One of the biggest concerns I hear from my clients is, “I just can’t find the motivation to [insert task they’ve previously said they want to do].” We spend much of our lives trying to motivate ourselves to do unpleasant but important tasks, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy thing to do.
And if you’re trying to overcome procrastination, motivating yourself to get started and to choose a harder or more tedious task over an easier or more pleasant one will be one of your greatest challenges.
But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Let’s start by figuring out what motivation is and where it comes from; then we’ll take a look at evidence-based strategies for getting motivated.
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What Is Motivation and Where Does It Come From?
Motivation is what helps us change ourselves, our situation, or our environment. All animals have motivation; it’s what stimulates them to find food, a safe place to sleep, and a mate.
Contrary to popular belief, motivation isn’t a static thing that you either do or don’t have. It comes and goes. All animals appear to be motivated to secure food, safety, and sex, but basically no one wants these things all the time.
As humans, we’re motivated by far more than basic survival needs, but even still, we don’t pursue social acceptance, fast cars, or fancy jewelry all the time. Motivation is in part a specific drive to do a specific action at a specific time, and it’s highly influenced by what’s going on right now.
For example, people love eating, but when we’ve just loaded up at the buffet, we’re less motivated to seek out food than if we haven’t eaten in a while.
As with procrastination, motivation interacts with our emotions. For example, we’re motivated to avoid pain. When we feel pain, we’re motivated to stop what we’re doing to end the pain. We’re also motivated to increase comfort and happiness, which influences us to choose simple, immediate pleasures instead of making rational calculations that will help us pursue long-term goals.
So, you might experience motivation in situations that feel good or have the potential to feel good but not in situations that don’t feel so good at the moment.
The Importance of Motivation
Motivation is critically important for animal survival, so it’s hardwired into our brains. Everyone’s got the motivation, but we might not necessarily channel it in the right direction. For example, we may feel motivated to learn the latest dance craze but not how to hem a pair of pants.
This occurs because we experience multiple conflicting motivations at once. We might be motivated to cook a healthy meal at the same time we’re motivated to walk the dog, and our brains must choose between these competing tasks because we can only do one thing at any given time. Motivation is what helps us choose among all the things we could be doing in any given moment.
Another reason we find ourselves lacking motivation is that it follows what we want. We tell ourselves we want to eat healthy; but when we’re honest with ourselves, we want to want to eat healthy. Big difference.
Our motivation follows what we actually want, not what we wish we wanted. This combination of having to choose between multiple competing desires and being motivated by what we actually want can make it really difficult for us to do necessary but unpleasant tasks.
As a motivation quote says, “Your passion is waiting for your courage to catch up.”
How to Motivate Yourself?
To tackle your procrastination, you must solve this motivational problem. Psychologically, your motivation will direct you toward simple things that feel good now and away from complicated things that feel cumbersome.
In other words, it will encourage you to procrastinate. Look back at your goals and your values to remind yourself of where you’re headed. The key to motivation is to commit to those goals 100 percent.
You’ll know you’re 100-percent committed when you’re willing to feel uncomfortable in order to keep working on the goal or when you keep working toward it even on the days when you don’t feel like it.
Even a tiny reduction in your commitment (say, down to 99 percent) means every time you think about working toward your goals, you must ask yourself whether today is one of the times you’ll move forward or one of the times you’ll procrastinate.
Making this decision every single time drains the brain resources you need to get tasks started. That sets you up for failure, which decreases your confidence that you can follow through with your goals, which decreases your motivation. The solution: Commit 100 percent, watch yourself follow through, build your confidence along the way, and build your motivation to continue.
Once you’ve committed, use the evidence-based strategies in this article to redirect your efforts in a valued direction. At first, you may not be especially motivated to go to the gym, eat celery, or write a weekly budget.
But once you’ve committed 100 percent and established new habits, your motivation will follow. For example, once people stop smoking, their cravings for cigarettes diminish substantially and they feel more motivated to keep not smoking.
Making choices that are more consistent with your long-term goals will be difficult at first, but it will become easier once you gain momentum. Once you’ve committed to a goal, focus more on the momentum of your actions than your motivation, then use these strategies to help keep your momentum alive.
1. What Future Would You Want?
Find motivation by deliberately asking yourself what Future You would want (Hershfield, 2011). This question seems like it’d be unnecessary, but our brains are predisposed to think about the present moment, with substantially less concern about the future.
I mean, it makes sense: If I don’t survive this moment, I don’t need to be concerned with any future moments. But when we’re fortunate enough to not really have our survival threatened on a regular basis, it behooves us to refocus a smidge more on the future.
When you’re considering how you should spend your time, ask yourself, “What would Future Me want?” Would Future You want you to spend another half hour watching unboxing videos on YouTube, or would Future You prefer that you spent that half hour reading a book to your kid?
