Highly Effective Strategies to Harness Motivation

Actionable Ways to Find and Harness Motivation—Even When You’re Not Feeling It

Woman with red hair writing in a journal on the bed.

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Motivation plays a role in almost everything we do. From getting out of bed in the morning to tackling a chore to going after a new role at work, it’s ultimately that underlying sense of motivation that drives us from beginning to completion of any task that life throws our way.

Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, an esteemed neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University notes that, "Motivation is a key activity to living a productive life. Without motivation, it is hard for people to complete important tasks, find a work-life and home-life balance, and essentially, make the most of every single day."

This article discusses some of the common roadblocks that might hinder our motivation. It also outlines actionable ways you can find and harness motivation, even when you’re really struggling to do so.

Why Motivation Can Sometimes Be Hard to Find

Some people find motivation easy to come by. They can complete daily tasks without a second thought and remain highly efficient from morning to evening.

Others, however, may struggle to find a sense of motivation even for the simplest tasks. Of course, even those who are otherwise quick to find motivation may struggle from time to time to harness that energy.

Some of the common roadblocks to motivation are outlined below.

Little or No Direction

Some people may find themselves “floating” through the day, week, or months without much direction.

Sanam Hafeez, PsyD

With no clear goals, it is hard to know what you should be motivated to do in the first place.

— Sanam Hafeez, PsyD

A simple daily to-do list, monthly goal list, or five-year-plan can inspire positive trajectory.

Lack of Self-Discipline

Having a goal or mission is step one but having the self-discipline to conquer the task at hand is just as important. “Motivation is a learned behavior,” says Rachel Eva Dew, DNM, DIM, PhD, a double-board certified doctor of natural and integrative medicine and the founder of ModiHealth.

She adds, “Many people learn strategies for self-discipline through the values and lessons learned from family, participating in team sports and school experiences. However, not everyone is taught good strategies or habits that support optimal motivation.”

It is never too late to start fostering self-discipline, but it does require focus.

Self-Doubt and a Fear of Failure

Failure can bring many emotions—embarrassment, self-hatred, sadness, worry, and stress. The first step to accomplishment is almost always a muddy one, but still, these feelings are unpleasant, and they can be difficult to process healthily.

It is possible that people who are scared of failure would rather do nothing at all than fail at something.

Speaking to a therapist about feelings of self-doubt and paralyzing fear of failure can help you overcome these issues in a healthy, effective way. "Many people experience fear or feeling or thoughts related to failing, but until you try, you will never know," says Rachel Goldman, PhD, FTOS, a licensed psychologist specializing in health and wellness. "Remember if you start slow, and small, it is easier to accomplish your goals."

Feeling Overwhelmed

When there’s too much on your plate, it can create a stifling, almost paralyzing feeling.

Dr. Hafeez says, “Sometimes if a person is extremely overwhelmed, they may retreat and avoid all of the tasks they are supposed to be completing.”

Allowing yourself to say no to new tasks or commitments, taking time for yourself, and finding better work/life balance can be monumentally helpful.

Anxiety, Stress, and/or Depression

Those who are otherwise motivated individuals can sometimes experience a dip in tenacity. This can occur when mental health isn’t at its best.

Finding strategies to deal with anxiety and stress, such as meditation, exercise, and conversations with friends, can be helpful.

A therapist can assist if you suspect you have depression and may even prescribe medications to help you find more peace and balance.

Proven Ways to Find and Harness Motivation

It is never too late to address these common stumbling blocks to motivation. If you’re feeling stuck or unsure where to start, these tips can get you going.

Identify Poor Habits, Practices, and Patterns (Without Judgement)

Fixing anything first requires acknowledgment. This can be difficult since identifying weaknesses can make us feel bad about ourselves, but try to remember that everyone is imperfect and avoid judging yourself harshly.

Dr. Dew notes that many of our habits are unconscious and we do them on autopilot. In order to remove unhelpful patterns, she notes that's it's important to first become aware of them.

Rachel Eva Dew, DNM, DIM, PhD

If we can gain awareness around them [our patterns] and apply intentional as well as consistent action, we are able to rewire our habits to remove the things that are keeping us from getting where you want to go.

