4 Surprising Things That Keep Us Motivated

You can’t “hack” motivation. There’s not a quick trick in existence that’s going to motivate you to do something if you just don’t want to do it.

But you can make an effort to understand the psychology behind motivation, and use this to your advantage.

The things that keep us on track towards our goals might surprise you. In this article, we’ll discuss four perspective changes that can help keep you motivated — even when you feel like giving up.

4 Surprising Things That Keep Us Motivated
1) Overcoming a setback.

Despite being one of the seven deadly sins, pride is actually an important factor in staying motivated towards long-term goals. Pride comes in two different forms: There’s hubristic pride (the kind that inflates your ego and gets you into trouble) and authentic pride, which describes those warm, rewarding feelings you get from making progress on meaningful work or accomplishing a hard-won goal.

Jessica Tracy, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, and author of Take Pride: Why The Deadliest Sin Holds The Secret To Human Success, has extensively studied the effects of authentic pride (i.e., feelings of accomplishment and fulfillment) on human motivation.

In a recent study, Tracy and her colleagues examined the effects of authentic pride on students’ test taking abilities. When students reported feeling a low sense of authentic pride after receiving a poor test score, they were more likely to change their study approach and work to improve their results for next time. Students who did not report feeling a low sense of authentic pride after receiving a poor test score were much less motivated to improve.

In other words, having your ego bruised a little bit will actually motivate you to work harder in the long run. So if you’ve recently suffered from a setback or disappointment at work, channel that energy into changing up your approach and improving your results, rather than pushing those feelings away and ignoring them.

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But be wary of taking it too far. Tracy warns that there’s an important distinction between using the absence of pride productively and suffering from a problematic lack of confidence — i.e., shame.

Shame, Tracy explained, is characterized by feelings of uselessness, and thoughts of “I’m not going to try to work hard because it’s just going to end up in failure.” In contrast, feelings of low authentic pride push you to restore feelings of fulfillment and achievement by working harder and more efficiently.

2) Being at peace with distractions.

Embracing distractions instead of fighting through them certainly goes against conventional wisdom about motivation — a quick Google search for “motivation and distraction” reveals a list of articles about “killing” or “eliminating” distractions as a strategy to stay motivated. But resisting all distraction can actually make it more difficult for our brains to stay focused.

Oliver Burkeman, the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, believes the typical way of approaching distractions as the enemy of productivity is misguided, and could counterintuitively be causing us to become even more distracted.

Although it’s easy to blame external factors like your chatty coworker or the addictive allure of social media, Burkeman said the real cause of our chronic distraction is an internal urge to fight anything that compromises our autonomy.

In other words, we like to feel in charge, and when we’re told we have to focus on something specific, the idea of fixating on anything but the task at hand becomes irresistibly magnetic.

For example, I recently set aside a block of time on my calendar to get a project I’d been putting off completed once and for all. When the time finally rolled around, all I really wanted to do was mindlessly look at pictures of dogs on Instagram. This was my brain’s way of rebelling against the task at hand, and assuming autonomy by drifting towards a more appealing activity.

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“The good news is that when you see distraction for what it really is, you’re much better equipped to fight it,” Burkeman wrote in 99u. “Remember, too, that you don’t need to ‘feel motivated’ in order to do important work. Instead, let yourself feel like you’d rather be doing something else, and at the same time, do the work: Open the laptop, make the phone call, type another sentence.”

3) Strengthening your tolerance for discomfort.

We’ve all been here before: you’re just about to jump into a big project, and the thought of taking those first steps is almost physically painful. All you can focus on is the hardship to come: the effort you’ll have to expend, the hours you’ll have to put in, and how taxing the project will be from start to finish.

Carson Tate, a productivity coach and business consultant, calls this phenomenon intellectual discomfort, and pretty much everyone has experienced it at one time or another. It’s a gut-level aversion to doing any work that requires us to come off autopilot and challenges us on a deeper level.

And to get any meaningful work done, you have to learn to fight through it.

It will be unpleasant at first, but it is possible to train yourself to become more comfortable with the discomfort of intellectually demanding work. Think of it like preparing for a marathon: If you make a training schedule and put in the effort to stick to it, eventually the running gets easier every day. That first day, running a mile might seem tortuous, but in six months, it’ll be a breeze.

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To start increasing your tolerance for work that requires your full attention, consider using a structured framework to manage your working hours. One of the most commonly used (and widely discussed) methods is the Pomodoro Technique, which relies on a intervals of work and rest to keep your mind on track without burning out. 

When used consistently, structured methods like this can help increase your endurance for intellectually taxing work — and make it easier to prevent those pangs of dread and premature fatigue before the project even kicks off.

4) Stop obsessing about being unmotivated.

The overarching theme in the previous three methods seems to be this: stop beating yourself up about not feeling motivated, and just start working. It sounds counterintuitive — how can you work when you don’t feel like it? — but constantly fixating on how motivated you wish you felt only amplifies your lack of motivation.

Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner famously demonstrated that attempts to forcibly coerce your own thoughts or emotions overwhelmingly backfires. If you force yourself to get super motivated to start your next big project — but in reality, you’re really not feeling it — you could actually end up feeling more unmotivated than before.

All you accomplished was making yourself feel bad that you weren’t experiencing what you perceived to be the ideal emotional responses: excitement and motivation.

The takeaway? Don’t judge yourself so harshly for feeling unmotivated. It’s perfectly okay, and you can still get things done without being extremely excited about them. So go ahead, give yourself that Twitter break. And then get down to business.

How do you stay motivated when things get tough? Let us know in the comments.


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