If you ask people how to motivate yourself you’ll get any number of answers, some based on science and others based on gut. Because of this, I spent many years figuring out for myself how people can best motivate themselves to pursue and achieve lofty goals. Most of what you’ll read below is backed by science while all of it is backed by my own personal experiences.
Here’s how to motivate yourself to succeed in 8 key steps:
Before you get into the nuance of self-motivation, you need a solid base on which to build your forward momentum. There are many tips, tricks, and theories, but if you don’t enjoy the process of learning and getting better in the pursuit of your goals, you'll never be able to handle the daily grind necessary to improve and actually achieve them. For this reason, you need to cultivate a growth mindset that helps you focus on consistent progress over time and keeps you from feeling demotivated.
Think about it this way: there is always failure on the path to success. In fact, the reason people even need motivation is that they often face adversity and need help kickstarting their forward progress and momentum when that adversity throws them off track. This is where a growth mindset comes into play.
Growth mindset is an admittedly buzzwordy term that describes someone who focuses on learning and personal growth, understanding that there will be failure along the way and that each failure is another chance to grow and get better on the path to success. It explains that people who believe their skills and abilities are elastic and can improve over time are better equipped to deal with adversity than people who think their skills and abilities are fixed or finite.
Motivating yourself starts with the right frame of mind. People who treat every failure as the end of the world never achieve sustained motivation. Those who treat failure as a learning experience and focus on getting better every day in the pursuit of their higher-level goals have a much better chance of getting up when they get knocked down because getting knocked down is all just part of the process.
If you’re having trouble cultivating a growth mindset, focus on being process-oriented. There is an end-goal, of course, but true joy should come from the daily satisfaction of improving and failing forward as you get closer to the achievement of your higher-level goals. If you want to write a novel, for example, focus on the daily
Once you have a solid foundation and consistently display the characteristics of a growth mindset, the next step to motivating yourself is to never lose sight of your end-goal. I think it's safe to assume that you're interested in motivation because you want the motivation to achieve something specific. However, as the days turn into weeks and the weeks into months, it’s easy to lose sight of your ultimate goal and lose motivation because the day-to-day grind becomes tiring and unbearable.
To combat this, it’s important to set a long-term goal that I call a “north star”. This goal acts as your guiding light that keeps you on track and helps you avoid getting marred down in the daily repetitiveness of incremental improvement towards your higher-level desires. A north star goal should be specific enough to be actionable, but variable enough that it allows for iterations as you figure out what works and what doesn’t on your path to success.
For example, if you want to start a business, your north star could be earning the equivalent of a $100k salary. If you’re interested in becoming an actor, your north star might be playing an important role in a feature film. These north stars give you a solid direction to move towards but aren’t so fixed that they don’t allow for variability as you fail forward in the pursuit of your longer-term north star.
Then, if you get bogged down in the day-to-day necessities of taking sales calls or investing in acting classes, you won’t become demotivated because you have a guiding light to keep you going. Couple this with a growth mindset and all your failures are become learning experiences as you make progress towards your north star.
Now that you’ve identified your north star goal that keeps you on track, to maintain your motivation and forward momentum you'll want to break down your long-term goal into a series of smaller stretch goals. These bite-sized goals are more manageable when compared to your north star but build on each other to get you methodically closer to the achievement of your ultimate desire.
One of the main reasons for this because even though your north star acts as your guiding light and helps you stay on track, it's lofty enough that it can become demotivating itself. Imagine if your north star was to direct a feature film. While ambitious and naturally motivating in the beginning, trying to actually do it can be a daunting task. Answering the question, "how do I become a feature film director?" seems impossible and the sheer size of the task quickly becomes demotivating.
However, if you take your north star goal and break it down into a series of stretch goals that are more achievable, you can create "stepping stone goals" that build off each other and help you stay motivated and on track to achieving your long-term goal. For example, if you want to direct a feature film, work your way backward from your north star. In order for a studio to hire you on as a director, you need an agent. In order to find an agent, you may need to get exposure in a short film competition. To enter the competition, you have to find or write a story to film.
Your series of stretch goals might therefore look something like:
Set goals starting at the end and moving towards the beginning, but work from the bottom up, with each goal feeding into the one above it and helping you achieve your ultimate goal in more manageable and understandable chunks.
How I typically do it is I a set north star such as "sell a screenplay" in specific areas of life like business, health, and writing. Then, I set annual goals that'll help get me achieve my north star, and then figure out what I need to do in quarters 1-4 to achieve my annual goal by Dec. 31st of that year. This way, I have a north star to guide me, a related annual goal to achieve, and a quarter-by-quarter plan to get there.
For more information on creating motivating goals, check out my article on how to set goals the right way.
