In a world filled with more distractions than ever before, staying productive can be challenging — especially sustaining the motivation to do so. At times, it can be nearly impossible to figure out how to stay motivated when we’re trapped in a spiral of procrastination.
What Hinders Our Motivation?
Studies have shown that there are four main causes of procrastination and demotivation:
- Enjoyability. How enjoyable or agonizing a task is can affect our procrastination levels. In general, the more we enjoy doing a certain task, the less we tend to procrastinate on completing it. However, mildly boring tasks are more likely to lead to procrastination than extremely difficult tasks, which explains why we tend to put off our busywork.
- Self-fulfilling Prophecy. A person’s self-fulfilling prophecy — a person’s belief and expectation of their capability to complete a task — can have a large influence over their productivity and motivation. Low self-efficacy often comes from our uncertainty of how to begin or complete a certain task. When we don’t have much confidence in our abilities to get something done, it can cause us to procrastinate even more.
- Distractions. Difficulty maintaining focus often comes from our vulnerability to distractions. When we work in highly distracting environments — such as environments with lots of noises, physical clutter, or technological notifications — it becomes hard to resist those distractions, which leads us to procrastinate even more.
- Time. How much time we have to complete a task can affect our motivation to get started on it. The more time we have to finish a task, the longer we tend to wait to get started on it.
How to Stay Motivated
Staying motivated is not something that happens naturally all the time. Rather, we need to be intentional with our behaviors to ensure we are staying on the right path. Whether it be starting a new business venture, staying fit, or finishing a work project, here are some techniques based on well-established principles from psychology and behavioral science to help you maintain your motivation:
Psychologically, a large part of procrastination comes from how we look at the task at hand. In cognitive psychology, chunking has been used to improve memory performance by breaking down individual pieces of an information set and then grouping them together in a meaningful whole.
Luckily, the principle of chunking applies to much more than retaining our memory. In fact, chunking is an amazingly effective strategy in just about any endeavor. Chunking increases our motivation by splitting immense tasks into smaller pieces. For example, let’s say you have a 30+ page report due in five days. As a whole, it may seem like one giant, overwhelming task that seems impossible to accomplish in a short amount of time. However, if you use the chunking technique, you can divide up your work like this:
- Day 1: Write your intro (1-3 pages).
- Day 2: Write Your first section. (You can write 3 pages before lunch and another 3 pages in the evening before dinner).
- Day 3: Write your second section.
- Day 4: Write your conclusion. (You can write 2 pages before you eat breakfast, 2 pages at 1 PM after a workout, and write your final page after a team meeting at 4:00 PM)
- Day 5: Proof-read your draft and send in
Still procrastinating on your smaller sections? Break it down even more! By breaking things down into smaller, more doable sections, we are able to give ourselves small, quick wins that build up our self-efficacy — the belief that we can successfully accomplish a goal. This not only helps us stay motivated, but it also increases our odds of getting started on future components of a task!
2. Create Positive, Artificial Systems of Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement is a fundamental principle of human behavior that states a behavior is more likely to happen — and continue to happen — when it’s followed by something enjoyable or rewarding. When a task is not intrinsically enjoyable, the best thing to do is to make it artificially enjoyable.
For example, do you hate going through a weekend’s worth of emails every morning? To make this task less unpleasant, you can create a Monday morning routine where you brew your favorite coffee and drink it as you process your weekend emails. If you’re afraid of drinking all the coffee before completing your task, you can either:
- Drink half a cup of your coffee as you process your emails and save the other half as a reward for finishing your task.
- Reward yourself with a fresh cup of coffee after you finished completing all your emails.
Initially, it can be challenging to create positive reinforcements when it doesn’t naturally occur to us or if it doesn’t happen by default. However, the ability to build artificial, positive reinforcement is a surprisingly simple skill we can learn. Once we pair an aversive task with something enjoyable, our motivation will increase!
