Common Stumbling Blocks to Positive Motivation and How to Overcome Them

A book sits on a wooden tray next to a cup of tea and a sprig of green. The book is open to a quote about perseverance.

Positive motivation is key for accomplishing any goal or task, whether it’s as major as making a career change or as small as tidying up your living room.

Research has shown strong correlations between intrinsic, positive motivation and success. This study from the Carnegie Foundation, for example, examined positive motivation in the school setting and found that motivated students were more engaged, harder workers, and more likely to persevere to overcome challenges.

But positive motivation can sometimes feel hard to find! If you’re feeling burnt out or like you just have no motivation to work on one of your goals or projects, you may be experiencing one of these three stumbling blocks:

1. Procrastination

Procrastination can take many forms, but all of them are killers of positive motivation.

Sometimes, it comes in the form of rearranging your furniture or organizing your email inbox instead of diving into that task that you really, really need to do (but really, really don’t want to). Other times, it can be your inner voice that’s making up excuse after excuse telling you, “Now’s just not the right time.” Like if you know you should go on a run, but part of you is saying, “It might rain. And my favorite running shorts are in the laundry. And if I go now, I might not make it back in time to start my favorite show.”

One way to combat this feeling is by thinking about the fact that now is the only time that’s guaranteed, so you want to be sure you're making the most of it and accomplishing all you want. 

I find it helpful to revisit my yearly planning worksheets when I'm really stuck in a moment of procrastination. The section that helps me the most is the one that asks you to think about what you hope your legacy will be. Then I think, what can I do *today* to get one step closer to that long-term image?

As poet Mary Oliver once said, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Make the most of the time you have by putting your time to good use, right now. 

2. Distraction

Being distracted by other activities that aren’t helping you reach your goal and are taking up time is another big detractor to your positive motivation and your effort. 

You might really enjoy doing something like networking with new employees or painting — which are both fantastic! — but if you’re starting to choose those enjoyments or interests over times you should be working on your goals, it can become a problem.

You can combat distractions by being mindful about how you’re spending your time. I like to use my Ink+Volt planner to set daily and weekly timelines for myself to keep on track. This helps me hold myself accountable! If I check in at noon and I’m not on track, I know I need to make some changes during the remainder of the day.

If you’re really struggling with this, try a few days of time logging: Every hour, write down in a notebook exactly how you’ve spent the past 60 minutes. And be honest! If you spent 10 minutes scrolling through Instagram, write it down! After a few days of this exercise, you’ll be shocked to see where your time goes, what your time sucks are, and when you can be even more productive. 

3. Discouragement

Nothing kills positive motivation quite like self-doubt

Whether you’re discouraged because you’ve been procrastinating and now your project isn’t coming along as quickly as you had hoped or planned, or whether you’ve experienced a failure or setback, doubt and discouragement can be hard to avoid.

One of my favorite pieces of writing advice is, “Don’t compare your first draft to someone else’s finished draft.”

It’s a tip that I think has pretty universal applications: first drafts of anything are usually full of holes and errors, but the important thing is that they’re done and that you’ve made progress. They’re not supposed to be perfect. You’re always going to have to go back and reiterate or polish your work to get it to its final stage, so keep working!

Another tactic that can help combat discouragement is to identify some wins you've had — no matter how small you might feel they are — and give yourself credit for that progress. 

To go back to the writing example, maybe you aren't as far along in your novel as you had hoped, but you should give yourself credit for how far you've come: for carving out time in your schedule to sit down and practice, for dedicating mental and emotional energy to the project. 

Celebrating small accomplishments is a good way to reset your mindset and replace those feelings of discouragement, frustration, or inadequacy with positive motivation. 

If any of these situations sound familiar to you, don’t worry, there’s still hope! 

Here are three tried-and-true ways to increase your positive motivation and get to work:

You gotta want it

The easiest goals to accomplish are things that we actually *want* to do. This is the power of aspiration.

This may feel out of reach if we’re talking about a task or goal that you just *hate* doing. Maybe it’s an ongoing menial task like pulling analytics, or sending a regular recap email, or maybe it’s something bigger like having an uncomfortable conversation. If you’re lacking in the aspiration department, one good solution is to think about all of the benefits that accomplishing that goal will have. 

For example, if you’re dragging your heels on sending a regular status update email, try thinking about how it benefits your career: this email is keeping you top-of-mind for higher-ups, and it’s an opportunity to reinforce your expertise in an area. By sending the email, your boss will be reminded how reliable and valued you are. Doesn’t that make you want to send it?

If you know you should be going to the gym, but you just don’t *want* to, remind yourself how great you’ll feel afterward when your endorphins are flowing, and how much better your post-workout snack will taste. 

Reminding yourself why you’re aspiring to this goal in the first place will go a long way in increasing your positive motivation. 

Be a hearth fire, not a bonfire

How many times have you picked up a new project or hobby and gone full steam ahead, dedicating hours of time, before burning out? I know I’m guilty! 

In order to maintain your positive motivation around a goal or task, you should make sure that your practice is a regular, steady flame, not a massive fire that burns bright and tall but quickly. 

To do this, make sure you set a realistic schedule for yourself that includes time away from the work to allow yourself to rejuvenate. 

Recently, I decided to start taking a foreign language class once a week. I was so excited about diving back into learning that I decided I was going to spend 30 minutes a day every day working on it. 

That lasted about two weeks. 

The goal was great in theory, but was too much too quickly in reality given the other things on my plate. Now, I'm allocating one day a week to a more structured practice time, and I've subscribed to a digital newspaper in that language so that I can practice reading on my own time. 

If you're starting to feel burnt out, take a step back and reexamine your schedule. Do you really *have* to be working at the pace you are currently? Or could there be benefits to changing your pace?

Finding a cadence or schedule that works for you and won't cause burnout is key to keeping positive motivation alive!

Take a break

Just as important as it is to find a regular, steady schedule that works for you, it’s also important to give yourself some time off to relax and recharge. 

As counterintuitive as it may sound, time spent *not* explicitly working on a goal or project can actually help you in the long term. 

I’m sure you’ve experienced having an “aha moment” in the middle of the night, or while washing your hair, hours after having stepped away from your work.

Taking strategic breaks allows you time to refresh and refocus, which will enable you to see or approach a project in a new way when you pick it back up. By giving your prefrontal cortex (the “thinking part” of your brain) some time off, you will ultimately improve your ability to focus when you pick the work back up, and you’re more likely to see drastic improvements in your ability to problem solve and think creatively.

If you feel your motivation slipping away, take a step back. Go for a walk, meditate, or even work on a different project for a little bit. This may sound a bit like procrastination, but if you're actively choosing another activity to give yourself a well-earned break, it's still progress! You'll be surprised at how productive you'll be once you sit back down at your project.

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