We’ve all had moments, at the best of times, when we’ve found it difficult to summon the energy or interest to get certain things done.  Days when we’ve procrastinated, lacked focus and put things off until the ‘conditions are right.’  Or we’ve become easily distracted by other more appealing tasks, avoiding those that feel like just too much effort.  As the months continue to roll by with no clear end in sight of the effects of Covid-19 we continue to feel the distance from family, friends and work colleagues.  You may recognise new feelings of weariness in yourself and others and our usual sense of enthusiasm being undermined by demotivation.   

We don’t have to stay feeling this way.  Research shows that we can influence our own motivation levels and self-control.  We can do something about those reluctant moments and feelings of heavy inertia.   It is useful to understand first what motivation is and what we can do differently to start to maintain ours for the long run. 

Scientists define motivation as our general willingness to do something.  It’s the desire to act towards a goal or objective (Psychology Today).  In Self-Determination Theory, (SDT; Deci & Ryan, 1985) a distinction is made between different types of motivation based on the different reasons why someone may take action on something.   The most basic distinction is between intrinsic motivation, doing things because there is an inherent reward such as finding a task challenging, interesting or enjoyable, and extrinsic motivation, which refers to doing something because it leads to a separable, external outcome such as a pay rise, promotion or other recognition.  So, our desire to do things is driven by different things by each of us – a feeling of satisfaction or achievement, recognition of something well done or avoidance of something negative.  It is useful for us all to consider what personally motivates us, and how we can channel this or create it for ourselves when necessary. 

Steven Pressfield’s description in his book ‘The War of Art’ (2012) places motivation in a unique way, as something that happens when the pain of not doing something becomes greater than the pain of doing it.   Whether it’s a push or a pull reason, at some stage it gets easier to do something and change, than stay the same. How often have we heard ourselves say ‘I can’t put it off any longer?’

“Never forget: This very moment, we can change our lives. There never was a moment, and never will be, when we are without the power to alter our destiny. This second we can turn the tables on resistance.  This second, we can sit down and do our work” (Pressfield 2012).

How do we create motivation and sustain it then, when it can feel like such hard work sometimes?  Of course, we can apply opportunity for intrinsic or extrinsic motivation – such as a treat for ourselves at the end of a task.  But we need something more fundamental and meaningful than that sometimes.  Here’s three key ideas:

Start simple: I really like James Clear’s application of physics to motivation.  He argues that “Newton’s First Law can be applied to habit formation: objects in motion tend to stay in motion. Once a task has begun, it is easier to continue moving it forward.”  So one of the key ways to get motivated is to create a small and easy start.  Identify what that one step forward might be right now for you.   Schedule your task and apply a short period of time on which you will work on it.  If we give ourselves 10 minutes, just to make a start, we’ll probably find we do more like 20 minutes.  We don’t need much motivation once we've started a behaviour as momentum will build, how we feel about the task will change and nearly all of the friction in a task is at the beginning anyway. In Clear's words, “It is often easier to finish a task than it is to start it in the first place.”  If it’s something you need to regularly do, set a routine or a ritual.  The routine will be enough to get you moving on it each time.

Generate positive energy: Another one favouring the laws of physics is the Law of Attraction.  The law of attraction says that we will attract into your lives whatever we focus on. Whatever we give our energy and attention to will come back to us. So, if we stay focused on the good and positive things, we’ll automatically attract more good and positive things into our lives.  Every action has to have a reaction.  Applying this to motivation, we need to shift our focus on to the completion of those difficult tasks and how that sense of completion or achievement would make us feel, rather than all of the feelings that go with not having started the task in the first place.  Generating more positive energy before starting a task is a good place to start.  Get moving, go for a walk, work in a positive space, put some of your favourite music on.  Talking to people who have positive energy for you or the task you’re about to do is also an excellent way to raise your own energy levels about it. 

Change the internal dialogue: What we say to ourselves is crucial.  As Gary Hensel argues in his book of the same name,  “I am are two of the most powerful words, for what you put after them shapes your reality.” Positive affirmations are positive phrases or statements used to challenge negative or unhelpful thoughts.   Practicing positive affirmations can be extremely simple, and all we need to do is pick a phrase and repeat it to ourselves.  We may choose to use positive affirmations to motivate ourselves, encourage positive changes in our lives, or boost our self-esteem. During this period it’s helped me at times to use ‘I am still moving forward.’  We may not have been able to achieve things in the way that we had originally planned back at the start of 2020 but we are all indeed still moving forward.  Such phrases keep us focused, are good for our wellbeing.  In those moments when we’re prone to negative self-talk, we can take the opportunity to re-word what we’re saying to ourselves.  So as we start on or work through a challenging task, recognise what you say to yourself and if it’s not helping you rethink that internal dialogue: “I know I can accomplish anything I set my mind to.” What might work for you?

Good luck with whatever you have on your horizon and take a look at some of the other ideas on the below lifehack blog.

Elizabeth Hardwick-Smith is Director of HR & Training at Pick Everard