When the going gets tough, adopt these tips to stay focused on your goals.
We all have big dreams. But when it comes to our daily habits, we’re not that good at working on them. We put them off and tell ourselves we’ll start another day.
Working on your dreams takes effort and can be stressful. Most of us prefer to put them off in favor of something less taxing. We swap midnight reading for Netflix and our healthy diet for junk, because they offer the comfort and instant gratification we desire.
We use the excuse of:
“I don’t feel like it right now, I’ll do it another time.”
There’s nothing physically stopping us from achieving our goals. We just don’t want to right now. This happens, according to author Oliver Burkeman, because we can’t make ourselves feel like doing something. We want to feel like it — to achieve our goals — but we can’t make ourselves. We can’t always control the way we feel, it’s just the way things are.
But to achieve, we tell ourselves we have to feel like it. And because we don’t, we put it off. I’ve done this a thousand times before. I used to tell myself:
“I’m not in the mood, so I won’t put in as much effort. Best to wait until tomorrow.”
That’s utter nonsense. As Burkeman points out in her book: most prolific artists have achieved because of their ability to stay motivated when they don’t feel like it.
But how do they do it? When Netflix is calling and the fast-food looks so tempting, how do they stay motivated and driven?
1. Acknowledge Potential Pitfalls
We’re bound to face setbacks. Most of them can be split into two categories:
- Those we’re already aware of. The temptations that distract us from working on the life we want.
- The unexpected challenges. When the task is harder than expected, or we’re not seeing results quickly enough. Or perhaps something came along and shattered the progress we’ve made. These kinds make us want to quit.
No journey is straightforward. One minute it’s all sunshine and the next it’s raining. But we expect our challenges to be easy. We expect instant results. We believe we have the willpower to resist temptation.
We’re all susceptible to akrasia: where we’re tempted away from what we judge is right. So it’s essential to prepare for when that happens. Otherwise, we’ll get disheartened and demotivated by the setbacks we experience.
To do achieve that Professor and Author Beverly Flaxington suggests we familiarize ourselves with potential stumbling blocks before we start. That way, we can prepare both emotionally and practically:
- An expected setback won’t dishearten us. We knew it was coming when we took the challenge on. When we don’t think it will be easy, we can prepare ourselves for a worst-case scenario. When it comes, it won’t feel like the end of the world.
- We can create contingency plans well in advance. In recognizing the obstacles, we can better prepare for them. By locking the remote away or asking a friend to hold us accountable.
Flaxington splits our challenges into three categorize. Those we can control; those we can influence; and those we can’t (either).
By categorizing, we can stop wasting our effort on the impossible — which could make us feel jaded and tempt us to give up. Instead focusing on the thing within our control that will make our situation better.
Life’s no picnic. By recognizing that, we can better prepare for the challenges that come our way. Doing so ensures we don’t get overwhelmed or demotivated when they do.
2. Use Gamification
When faced with a boring task, how are you going to motivate yourself to get it done?
“Gamification” is a tool used in business to bolster productivity and efficiency when completing boring tasks. It’s even adopted by big brands, like Microsoft, to encourage hard work amongst call workers.
Video games use tangible rewards to keep us engaged and playing. Think of coins in candy crush saga, or player packs in Fifa. To do so, they use tactics like:
- Points, used as visual and competitive indicators of progress.
- Badges to display achievement.
- Leaderboards to represent competitive placement.
“Gamification” means taking these aspects of video games, and using them in everyday life. You simply set up a reward system that encourages you to work harder.
In business, there are a number of different gamification strategies, like holidays for the top-salesman, or employee of the month awards to create healthy competition.
To apply this, think: what one thing do you want right now? Some fast food? To watch your favorite movie? To go on holiday?
To motivate yourself, create a framework where you only get that reward once you’ve achieved your goals. Buy the movie or holiday tickets, give them to a friend, and tell them to only give them back once your goal is complete.
Alternatively, to encourage friendly competition, set up a leaderboard or progress report between friends on a similar journey to you — it’ll encourage healthy competition. That’s what weight loss groups do when they share your progress with the group.
