Mental Health · Women and Wellness

Sustaining Motivation: How to Persist When You Feel Like Giving Up

Something many of my clients struggle with is sustaining the motivation they need to make the changes they want to make in their lives. It happens to all of us more often than we’d like. We embark on a new self-improvement program with all the best intentions to change. Perhaps it’s a sincere effort to eat more healthy foods or to exercise every day. Or maybe it’s an effort to do something we “should” do but have been putting off such as clean out our closets or get started on that daunting project at work. We give it a good go and really do start to make some changes. But then, over time, we find that we get discouraged and give up. We miss one or two workouts, we give in and eat that piece of chocolate cake, or we go back to procrastinating that project. We get discouraged, feel badly, and tell ourselves we “failed” yet again. While we often cite personal reasons for our lack of success (lack of “willpower” is a popular one), the fact is that it’s really not personal. How could it be if it happens to each of us so regularly?

It’s not personal and it’s not inevitable either. I’d like to share some information, tips, and strategies with you that, if you really try them, can help you break out of the frustrating cycle of “losing motivation.” First, we need to look at the concept of motivation and debunk a ubiquitous myth about it: The belief that we need to “feel motivated” before we can start to do something. How many times do we offer the excuse (usually to ourselves): “But I just don’t feel like doing it right now.” We accept this excuse as valid only because we believe that motivation precedes action. While this belief may seem reasonable on the surface, we find it to be false when we subject it to the “real life” test. Ask yourself: How many times have you had to drag yourself to the gym to do your regular workout when you didn’t feel like it? Pay attention to how you felt before, during, and after your workout and you will realize that motivation follows actions, not the other way around.

In understanding motivation, I find the concept of discipline to be far more helpful than the concept of willpower. Willpower is hard to define (it’s a bit mysterious) and not seen as in our control (we either have it or we don’t). Willpower also suggests that we should not struggle, feel tempted, or find change difficult. The idea is that if we have the elusive “willpower,” we won’t find change challenging and this is simply not true. Again, the real-life test shows us that making changes is very hard for all of us. We have a natural tendency to return to homeostasis and we have to fight this time and time again with a different response that our usual ones. That takes energy and effort.

The concept of discipline, however, suggests (more accurately) that it will be an uphill battle to make the changes we seek. When I know change takes discipline, I am prepared for a struggle and won’t blame myself so quickly when I find things get difficult. We also know more about how to build discipline in ourselves: By consistently doing the things we want to do even when we don’t feel motivated.

Now that you better understand the concepts of motivation, willpower, and discipline, below are some practical tips to help you apply your new knowledge. Remember to try all of these and to do so repeatedly. None of them are designed to work all the time or instantly so your persistence is essential.

  • Right from the outset, be sure your goals are realistic. “I’m going to lose 15 pounds in 4 weeks” or “I’m going to work out every day for one hour” are examples of shooting too high too fast.
  • Write out a plan for yourself. Jot down personal goals and reread them when you are in a slump.
  • To prevent getting overwhelmed, break down your goals into small, do-able chunks.
  • Track your efforts and progress. Write it down. This way you have proof of both the changes you’re making as well as the results you achieve. Review this when you feel like you’re “not getting anywhere.”
  • Let go of perfectionism; Make approaching your goals, rather than reaching them, the basis of your self-respect.
  • Avoid thinking in perfectionistic, all-or-nothing ways. Telling yourself you’ve “blown it already” when you slip up quickly leads to discouragement and giving up. Instead, after you miss a workout, eat a donut, or have a really unproductive day, you can tell yourself it’s OK to take a break and that it’s time to get back to the plan.
  • Remind yourself that real change takes time and protracted effort. Give yourself time to change.
  • Commend yourself each time you make a positive change.
  • Forgive yourself for mistakes and backsliding.
  • Make a list of your good qualities and read them when you need to.
  • Don’t worry about or dwell on things that go wrong. Concentrate on your success.
  • Remember that little successes build up just as quickly as little failures.

And finally, a quote from a man who understood motivation: “People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing; That’s why we recommend it daily.”  – Zig Ziglar

Need more help with motivation and reaching your goals? Please contact me to learn how we can work together to assist you in reaching your full potential! – Dr. Jill Langer