3. Productive Procrastination
One of the most detrimental causes of our demotivation is procrastination. It can not only cause us to miss a task or routine, but it can also erode our self-efficacy overtime.
The best way to fight our tendency to procrastinate is to accept it, and figure out ways to work with this tendency. For example, one way to reframe our perspective of procrastination is to understand that it’s a result of our brain’s natural desire for change. Instead of beating ourselves over our cravings for novelty, we should embrace it.
Suppose you’re working on maintaining a habit of washing all your dishes before bed every evening. However, you find yourself procrastinating on doing so and end up accumulating a large pile 2 days later. Instead of fighting your procrastination, you can build in an enjoyable, productive activity right before you wash the dishes, such as journaling.
By giving ourselves permission to procrastinate in small, structured ways on a regular basis, we’ll be less likely to end up procrastinating in major, disruptive ways.
4. Have Social Support
Recruiting a friend or partner to aid us in our goal is a powerful source of motivation and building self-confidence. While having positive social support is an encouraging idea, it is important to NOT make these 2 mistakes:
- Don’t expect your friend or partner to constantly check in on your progress toward your goal. The best way to stay motivated and actually achieve your goals is to try to ignore the end goal itself. Focus on maintaining your daily routines and tasks that will take you one step closer toward your goal.
- Don’t think of your social support as someone who will prevent you from slipping up. This can be problematic because it frames the challenge negatively. Instead of your friend being a source of motivation, they become a source of accountability.
With that being said, here are two approaches to utilize when communicating with your social support:
- Don’t tell your social support your end goal or outcome. For instance, if your end goal is to lose 10 pounds in the next 5 months, tell your friend or partner that their role is to help you go on a mile run 4 days a week — nothing more. The more focused you and your social support are on the regular routines you need to accomplish, the more likely you will stay motivated to stick to them and achieve your goal.
- Tell your social support that their role is to support your wins. Your social support is there to validate and encourage you, not to prevent you from slipping up. Their role is to congratulate you after that tough mile-run, not to guilt-trip you to step outside your door.
5. Failing to Plan is Planning to Fail
It’s both naive and counterproductive to assume we will never encounter stumbles or temporary failures during our journey to achieve our goal. Instead of being blindsided or frustrated by any slip-ups that occur, we can stay motivated more effectively by creating a concrete plan for what to do when we face setbacks on our journey.
Here are some suggestions of specific action items you can include in your plan:
- Avoid over-interpreting or over-analyzing your failures. Nothing in life will ever be easy or smooth sailing. If it was, we would never have the motivation to do anything at all. Slip-ups happen. There are many things we can’t control. Dwelling on our failures will only push us back, not move us forward. Acknowledge you will face some setbacks and slip-ups every once in a while.
- Avoid negative self-talk at all costs. In the long run, beating ourselves over our failures only leads to excessive shame, guilt, and frustration. In turn, this will only prevent us from bouncing back and continuing to work towards our goal. When failures do occur, it’s important to remind ourselves that it doesn’t necessarily have any implications on our capabilities or self-worth.
- Reach out to your social support network right away and own your setback. Whether it be over the phone or through text, let them know ahead of time about what you would like to hear from them when you need motivation and encouragement when you slip up.
- If you are slipping up consistently in the same way, try to reflect in a non-judgemental manner. Try to understand what is making it difficult to follow through with your routine. At this point, it’s critical to think logically, not emotionally. Instead of wondering: “What’s wrong with me?” Try thinking: “Some part of this routine isn’t working quite well for me. What can I identify that’s not working, and what can I do better to improve?”
So How Will You Stay Motivated?
To a certain extent, motivation is personal. What works for one person may not work for the other. No matter what goals we set or how detailed our plans may be, if we can’t find the motivation to take consistent action, success will always be fleeting. However, when we can stay motivated and keep pushing through, breaking the bad habits that hold us back can make achieving anything possible.