You will most likely have a very clear idea of what Future You would want, but it’s important to deliberately ask yourself, because your brain definitely won’t ask this question by itself. Use the answer to take action.
2. Review Your Social Calendar
Many people convince themselves to procrastinate by thinking that if they take care of the task now, they’ll miss out on fun. For example, “If I do the laundry, I’ll miss out on this cool video game my friends are all playing online right now.”
Build motivation by using that thought process to your advantage—flip it upside down and remind yourself what you’ll miss out on if you delay.
Get out your social calendar and see what’s scheduled: You’ve got a happy hour, a book club meeting, a date night, and a concert coming up this week. If you don’t complete that work project today, you’ll need to skip one of those events in order to finish the project by Friday. Use that information to push yourself to get the task done now.
If social events aren’t especially motivating to you, review your schedule of other pleasurable events. You’ve got antiquing on Saturday morning, a hike on Sunday, and The Bachelor on Monday; if you postpone cleaning the house now, you might miss one of those events. In other words, rather than using fun as an excuse to procrastinate, you can use fun as a reason to not procrastinate.
3. Remember, Then Do
“Remember, then do” means as soon as you remember something you’ve been meaning to do, do it right away. And I mean right away. Within just a few seconds, your brain will start talking you out of doing it, so capitalize on that brief moment before your brain starts to override your decision.
If you walk by the kitchen and see a plate that needs to go in the dishwasher, don’t add it to your to-do list; just do this quick task immediately.
This strategy prevents tiny tasks from accumulating on your to-do list. You won’t waste any brainpower trying to remember to do them later.
Plus, if you postpone until later, you’ll need to muster motivation, which is really difficult to apply to tedious or unenjoyable tasks. Doing it immediately circumvents the need for motivation.
4. Visualize Yourself Completing The Task
Visualization is an extremely powerful feature of human brains. Athletes use visualization to run a play before they hit the field, painters use it to plan a piece before paint hits the canvas, and chess players use it to predict their opponents’ moves.
It’s basically a practice run for your brain, and, as with anything, practicing makes us more successful. While your brain is processing this practice run, it’s creating intention and motivation to help you follow through with the real deal.
Here’s how it works: Say you want to go to the gym on your way home from work today, but history tells you that you’re more likely to swing through the drive-thru on your way home to the recliner.
Using visualization means you picture yourself doing the task, step by step, in your mind’s eye. You start with the very first step, in this case getting in your car after work. You then envision yourself driving to the gym, parking, checking in, changing your clothes, working out, getting back in your car, and pulling into your driveway.
Take your time with the visualization—the more realistic it is, the more effective it is. By giving your brain a trial run, you’re almost tricking it into thinking this is already something you do routinely, making it easier.
5. Use Temptation Bundling
Another way to build motivation is to pair something you don’t want to do (i.e., something you’d rather procrastinate) with something you like doing.
By bundling an unpleasant task with something more tempting, we can capitalize on our motivation for the more tempting task and use that to complete the less tempting task. This is called temptation bundling or impulse pairing.
Maybe you’re a habitual procrastinator when it comes to studying for exams, but you really love talking to people. Setting up a study group pairs something you like (socializing) with something you’d ordinarily procrastinate (studying). It’s a bit more motivating to engage with the material in a study group than it would be if you were sitting in the library by yourself.
This is all about playing with the emotional component. The challenge is to find something that feels good now and pair it with something that doesn’t feel so good but is important. Socializing feels good now; studying doesn’t, but it’s important.
Bundling those two things together can help you apply your motivation for socializing to complete a different task.
6. Examine The Advantages and Disadvantages
Much of the human brain’s motivational process happens unconsciously. We assess our goals and feelings and then decide on actions in a split second. Slowing this process down can help us make decisions more aligned with our long-term goals.
Do this by taking a few minutes to write down (on paper, not in your head) the advantages and disadvantages of doing a task now versus putting it off.
Sometimes, delaying a task has legitimate advantages—maybe you’ll get more information about a school assignment, someone will be available to help you later, or the weather will be more conducive to getting the yard work done.
Examining all four quadrants gives your brain ample time and opportunity to consider your short-term needs and your long-term goals and make a full rational consideration instead of jumping to what’s easiest.
This will build motivation for the harder, more important tasks.
7. Keep A “DONE” List
The problem with to-do lists is that they never end. Seriously—on my death bed, I will still have a list of things I need to get done. Focusing on how much there still is to do can be discouraging and demotivating, but focusing on what has already been done can be encouraging and motivating.
Check or cross items off your to-do list—it’s psychologically satisfying. And keep a list of what you’ve already accomplished. It’s a way of taking a moment to give yourself credit for work you’ve done, which will motivate you as you move on to new tasks.
