15 Ways to Motivate Yourself That Actually Work
We're experts at setting goals. Today we'll do 12 different things. And by the end of the month, we'll nail all those, plus one million more. Sounds like a plan, right? Truth is, it's much easier to set goals than to actually get 'em done. It all comes down to motivation, and we'll be honest: We have trouble keeping the fire lit. (It's so much easier to sit back and think about all the things we're going to do... eventually.)
To stay motivated, we knew we needed some outside help. That's why we went to the pros to find 15 new ways to reach your goal, whatever it may be.
We're not saying it'll be easy, and we're not saying it'll be quick. But we're willing to bet it'll be worth it. And the satisfaction that comes from accomplishing just one of our goals? Enough to keep us taking baby steps toward everything else on our list.
Ready, Set, Go!
To keep that clear-eyed outlook, write down a few reasons you want to get fit (or whatever your goal is), suggests Michelle Segar, Ph.D., behavior expert and author of No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness.
While that may sound obvious, naming concrete things you want to be able to do (like make it up to a third-floor walk-up without panting, sleep better at night, or stay full enough on healthy foods to turn down junk) will make it easier to track your progress and stay motivated, rather than aiming for an abstract goal like "get healthy."
"We want people to anchor physical activity to something that’s actually going to motivate long-term behavior," Segar says. "It’s important for people to figure out whether the reasons they’ve been trying to do it in the past actually set them up for failure or success."
Believe it or not, one of the best ways to keep yourself motivated comes auto-installed on your smartphone. We're not talking Apple Health, but the Notes app.
Say you don't know exactly what you want. If you just know you want to start living better, keep a running list of the moments that make you smile, suggests Lindi Duesenberg, founder of Dance Motivation Fitness. "For a while, I would just write down moments in my day that really brought me joy—what I was excited about—and that led me to where I am now."
So if you're not entirely sure what your endgame is, try tracking what makes you happy. Love seeing your silhouette in Warrior II or that feeling when you hit mile 2.9 of a 5K? Add it to your list, then take a peek and let it motivate you when it's drizzling and working out sounds like the worst idea ever. Stoked to get home from work and cook dinner? Maybe think about enrolling in an cooking class.
All of the experts we spoke to recommended establishing a baseline of what your reality is so you can aim for progress you can actually make happen—for example, not saying you'll get up at 6 a.m. when you hate mornings. To accept that reality in the most positive way, tick off a few things you're grateful for while still in bed, says Duesenberg.
"When we wake up, we’re often overwhelmed with what we have to do and what we have to fix, and our focus becomes that," Duesenberg says. "So shifting that focus right away, just acknowledging what is good, puts you in a better mind frame to tackle the day."
Excuses are man's best friend and greatest enemy, says Bernie Roth, academic director of Stanford's School of Design and author of The Achievement Habit: Stop Wishing, Start Doing, and Take Command of Your Life. The trick is to look at them straight on (are you really too tired to work out, or do you just want to watch The Walking Dead?), and go from there.
"If you see you’re using an excuse, just correct yourself. Next time it comes up, you'll probably do it again—but after a few times, you'll stop. But if you believe your own baloney reasons, you'll never change your behavior," Roth says. "It’s really a matter of telling yourself the truth."
This trick is a bit counterintuitive but also one of our favorites: Just sit back and listen. And with 8Tracks' motivational playlists in your ears, you won't be stuck for long. Download the app or visit the website and search for "motivation." We love "Your Executive Minute" for some tough love, "Get Pumped" for more of the same with a hip-hop twist, and "Motivation" for some quality time with the Arnold (and others). They're guaranteed to get you off your as* and moving toward your goals.
Invisibila's "Fearless" podcast once featured a man whose fear of rejection was so strong he'd become totally isolated. To face his fear, he decided to make it into a game: Try and get rejected at least once a day, every day.
In taking rejection's power away, he was able to beat it, and Duesenberg says the same technique can apply to anything that intimidates you. Aim for—or at least expect—failure, and eventually it'll happen less and less.
We feel like we have to be good at everything before we start it, which is counterintuitive, but we live in such an instant gratification kind of world.
"Just jump in and be okay with failing and totally losing face. We get paralyzed by fear. We feel like we have to be good at everything before we start it, which is counterintuitive, but we live in such an instant gratification kind of world," Duesenberg says. So if you aim for the bottom rung, you're still a step above not trying at all—and a step closer toward your eventual goal.
