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How to get motivated

Gearing up to do something — whether it’s to work out, take on a new hobby, or sit down and finally outline the novel that’s been bouncing around your head — can be hard.

Anyone who’s ever decided on a New Year’s resolution in January only to let it fade into the ether come February or March knows that. Deciding on what you want to achieve is one thing; following through is quite another. It’s the difference between intention and motivation.

Before figuring out how to motivate yourself, make sure you understand what motivation is and how you experience it. Then you’ll be able to figure out how to get motivated to start something … and how to harness that motivation to the finish line.

What is motivation?

Motivation is what drives people to act. It’s a combination of external and internal forces that activate a certain type of behavior.

Has someone ever tried to motivate you by suggesting you stay positive? Have you ever told someone a goal of yours — like to run a 10k — and had them respond with something like “you can do it!”? Or maybe to hype yourself up to do a practice run, you try to fill your head with positive self-talk: “This is going to be easy, I’m super-fast.”

Positivity isn’t a bad thing. But trying to combat self-doubt or a lack of motivation with relentless positivity will likely result in you just adding more chatter to an already busy mind. You might be further exhausting and demotivating yourself as well, because now you have to hold tightly to those positive thoughts while continuing to shut down the thoughts of “I can’t do this, I’m tired, I don’t want to.”

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In the book Rethinking Positive Thinking, psychologist Gabriele Oettingen explains why equating motivation with positivity can be problematic.

While positivity can be a contributor to motivation, it’s not the sum total of what motivation is. Oettingen’s research involves having two groups of students visualize their upcoming weeks. The first group imagined that their week would be perfect — they’d get good grades on their assignments, meet new friends, and have a great time. The second group was asked to visualize their week in a realistic way, noting what they hoped to achieve and also what they were worried about. In the end, the second group felt more energized and accomplished more than the first. Those results, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, led Oettingen to identify another factor that is required alongside a positive mental attitude in order to achieve goals: mental contrasting.

Mental contrasting, explains Oettingen, is the ability to have a goal in mind, imagine obstacles getting in the way of that goal, and still continue to try to achieve it, despite the possibility of failure. That basis in realism is what gives people the follow-through to keep on going, even when times get hard (and mile five is feeling impossible).

It’s similar to how meditation works: by moving beyond thought and finding a feeling of acceptance, you can engage in life without being as controlled by errant thoughts and feelings; whether good, bad, or challenging.

In summary, motivation is a combination of focus and intent in deciding to do something, and the persistence to see it through, despite setbacks. If you’re struggling to figure out how to motivate yourself, you’ll need to start by asking which of these aspects of motivation is giving you trouble.

Do you not have a clear goal in mind? What’s the reason behind why a given goal is important to you, or why you’re prioritizing it over something else? Reflecting beforehand on what your motivation is — why you are doing something — often means that you’ll be stronger and clearer in setting the intention. Because each time you slip or lose momentum, you simply have to remind yourself why you set out to do something in the first place.

If you are already clear on why you want to do something, where do you get caught up in the execution of it? Is it the fear of failure? Does the physical or mental discomfort of it all turn you off? Do you lack a clear visualization of what achieving it would look like?

Sit with the answers to these questions and consider what they tell you. And know that whatever it is you’re setting out to do, you have the innate skill to do it. The human mind — with its doubts, resistance, excuses, and storylines of old — will always find a reason not to do something. It is for you to know those patterns and instead trust your limitless potential. By making sure you have your intention clear and your follow-through set, you’ll be able to do it again.

How to motivate yourself: 8 things to try

Whether you’re trying to motivate yourself to start a meditation practice or to finish a new project, approaching your goal with these tips in mind will help you find and channel your drive. As Headspace co-founder and former monk Andy Puddicombe puts it: “A clear motivation often overcomes excuses further down the line.”

1. Intention is everything. Knowing why we’re setting out to do something defines our experience of it, as well as the benefit we get from it. What is your intention? If your goal is to practice mindfulness via a daily meditation habit, why did you decide to take on that goal? Are you aiming to be less stressed at work? Do you want to approach life with more kindness and patience? Having that purpose crisp and clear within yourself will help you to show up for yourself. Without articulating the intention behind your goal, the motivation you need to achieve it will be hard to find.

2. Set yourself up for success with a routine. You can hope that you’ll find the time to clean up the kitchen, or meditate, or work out at some point in your busy day. Or you can create a routine for yourself that ensures that time will be there. If you’re not used to thinking through routines for yourself, try starting with an easy morning routine that incorporates at least one of your goals. How you begin your day often defines it, and starting out by prioritizing yourself can give you a jolt of inspiration and motivation to last all day.

3. Recognize the power of now. It’s important to have goals for the future, but the way we achieve those goals is by doing what we’re doing now. Don’t let visions for what might be distract you from paying attention to what is. If you have a hard time motivating yourself because your goal seems so far away, focus on just getting through today.

4. Be present. Whether it’s a workout or a work assignment, don’t focus on your physical discomfort or how much you’d rather be somewhere else. Tune in to what you’re doing. Recognize that thoughts and emotions will come and go and try to enjoy the experience.

5. Build trust through practice. Recognize that whatever it is you’re setting out to do won’t be easy in the beginning. You don’t need to motivate yourself all the way to the end just yet. Instead, think of your goal as a series of repeated steps, and build yourself up to taking the first one. As you take more and get more comfortable with the process, you’ll learn to trust yourself and the work you’re doing and find it easier to show up.

6. Keep in mind that there is an antidote for every obstacle. As you pursue your goals, unexpected and unwanted things will happen. You’ll be tired. You’ll be stressed. You’ll find it hard to find the time. If you find yourself unmotivated to do something that would help you achieve a goal that you still believe in, ask yourself why that is. Have you deprioritized it against other tasks? Did you fail to schedule it in? Understand the specific obstacle you’re facing and come up with a plan to address it.

7. Don’t be too hard on yourself when you mess up. If you get off track for a day or a week, that doesn’t mean it’s time to throw in the towel. Realize when you’ve strayed away from your intentions and recommit to continuing onwards anyway.

8. Recognize that your intention can change. Maybe you started running in order to lose weight, but now you see it as a way to stay both mentally and physically fit. As you learn more about yourself in pursuit of your goals, stay open to your motivation behind them changing and growing along with your progress.

There’s no one answer as to how to find motivation that works for you, but hopefully the tips above point you in the right direction.

Take a minute: Find your focus

how to be more present

Meditation for motivation

You don’t need to meditate to access motivation, but it can definitely help.

No matter how disciplined you might be, you’ve probably had moments where your purpose and dedication seem to flag.

A mindfulness practice can help you learn to quiet the noisy internal chatter and instead find an inner place of clarity. Finding that peace can, in and of itself, prove motivating. Finding that sense of calm can help you to recognize that your motivation and clarity is always with you, even when stressful situations pop up or life gets busy.

Taking time each day, even for just a few minutes, to connect with that part of yourself can be incredibly grounding and motivating.

Meditation in general can help you to become clear-minded. But if you’re looking for motivation to work out, run, or practice a sport, consider trying Headspace’s options for guided runs, guided walks, or Headspace’s Move Mode, which includes guidance on stretching and free at-home workouts. Headspace also offers a 10-day course on motivation for sport that can help you find a healthy sense of perspective, set clear intentions, and pursue your goals.