You wake up, and the entire atmosphere seems to welcome you into the early hours. Energy flows through you like fuel. Goals and objectives sit at the forefront of your mind. You open your laptop and a blank document, or take out books, paper, stationary. The next two hours, in which your thoughts are transported into actuality and your knowledge is strengthened by new information seem to fly by. At the end, you receive the satisfaction of getting a task done in a timely manner.
On a different day, you wake up and everything feels grey. It takes an hour of stumbling about and getting yourself together just to get your workplace in order. You stare at a blank page with a similarly blank mind, succumb to a distraction, spend a further twenty minutes scrolling through social media. As the day passes, each task feels like summiting a mountain. You question yourself and your abilities, and spiral into self-deprecation.
A key ingredient which may differentiate between the two days above is motivation. Like ‘productivity’ and ‘wellbeing’, motivation is a buzzword in modern discourse. When thinking of what it means, we picture a reservoir which fluctuates in accordance with factors that seem rather elusive. Sometimes you wake up brimming with a drive to finish your tasks. Then there are the days when minutes feel like hours. Procrastination turns from an occasional nuance to a major hurdle between you and your objectives. For many people motivation determines the quality of their work and the extent to which they succeed in meeting their goals. It can, therefore, broadly be defined as an inner drive that facilitates goal-seeking behaviour, that makes it easier to overcome challenges and do what you want or must (or a mixture of both) with genuine enthusiasm.
However, motivation is notoriously vague. Striking randomly and often in short bursts, it makes a dangerous precondition for your commitment to start and finish something. With most tasks bound by time constraints and a world which moves quicker every day, we can hardly rely on sporadic visits from our muse to write, do our homework, finish projects, go to the gym, educate ourselves, etc. First and foremost, discipline and habit should be developed as key drivers of productivity. Or, we can take steps to create motivation. How motivation turns a task from a chore into an enjoyment makes a combination of the two an enticing option.
And as with anything else, creating motivation calls for an active approach. Finding yourself in a slump, don’t wait for it to come on its own. Make a conscious choice to reinstate your inner drive, approaching your daily endeavours with energy and liveliness. As well as keeping a daily focus on your long term goals – which make powering through difficult yet necessary activities worthwhile – there are certain habits and exercises we can implement when at a low point instead of turning to distractions and underestimating our power to get things done.
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Ten Exercises to Renew Your Motivation
EXERCISE 1: Work on a task for two minutes
As compellingly articulated in an article by James Clear, ‘every goal can be started in two minutes or less’ – two minutes is all it takes to tackle your inhibitions. When the motivation just isn’t there, getting started is by far the hardest part of a task, in particular when you expect it to be difficult.
You find yourself catching up on social media, watching a YouTube video, responding to emails for much longer than necessary. If this happens, take a step back and work on your priority for two minutes. The prospect of 120 seconds need not require a wave of motivation in the same way as three hours of focused work. However, after the two minutes have elapsed, you are likely to find yourself transitioning to the latter, regardless of where your motivation may have been at the start.
EXERCISE 2: Self-evaluate
Determine exactly why your motivation is feeble. Often, we struggle in admitting the underlying causes of our problems to ourselves, but doing so lays foundations for long-term solutions.
On a blank piece of paper, look at yourself and your goals from a perspective of honesty. Some reasons for poor motivation include:
- The tasks on/the length of your to-do lists are too overwhelming
- The tasks are too boring and mundane
- You expect overnight results and instant gratification
- Perfectionism and fear of failure
- You look for motivation in the wrong place
- You’ve recently experienced a setback
- Your goals are too vague
- You struggle with thinking bigger
(Stay tuned for a more detailed post on this topic, which I will publish in the next few weeks.)
Identifying cause/s leads to solutions because mending a concrete problem is easier than stumbling around in the dark, not knowing where to channel your efforts. Follow this up by jotting down a few remedies or alterations to the mindset which blocks you from meeting your goals.
EXERCISE 3: Write a gratitude list
Finding time in our schedule to practice gratitude grounds us and forms a reminder of the positive things in our lives which day-to-day routines or low motivation swallow up. Easily dismayed by small setbacks, we forget not only what makes life wonderful, but also the resources and opportunities available to us.
Gratitude is an incredibly uncomplicated yet powerful tool. Either digitally or on a sheet of paper, write a list of things you are grateful for, making it as extensive or as brief as you would like. The items on a gratitude list can cover anything which is meaningful to you, from the weather on a given day to your family and loved ones, potentially infinite knowledge at your fingertips, recent experiences that have changed your life for the better.
When unmotivated and low, gratitude brings a dose of optimism into your life, and prevents overthinking and dismay, both of which make people vulnerable to slumps.
EXERCISE 4: Physical exercise
Outside the impact it has on your physical health, the benefits of exercise have a clear psychological dimension. This explains why many people use the gym or other forms of sport as a form of therapy. First and foremost, exercise pushes oxygen up to your brain and releases endorphins, eliminating both physical and mental stress, leaving you energised, attentive, and – you guessed it – more motivated immediately after. Furthermore, exercise, by taking you to your physical limits, reinforces mental toughness and boosts self-confidence at a time when doubt may be at its peak.
Therefore, if you find yourself procrastinating and slogging through your tasks to no avail, or in a slump after a long day at school/university/work, incorporate around 30-60 minutes of exercise into your routine. Pick whatever suits your preferences, whether that’s weightlifting, yoga, running, a group class at your local leisure centre, or a team sport. You will reap the benefits in the form of mental sharpness and an improved mood both in the short term and, if you make exercise a habit, for the rest of your life.