— Rachel Eva Dew, DNM, DIM, PhD

When you notice or identify a habit or pattern you have, outline the ways the habit is hindering you, then write down a way you can curb this pattern.

Cultivate Intrinsic Motivation 

Intrinsic motivation is the inner drive that engages us in activities that are pleasurable and rewarding.

“Some intrinsic motivations that drive us are curiosity, personal growth, challenges, a sense of duty and belonging, affiliations, and recognition of purpose,” says Dr. Hafeez. “For instance, reading a book about the human body because you are interested in anatomy would be an example of intrinsic motivation.”

Below are a few ways you can introduce intrinsic motivation into your daily routine in order to find more success in your goal setting:

  • Create attainable goals: Feeling overwhelmed by a goal or a project is normal. Even if the mission is a big one, you can break it down into small goals to work your way to the finish line. “For example, if you have a difficult project or assignment coming up, most people will usually wait until the last minute to begin. In order to avoid this, make a list of achievable goals for each day,” advises Dr. Hafeez. “This will make you feel challenged, while also allowing you to feel as though you have completed important activities.”
  • Reward yourself: By rewarding yourself one thing at a time, or at the end of the day, you can teach yourself to be a more motivated person. In science-y terms, this is referred to as “operant conditioning with the use of reinforcement.” In layman’s terms, it’s about treating yourself for good work! Dr. Hafeez says, “Every time you complete a task you know that you are going to get a reward. Likewise, if you do not complete any tasks, then you will not get a reward. So, over time, you associate rewards with being productive and motivated.”
  • Create positive habits over time: Over time and with dedication, you can create positive habits that you don’t think twice about. “According to science, it takes around two months to develop a habit,” says Dr. Hafeez. “In order to make motivation a habit, a person needs to try and start completing activities every single day. Of course, it is fine to miss a day here and there but that should be done sparingly.”

Motivational Questionnaire

In her practice, Reena B. Patel, LEP, BCBA, a licensed educational psychologist and board-certified behavior analyst, uses what she calls “motivation inventories” to help identify her patients’ hierarchy of incentives.

Below is the self-assessment questionnaire Dr. Patel asks each client to fill out when they want to accomplish a task, be it large or small.

We recommend writing your answers down in a journal; scientific research points to an improvement in reaching goals when they’ve been written down.

  • What is the goal you want to achieve?
  • Why do you want to achieve this goal? Why is it important to you?
  • What would be the consequence if you do not meet your goal?
  • What would the result be if you did meet your goal?
  • What might hinder your motivation to achieve this?
  • List a few ways to overcome this obstacle.
  • How can you break this goal down into smaller, achievable goals that ultimately get you to the finish line?
  • Who can hold you accountable to achieve this goal? 
  • What will your reward be if you achieve this goal? 

You can use this questionnaire yourself to help identify your goals, harness inner passion, and predict potential stumbling blocks along the way so you can better navigate them in the moment.

Also, by breaking down the goal into smaller “bite sized” tasks, you’ll avoid feeling overwhelmed, paralyzed, or stuck.

Finally, by having a clear reward for yourself at the end—be it a physical reward or the mental/emotional one—you’ll have something else to work toward.

Once you have completed the goal, we recommend going back to review the answers to the above questions.

Over time, you can identify the types of goals you struggle with, what sort of motivating factors help you accomplish a goal. You can also see what roadblocks come up more frequently and understand the methodologies you use to bypass those setbacks.

A Word From Verywell

At the end of the day, motivation is different for every single person. In that sense, there is no one reason why motivation may be harder to come by for some people.

Identifying poor habits and patterns is the first step in igniting change. Second, it’s important to find those intrinsic motivations and really using them to your advantage; there are several strategies you can utilize to get you there. There will always be stumbling blocks along the way, but every step forward—however small—is progress!

If you think you may be struggling with motivation due to your mental health, we recommend seeking out advice, guidance, and help from a reputable therapist. Usually, identifying the underlying issue will improve your emotional, mental, and physical well-being and, as a result, help you correct issues with motivation.

By Wendy Rose Gould
Wendy Rose Gould is a lifestyle reporter with over a decade of experience covering health and wellness topics.