Don't force yourself to do something you don't actually enjoy, because it'll be nearly impossible to work it into your lifestyle long-term, Segar says. But if you're ambivalent about an activity like running or going to the gym, she suggests linking it to something you genuinely like.
"Feeling good could come from who you’re walking with; it doesn’t have to be from the walk itself," says Segar. The key is to connect it to something you really want to do, whether that means listening to your favorite podcast on your run or treating yourself to a homemade smoothie after a tough workout.
While we've always associated the "20-second rule" with the amount of time it's fine to eat something after it's fallen on the floor, Duesenberg likes to give it another, slightly more motivational meaning.
"You just need 20 seconds of insane courage to do something. Just be bold and do it, and whatever happens, happens. The outcome might not be perfect, but at least you took that step and that’s one step closer," Duesenberg says.
It's all about baby steps, even if you need to close your eyes and take a deep breath to do them—like the one you'd take as a little kid before jumping in a pool. In the same way, work up the 20 seconds of courage it takes press send on an email to a new business contact or run for 10 minutes today (your "20 seconds" doesn't have to be literal). After pressing send or kicking off a run, it's likely you'll want to do it again—and again.
If you're aiming for a life change, Segar also recommends going old-school planner and taking a look at the little gaps in your day.
It makes sense—by the time 5 p.m. rolls around, we're usually too tired to work out, and morning workouts... are good for morning people. But if you can fit in five minutes of "goal time" here and there throughout the day, it'll add up.
If you're exercise-oriented, we especially love Sworkit, a free app that lets you set how long you want a workout to last (one minute, please). And if you're not, the concept still applies. Grad school on the back burner? Block out a Sunday morning to work on your application or even just five minutes to fill in all the name boxes.
Whenever we need a quick boost of inspiration, we head over to this golden essay on watching award acceptances.
When you’re at your lowest point, it helps just to witness someone else be happy, to be brimming with joy, to remind you that that’s still a feeling.
As the author, Jazmine Hughes, puts it, "When you’re at your lowest point, it helps just to witness someone else be happy, to be brimming with joy, to remind you that that’s still a feeling. When you’re at your worst, look up to someone at their best, and hopefully they will bring you up with them. The immediate reaction, the uninhibited shock or excitement or joy, gets me every time. (God bless the close-up cam.)"
And it works. While all of the ones Hughes mentions are motivating, we'd also like to add Gina Rodriguez's "Jane the Virgin" acceptance speech. We cry a little every time.
There's nothing like the feeling of validation, so if Snapchatting selfies of yourself at the gym keeps you accountable, Duesenberg says to go for it. It's basically the modern equivalent of little kids saying, "I did it! I did it!," and she says just taking that minute to appreciate your accomplishments will motivate you to keep moving forward.
"How you’ll feel after is always what gets me to it. Rather than focus on the now, focus on the future. You’re going to have so much more energy, you’re going to feel more productive. I stay focused on how good it's going to make me feel."
Segar says one of the most underrated motivational tricks is not discounting the power of just taking a walk. Although running can seem like the gold standard, walking is a respectable form of exercise in itself, and studies have found that getting outside can increase your sense of enthusiasm and energy.
Not seeing results can be one of the most frustrating parts of working out, and when it feels like nothing you're doing makes a difference, it's easy to want to give up, Duesenberg says.
Which is why Segar recommends scheduling weekly check-ins with yourself, as weirdly formal as it may feel. Giving yourself a time to evaluate what's helping and what you're never excited about (just dump it!) is crucial to sticking with your goals, as is staying tuned in to what your endgame is. So if you want to start cooking more but still order Seamless every night, take stock of why you're doing it—and whether it's worth more to you than what you want.
A tried-and-true trick to stay motivated? The ever-popular "phone a friend" option, by which we mean, buddy up to get yourself to a workout class, Duesenberg says.
Even better, going with a pal means you have someone to make eympathizing eye contact with during the more advanced moves, instead of watching everyone else execute them perfectly. (Although, just remember—everyone looks up at different times.)
When all else fails, go for the annoying. If your goal involves getting up earlier, whether it's to work out or work on that application essay, this could be the final (but effective) straw: The Clocky alarm clock runs around when it goes off, making you get up and chase it to turn it off. Not very nice, but when we want to work out and our sleep-self says otherwise, the tough love comes in handy.