8. Review Your Life Goals
Motivation is directly connected to what we want. But sometimes, we forget what we really want, because we also want something else. Maybe you want to pay off some debt, but you also want new patio furniture. It’s important to take some time to remind yourself of what your goals really are and what you really want for yourself.
The key is to connect tasks to your life goals. Maybe the task is reading this article; that can be connected to your broader goal of learning how to overcome procrastination, which will take you toward your life goal of completing your degree and earning a better living to support your family.
Or maybe the task is mopping the floor; that can be connected to your broader goal of demonstrating life skills to your children, which will take you toward your life goal of raising responsible humans.
Any task important enough to be on your to-do list should be connected in some way to your personal goals. Our brains don’t automatically connect those dots, so taking a few moments to figure out how they relate can really make a difference in building motivation to do otherwise mundane tasks.
9. Watch For Unhelpful Thoughts
This strategy is a cornerstone of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), one of the most widely researched and evidence-based psychological interventions for just about every mental health condition, from depression to anxiety to ADHD. It’s all about catching the unhelpful thoughts diverting you from getting started on tasks.
This is one of my absolute favorite strategies because the evidence base for it is so strong. You should highlight this one, put some stars next to it, and practice it a hundred times.
When you try to start a task, you’ll have unhelpful thoughts that interfere with actually getting it started. Here are some examples:
- I’m too tired/anxious/sad/stressed/etc. to work on this.
- I can do it tomorrow.
- I can’t finish on time anyway, so what’s the point? It’s not that important,
- so it can wait.
- I don’t have enough time to do it.
- Once I finish this, I’ll work on that.
- I don’t feel like working on it right now.
Catch those thoughts and investigate them. Pretend you’re a scientist and treat the thoughts as hypotheses. Then, run an experiment to see if the hypotheses are true.
Hypothesis: I’m too tired to fill out this job application tonight.
Evidence Supporting Hypothesis: I got up early today. I had a lot of meetings today. My kids are extra wild today.
Evidence Contradicting Hypothesis: Most of the application is mindless demographic information. I’ll be awake for a few more hours anyway. I’ve succeeded at many things in my life despite being tired.
Finally, summarize what you learned into a response to the original hypothesis.
Rational Response: It’s true I’m tired, but that doesn’t mean I can’t get started with the application. Plus, I’ve done many things in my life well despite being tired.
Ordinarily, you hear yourself say, “I’m too tired,” accept that as fact, and then procrastinate. The important part here is to catch the unhelpful thoughts rather than ignoring them, and then challenge them to see if they’re true. Often, you’ll find serious inaccuracies in the excuses you’re making to procrastinate.
10. Use A Schedule or An Unschedule
You know what a schedule is—it’s a list of events or activities that you plan to do at a certain time. Research consistently shows that scheduled activities are more likely to happen than activities that aren’t scheduled.
So, being too flexible and winging it with your tasks or goals can contribute to procrastination. Deciding on a time to pay your bills, open your mail, make a medical appointment, or arrange a social event makes it significantly more likely that you will actually start those tasks.
Use a planner or a calendar app to schedule activities, and set an alarm or reminder to cue yourself to stick to the schedule. Even if it’s an activity that doesn’t need to occur at a specific time, like grocery shopping, try assigning a time for yourself anyway (like 11 a.m. on Saturday) to help yourself get started on tasks.
Procrastinators are almost always allergic to schedules, so let me introduce you to an alternative: the unschedule. An unschedule starts with all the scheduled tasks in your life—your work schedule, your class schedule, your regular appointments, your sleep schedule, your meal schedule, your Thursday night bar trivia, anything you do on a regular basis.
Between those events are blank spaces. That’s where the unschedule lives. These blank spaces are your opportunities for all the things you’ve been procrastinating. Ordinarily, that blank space just disappears—we watch TV, play on our phones, chat with our coworkers, and snooze with it. But you can use that blank space to get started on tasks.
11. Chunk Your Tasks
It is especially hard to get started on big or overwhelming tasks. Tasks like “Study for history exam,” “Pack up the house to move,” or “Lose 25 pounds” are so monumental that they inevitably trigger some majorly distressing emotions, which are then followed by procrastination.
“Chunking” your tasks involves breaking the tasks into components and doing one “chunk” or section at a time. For example, say your task is to pack the house so you can move.
You can chunk this into rooms and then take each room in chunks: Start with the bedroom closet, then move to the junk hidden under the bed, then pack up the night stands, then throw the stuff from the dresser into a box.
Once you throw the wall decorations in a bag, your bedroom chunk is complete and it’s time to move on to the bathroom chunk. Each room and each area of a room can be a single chunk.