Doing so will motivate you in the same way a video game does. You’ll be desperate for that winning buzz. The benefits are undeniable. According to research, those who use gamification score 14% higher on skill-based assessments.
Positive Reinforcement > Negative Reinforcement
I’m sure you already know. But, according to behavioral psychologists, we learn most of our behavior through “operant conditioning.” This theory argues we’re “conditioned” to act the way we do, because:
- We associate the action with rewards (positive reinforcement.)
- We know doing so prevents a punishment (negative reinforcement.)
According to the work of neuroscientist William Klemm, Ph.D., positive reinforcement is a better motivator than negative.
Consider school grades. Receiving poor grades at school didn’t motivate Klemm. It made him feel deflated and overwhelmed. To the point where he nearly gave up.
His grades picked up when he started receiving attention whenever he showed improvement. He quickly learned that studying led to rewards. And that small incentive encouraged him to work harder.
Let Klemm’s experience be a lesson: when you fail, don’t be too hard on yourself. That won’t motivate you to do it again. Instead, use positive reinforcement: every time you take a step towards your goal, reward yourself. In time, you’ll be conditioned to repeat that behavior.
3. Set Goals You Care About
Elsewhere, psychologist Dr. Camille Preston has argued you don’t always need to set yourself rewards to achieve your goals.
Highly driven people are autonomously motivated. It’s not about avoiding negative feelings (like guilt) or other external factors, because these are contingent: when they disappear, the motivation fades.
Think about the world’s prolific artists or sports people who persevered when things got tough. If their only motivator is to avoid negative feelings, they’ll probably give up.
For Preston, these people are driven because their values align with their personal goals. This isn’t about achieving a desired end or avoiding negative consequences: it’s about standing up for what you believe in.
To use this to your advantage, you need introspect and come to terms with your values. What do you stand for? What motivates you? When the going gets tough, what are you willing to sacrifice your home comforts for?
Linking Your Values to Work
Once you better understand yourself, start seeking tasks that serve your core values. At the same time, avoid those that don’t serve you: those you’re only doing to avoid guilt, are being forced, or because you feel like you have to.
That doesn’t mean avoiding your duties and obligations. It means fulfilling them for the right reasons; because these actions align with your values.
If you’re hearts not in it from the get go, you’ll soon give up. But it’s all about mindset. Preston gives an example: imagine you’re working to provide for your family. There are two ways to motivate yourself:
- You’re motivated to work hard because if you don’t, you won’t be able to provide for your family. Fear and guilt avoidance are driving you.
- You’re driven to because you love your family, and working hard aligns with your values.
The second choice is better aligned with your true self. Rather than working to avoid negative consequences, you’re working on a task that aligns with you’re inner principles and desires: to provide for your family.
This brings a whole host of benefits. In Preston’s words:
“The energy motivating your work will be more positive and generative, leading to more significant gains over time.”
So to stay motivated, establish and engage with your core values. Once you have them, choose tasks and challenges that align with them. You’re going to be much less willing to give up on something you believe in.
We all have big dreams. But when it comes to it, most of us put them off. We get distracted and tell ourselves we can’t because we don’t feel like it.
If you want to stay motivated and achieve your goals, do so by:
- Acknowledging potential pitfalls. By preparing yourself for upcoming temptations and challenges on your journey, you will be better equipped to deal with them.
- Use gamification. Implement the reward system and competitive aspect of video games to encourage you to reach your desired end.
- Set goals you care about. Rather than choosing tasks for external reasons that might change, stand up for what you wholeheartedly believe in.
Stop letting your dreams pass you by. Start working on them, because nothing great will come from binge-watching Netflix or gorging on fast food. In the words of Walt Disney:
“The Best Way To Get Started Is To Quit Talking And Begin Doing.”
I write about Self-Improvement, Life Lessons, Philosophy, Psychology & Business — to help you reach your full potential. To stay in touch, and to receive free and exclusive content, sign up to my mailing list.