By now you've cultivated a growth mindset, identified a north star, and set a series of stretch goals that'll help you reach your north star. While this is a great foundation for motivating yourself, it's not always enough to completely avoid demotivation. To keep yourself motivated and headed in the right direction, it's important to always understand the why - specifically, why do you even want the thing you're trying to motivate yourself to achieve?
If you don't have a clear and firm why behind your actions and intentions, you'll never be able to sustain any significant motivation. Often when people lose track of their goals and fall off course it's because they never really wanted to achieve their goals anyway. Those with a burning desire to achieve something can typically stay motivated because they're pursuing something that's bigger than themselves. Their forward momentum has a clear and motivating reason for continuing.
For example, if you want to start your own business, "becoming rich" might be a less motivating reason than "starting an eco-friendly company that helps the environment." Wanting to act in feature films to "become famous" may be a weaker underlying reason than to "create a platform to promote social change." If you really want to motivate yourself, give your north star and associated goals a clear why, as in, why should you even care?
Focusing on a growth mindset and setting your north star and series of goals are the foundational principles of self-motivation. Your mindset becomes a source of positive thinking, your north star acts as your guiding light, your goals break your desires into more manageable chunks, and you clearly understand they why behind the whole thing. At this point, you have your directions laid out. Now's time to get moving and keep the resulting momentum from stopping.
To help, find an accountability partner who is either trying to achieve similar goals or someone who can keep you honest in the pursuit of your north star. For example, if you're trying to run a half marathon, find someone in relatively the same shape to train and run the race with you. If you miss a day of running, you'll have them to answer to. If you want to start a business, schedule a weekly coffee with a fellow aspiring entrepreneur to trade business updates.
If you can't find someone on a similar path, look for someone who can keep you honest by forcing you to give them consistent updates on your progress. A family member, for example, might be willing to take a weekly call and keep you honest by expecting to hear about your forward movement on each call.
As you try to stay motivated in the pursuit of your north star, there'll be times when the task seems too great and the obstacles insurmountable. To combat this demotivation and keep yourself motivated, make sure that you're celebrating the small wins along your path to success. This means celebrate the achievement of your quarterly and annual goals, yes, but it also means celebrating the daily process of getting better.
Did you go to the gym today? Congrats, well done! Did you wake up early to work on your business plan this week? Awesome! The achievement of these small tasks may seem, well, small, but they're necessary for getting you closer to your ultimate desires. And for this reason, make sure you celebrate them. Celebrating these types of daily actions and commitments will help you stay motivated, rather than waiting for a multi-year payoff to celebrate.
When you focus on celebrating the small wins, also focus on the learnings along the way. Those with a growth mindset know that getting better is a necessary part of the process. Sometimes you hit a bump in the road or take an accidental wrong turn in life.
In those cases, there's typically a learning lesson disguised in the failure that will help you achieve later success. Rather than shying away from your failures and letting yourself become demotivated, dissect them and use them as motivating learning experiences that help you grow and improve.
Conversely, even your successes can be learning experiences that help create future successes. For this reason, it's important to focus on the daily wins and learnings on the pursuit of your goals because they will often yield valuable information that can help you stay focused and motivated for the long-term.
Ultimately, when you're trying to motivate yourself, don't lose sight of the big picture. It's easy for life to become a grind and while it's beneficial to focus on the day-to-day, we can't do that at the expense of the larger whole. Remember that we started this discussion on self-motivation with a focus on the end-goal and the why behind that goal. Now here at the end, don't forget that.
There's a reason why you want to motivate yourself to take action. At the end of it all, sustained motivation comes from identifying a powerful "why" and never losing sight of it. That way, when it's early in the morning and you don't want to get out of bed for that cold run before work, all you have to do is conjure up your why and it makes getting out of bed that much easier.
Motivation typically comes from an internal or external incentive. When you need to motivate yourself at work, it's possible to do so via compensation such as earning a higher salary or commission, or internally like finding joy in the work itself because you get to help people.
Similarly, motivating yourself to work out has to be done through internal or external incentives that are translated into goals. For example, if you want to lose weight, you can set a specific goal to lose 10 lbs and track your progress weekly, or you could plan a beach vacation in 90 days to encourage you to hit the gym consistently.
Make sure you align your internal and external incentive structure with the repetitive task of cleaning. Maybe you're someone who likes a clean house and is self-motivated to keep it tidy. If not, try hosting a dinner party or something similar, which will force you to clean the house before your guests arrive.
While self-motivation seems hard, there is a methodical approach to follow. Use the 8 repeatable steps above as a guide to try to best motivate yourself. Over time, note what works and what doesn't, and refine the steps to best suit your personal needs and personality type.