; it’s truly satisfying. To achieve flow, you have to challenge yourself enough in a way you are just skilled enough to do something. The slight gap between your current ability and the task’s demand creates motivation. When you experience flow, you feel like you are naturally inclined to do something. That’s your zone; it will also be your motivation & reward. Check out this guide to help you get into the flow state.

Supporting strategies to improve motivation

There are many other supporting things to make motivation intrinsic.

  • Use self-affirmations to tell yourself what you value and why you value it.
  • Tell yourself a good story about why you think you should do something. A good, convincing story helps you maintain motivation.
  • Develop a habit & get very familiar[9] with what you have to do. Familiarity & routine make things feel natural & intuitive.
  • Tell yourself your activity is your decision, not someone else’s expectation. It’s your brain, and you decide where to use it. This is called having an internal locus of control[10], where you assume more control over your life than others have.
  • Learn to enjoy an activity, have fun, and be light-hearted. You may enjoy it for the rewards, or you may enjoy it simply because doing it feels good. Having fun is important.
  • Reflect on your growth or stagnancy; focus on the feeling[11]. That feeling will motivate you to do something. This also avoids the illusion of productivity where you feel you are doing a lot of things but still end up feeling bad that you are not progressing.
  • Talk in the imperfect past tense[12] about activities that you once did but have now lost the motivation for – “I was working toward my goal” instead of “I had worked on my goal.” The continuous sense “ing” in the past tense primes the brain to engage in continuous thoughts and behaviors by reactivating old memory systems as long as they are relevant in the future.
  • Commit to your goals in public[13]. Humans tend to maintain consistency in their attitudes and actions, particularly when they have committed to them in public. You can use this to your advantage by publically declaring your actions, commitments, routines, and progress to feel the “extra” need to uphold your commitment. The effect might be stronger[14] if you share your goals and progress with someone whose status you respect.
  • Surround yourself with encouraging people. If their expectations of you are high, you’ll perform better. If other’s expectations are low, your performance may drop. This is the pygmalion effect[15] – other’s expectations of your performance affect your performance.
  • Tap into your curiosity by learning new words in a domain that makes it easier to talk about something, which then starts a motivational cycle to seek more information. Expose yourself to many different varieties of tasks so you can find what captures your intrinsic motivation. And aim for something not too difficult so it is palatable and exciting enough.

What if all of this fails?

If nothing here seems to work, fake it till you make it. The idea is to do something with the right mindset, even if it feels hard or uneasy until your brain and body get used to it. The more you fake it, the more real it gets. Eventually, you’ll either form a habit of doing something and not require motivation or make it easy enough to feel motivated. Here’s the scientific explanation behind it, along with scientifically backed techniques and how to counter the impostor syndrome. “Fake it till you make it” can be used to build confidence, new habits, with a “do more, think less” approach. Once you explore for the heck of it, you are bound to find something meaningful to do. Let that trigger a chain of motivation.

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