EXERCISE 5: Make a quick vision board
Put together a collection of images and quotes that encompass your ideal workflow, results and overall future. Some people like to create physical vision boards by printing off pictures and blocks of text, turning them into a collage. This makes you more selective about what you choose to include and the resulting piece more immediate, but can be time-consuming, in particular within a busy schedule.
A shortcut is using a word processing software or Pinterest, which need not take more than five or ten minutes. This will refocus you on the bigger picture – the ultimate result to which finishing your tasks in an efficient and timely manner will amount.
EXERCISE 6: Write out your favourite affirmations and/or quotes
Alternatively to a vision board, quickly read through and write down your favourite quotes, whether motivational or of a generic nature (I mean, sometimes reconnecting with quotes from authors I love makes me feel much more emotionally content, even if said quotes aren’t directly linked to motivation). Write down exactly why being productive is important to you and what pushing through a slump will amount to in the long run. Turn positive thoughts into action. I’d recommend handwriting, because putting pen to paper reinforces the quotes and affirmations in your mind.
EXERCISE 7: Practice free writing
Given the ease with which it evokes perfectionism and self-doubt, anyone who does any form of writing is vulnerable to diminished motivation. I’ve talked about the benefits of free-writing before, how it releases a flow of ideas and knocks down writer’s block.
It can be useful for anyone, even if unobstructed writing isn’t your goal. Free writing has a therapeutic, de-stressing effect, allowing you to remove mental clutter and discard your worries on a blank page. Furthermore, this practice unlocks creativity at a time when pessimistic thoughts stand in the way of your ideas.
Just like gratitude, free writing is straightforward . Set a timer for anywhere between ten minutes to around forty five. Start the timer, and until it has elapsed, write down anything that springs to mind, letting go of any judgement or perfectionism. The point is to get words down on paper and free your mind of any worries and ideas that may be floating around unarticulated. Just like after a physical workout, free writing will energise you and give rise to better efficiency in other activities.
EXERCISE 8: The Pomodoro technique
This is a strategy developed by Francesco Cirillo to evoke deep focus and boost productivity, regardless of the task in question. As well as eliminating distractions and facilitating the measurement of how much time/effort an activity demands, the technique works similarly to the two-minute principle mentioned above in sidelining poor motivation. So, how does the Pomodoro work?
- Set a timer for 25 minutes
- Pick a task and work on it until the 25 minutes have elapsed
- Jot down what you need to do next and take a five minute break
- Repeat four times
- Take a longer break (20-30 minutes) before starting another round of pomodoros
Aside from being fun, this approach pushes you to work effectively and stay focused because distractions such as emails and social media are easy to avoid for 25 minutes. Moreover, intervals tricks your mind into thinking you ‘only’ have to work for a brief amount of time, which in itself can displace a slump we commonly face when something enormous looms ahead of us. Before you know it, however, several Pomodoros elapse and the task nears completion.
EXERCISE 9: Reverse psychology
The counter-intuitive principle of reverse psychology (or acceptance, as I often like to call it) can remedy anything from insomnia to bad habits such as skipping the gym. Sometimes, the harder you force something, the more likely your mind and body are to fight against it. For example, the best ideas for writing often arise when you let go and allow your mind to move on its own accord. Similarly, accepting that you feel nervous before an exam keeps further anxiety at bay.
How you can apply reverse psychology to motivation:
- Acceptance: accept the fact that you feel low and unmotivated. Understand that motivation is often beyond your control. It works like a tide: at the moment, you may feel reluctant to do anything, but this state is temporary. Knowing this, you can push through using resilience and discipline until motivation once again catches up with you.
- Tell yourself you don’t have to do anything. Because the truth is that you don’t: you have free will and choose whether to work on a given task or not. Doing so, however, ensures you meet your goals and finish the day with a sense of accomplishment. To take this a step further, try to talk yourself out of doing something. Sounds paradoxical, but chances are, you won’t be able to find a good reason for further avoidance and up the chances of starting a task in a timely manner!
EXERCISE 10: Find three reasons to enjoy the task/s ahead of you
Sure, not every item on your to-do list will bring you unprecedented levels of joy. Not every essay will be your cup of tea. Some tasks are mundane, yet necessary. Errands aren’t going to run themselves. Regardless of what the task in question may be, if the prospect of it demotivates you and causes procrastination, try to find at least three reasons for pursuing it with the same energy as you would anything else. Is the outcome worth the process? Does the challenge in itself intrigue you? Does the task present you with an opportunity to help other people? Changing your perspective is often the first step to regaining or bringing about a drive to get something done.
As you can see, motivation calls for a mixture of luck and action. Sometimes our drive awakens on its own, sometimes it needs a little push. There will be periods in your life when, for a variety of reasons, you may not feel wholly yourself and even lose your passion for for things you usually enjoy. When this happens, you are not powerless. You can make changes and take steps, regardless of how simple, to restore motivation and skyrocket your progress towards your goals in doing so.
Let me know in the comments: what do you do when hindered by low motivation? What do you think is the best way to find it in everyday life?
(Also, as a little side note: I am sorry for my extended absence! It’s been a very long time since I last posted, but I was in Japan for six weeks and had absolutely zero room in my schedule to blog. However, I am back now (and very happy that I got to see Japan, which is such an incredible and unique country) and should be back to posting on a regular basis.)