12. Use Momentum
Momentum is a powerful resource in getting started. It’s often hard to get the ball rolling, but once it’s rolling, it’s easier to keep it going. Start with an energizing task and then quickly switch to another task you’ve been putting off. Ideally, the two tasks should be somewhat related.
For example, maybe you’re procrastinating on getting to the gym. Start by stretching or walking your dog, and then use the momentum from that physical activity to launch yourself into the more daunting task.
The key to this technique is to be able to distinguish between draining and energizing activities. If you’re not sure what energizes you, collect some data for yourself by watching your energy level before and after common activities in your life.
You might be surprised because many things we do to “relax”—like watching TV and scrolling social media—actually don’t restore our energy at all. Energizing activities include things like going for a walk, playing with your kids or pets, exercising, and volunteering. Use the momentum from those energizing tasks to transition yourself into the more draining tasks you procrastinate.
13. Do The Easiest Or Hardest First
Get started on tasks by targeting the easiest part or task first. Once you’ve conquered a minimal amount of discomfort by doing a relatively easy task, you show yourself that you’re ready to conquer a tiny bit more discomfort with a harder task.
This works especially well with quick, easy items on your to-do list: loading the dishwasher, checking the mail, or getting out a fresh toothbrush. Once you’ve accomplished those tasks, you can use that momentum to tackle harder items.
An alternative is to do the opposite: Target the hardest part or task first. If you’ve been dreading something, getting that major discomfort out of the way helps all the other tasks on the list seem much more manageable.
This works especially well for quick but really unpleasant items on your to-do list: cleaning the toilet, making a tough phone call, or handing in your letter of resignation. Once you’ve accomplished these tasks, you’ll have the confidence to tackle the easier items.
14. Set A Time Limit
One of the excuses we use to avoid getting started on tasks is that we’ll miss out on other, more enjoyable things if we do them. You can overcome that thought process by setting a time limit for engaging with a task.
The length of time is arbitrary, but the commitment to a specific number of minutes is crucial. If you commit to doing something for a specific length of time, it’s imperative that you do it for the whole time, no more and no less.
You need to be able to trust yourself that if you say you’re only going to do something for 15 minutes, you’ll keep your word. If there’s even a hint of expectation in the back of your mind that you might keep going after the time limit is up, it’ll be hard to get started—you’re too smart to trick yourself into this!
Commit to engaging with the task for a certain time limit, and then return to whatever it is you would have otherwise procrastinated with.
Even if 15 minutes of work seems too small to make a difference, it’s still 15 more minutes than you had been doing before. And it’s actually amazing what you can accomplish with 15 minutes of dedicated time (walk a mile, read nine pages, wash the dishes, etc.).
15. Just Five Minutes
A related time-keeping approach is to do a task for just five minutes. Again, the number of minutes is arbitrary, but choose a manageable and tolerable amount of time. Unlike the “set a time limit” approach, this approach allows you to renew your time.
So, you’ll commit to working on a task for just five minutes. At the end of that time, decide whether you’d like to commit to another five minutes or move on to another activity. Continue until you decide you would prefer to move on. Initially, five minutes may be all you can tolerate.
But as you practice this strategy, you’ll likely be able to extend the time you engage with difficult, tedious, or unpleasant tasks.
And once you’ve got the ball rolling for five minutes, you’ll amaze yourself at how much easier it gets to keep going.
Just like with the “set a time limit” approach, this isn’t about tricking yourself into spending time on a task. This is about honestly making a decision to tackle a task in small five-minute chunks of time and giving yourself an honest option to discontinue the task at five-minute intervals.
16. Review Your Regrets
We’ve all got a long list of regrets—drunk texting an ex, lower back tattoos, bangs. But some things in life are almost impossible to regret. Things like going for a walk, spending extra time with people you love, eating a healthy meal, thanking someone, recycling, drinking water, exercising…the list is endless, really. Do you know what’s also impossible to regret?
Get started on something you’ve been putting off. Think about it: How many times have you regretted finishing something early, being extra-prepared for a test, or having a head start on a project? Now consider the opposite: How many times have you regretted your decision to procrastinate?
My guess is that you’ve regretted it often, and that’s why you started reading this book to begin with. Taking this mindset and remembering that it’s nearly impossible to regret getting started (but very easy to regret starting late) can help you get over the hump of starting something new.
Once you’ve started a task, it’s easy to get distracted. That’s why your next challenge is staying focused on what you’re doing.
Now that you know how to prioritize your list and how to get motivated to accomplish what’s on it, it’s time to actually get started on those tasks.
However, it’s surprisingly difficult to get started. It seems like once we decide what we want to do, we should just be able to do it. But as you’ve discovered, it’s not that simple.
Fortunately, psychologists have discovered a lot about why getting started can be such a struggle. Knowing the psychological barriers give us some hints about strategies we can use to overcome them.