10 Psychological Tricks to Stay Motivated EVERYDAY
Today I want to show you 10 specific strategies from psychology that will help you stay motivated and follow through on your most challenging goals.
These are the same strategies I use every day in my clinical practice. Over the years, they’ve helped hundreds of clients boost their motivation to change and accomplish all kinds of goals from weight loss and assertiveness to starting a new business.
But these aren’t just internet self-help hacks. These are serious techniques based on well-established principles from psychology and behavioral science.
Okay, let’s get to it!
1. The Ulysses Pact
Named for the clever hero of the Trojan war, the Ulysses Pact is a technique for holding yourself accountable to stick with a goal even when it’s hard.
The key ingredient in a Ulysses Pact is that we make a choice in the present (when things are relatively easy) that binds us to perform an action in the future (when things are hard).
For example, suppose you want to stick to a plan of going for a run two times per week in the morning with a friend. You could write your friend a series of checks, each for $20, and instruct them to cash one and use the money on whatever they want if you miss a workout with them.
In short, the Ulysses Pact helps you maintain high motivation when things get tough by locking in a future behavior ahead of time.
Chunking is a technique from cognitive psychology originally used to improve memory performance.
For most people, it might be pretty tough to remember a long string of random numbers like this: 5052950167
Chances are it’ll be easier to remember if you break it up into chunks: 505 – 295 – 0167
Luckily, the principle of chunking applies to much more than remembering number strings, or even memory in general. In fact, chunking—or breaking things down into smaller parts—is a fantastically effective strategy in just about any endeavor.
For example, suppose you have a big report to finish by the end of the week and you keep procrastinating on it. You imagine the 25+ pages of tedious corporate drivel you need to churn out by Sunday evening and you shudder at the mere thought of it, instinctively deciding to clean your bathroom rather than sit down to work on the report.
Psychologically, a big part of your procrastination here is how you look at the project. As it stands, you’re seeing it as one giant, overwhelming task. Instead, what if we broke it down into smaller chunks?
For example: If you have five days left to write the report, you might chunk it like this:
- Day 1: Write the Intro (1-2 pages).
- Day 2: Write Section 1 (3 pages before breakfast and 3 pages in the evening after putting kids to bed).
- Day 3: Write Section 2 (at coffee shop before work).
- Day 4: Write Conclusion (1 page at home office before work, 1 page at 11:00, final page after team meeting at 3:00)
- Day 5: Proof draft and send in.
Chunking works to increase our motivation because by splitting things into smaller pieces, it increases our sense of self-efficacy, the belief that we can successfully accomplish a goal.
3. Artificial Positive Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement is a fundamental principle of human behavior that says a behavior is more likely to happen (and continue to happen) when it’s followed by something enjoyable or rewarding:
- Little kids are more likely to learn how to use the potty if their parents clap and sing songs and cheer profusely whenever they successfully go in the potty rather than somewhere else.
- Employees are more likely to come to management with useful suggestions and feedback if managers listen to that feedback careful, take it seriously, and offer genuine thanks and appreciation.
You get the idea. We all know the power of positive reinforcement in our lives.
But what we’re not as good at is building in positive reinforcement when it doesn’t occur naturally or by default. But the ability to build in positive reinforcement mechanisms to our own challenges and goals—a process I call artificial positive reinforcement—is a surprisingly simple skill we can all learn.
Suppose you decided that this is the year you finally read Moby Dick. You’ve told yourself since college that one day you’d finally read The Great American Novel, but so many times before you’ve cracked it open, made it a few pages or chapters past Call me Ishmael, only to lose interest and fail at your goal once again.
What if you artificially set up a system of reward and positive reinforcement for yourself?
I know, it seems silly to reward yourself for reading a book—I’m an adult not an elementary school student!—but if you want a proven, effective way to keep your motivation up, this will do the trick.
Here’s how you might do it:
- Pick a small amount of reading you would like to do each evening. Let’s say 15 pages.
- Choose a small but enjoyable reward. I like those little Dove dark chocolates.
- Keep your copy of Moby Dick and your bag of Dove dark chocolates on the shelf by the coach.
- Each time you finish your 15 pages, put the book away and reward yourself with a chocolate.
Again, I know this one can seem silly and childish because we associate positive reinforcement with getting kids to do things, but it’s just as powerful a principle with adults as kids.
Give it a shot.
For a long time, I was skeptical of the idea of using visualization as a technique for improving performance and motivation. It always seemed a little hokey and woo-woo to me, like something you’d read in a cheap self-help book or hear from a scammy motivational speaker.
But the truth is, visualization is a very straightforward practice that can powerfully boost motivation. And it has nothing to do with channeling cosmic energies, manifesting your inner purpose, or any other nonsense like that.
Instead, it works on a simple principle of motivation that says the more specific, concrete, and available our mental representation of a goal and its benefits are, the more we’ll feel motivated to achieve it.
For example, consider two scenarios for staying motivated to achieve a goal of losing weight:
- Scenario A: The doctor told me it would be good for my health to lose weight. Guess I should try to eat better…
- Scenario B: The doctor told me it would be good for my health to lose weight. And then I imagined how fun it would be if I could run and jump and swing and play with my grandkids at the park without getting instantly winded and fatigued.
Which scenario is going to provide more motivation to lose weight? Yeah, obviously Scenario B. The more detailed our image for the outcome and its benefits, the more motivational pull that outcome will have on us.
No matter what the specifics of our goal, if we make time to visualize and “pain the picture” in our minds of what it will look like to achieve our goal, we’ll have more sustained motivation to do the hard work required to get there.
I’ve found that the best practical way to add visualization into your routine or plan for change is to commit to a small journaling habit. Get yourself a small notebook and spend 5 minutes a few times a week writing about what it will really be like to achieve your goal and all the possible benefits that might go along with it.
5. Gentle Self-Talk
If your goals are good ones, you probably have more motivation than you realize. The trouble is, you may be wasting huge chunks of it. And one of the biggest culprits behind wasted motivation is our own self-talk.
Self-talk refers to our habits of talking to ourselves, both what we say to ourselves in our own head and how we say it.
If your habitual, automatic self-talk tends to be negative, harsh, and judgmental, it’s going to produce a lot of negative emotion like guilt, anxiety, frustration, and sadness, all of which sap you of your natural motivation to reach your goals.
This means that one of the best, if counterintuitive, ways to stay motivated is to stop robbing yourself of motivation with overly negative self-talk. And instead, create a new habit of gentle self-talk.
Here are some examples:
- Suppose you hopped off the treadmill 5 minutes early because you were just too tired to keep going… Harsh Self-Talk: You’re so weak you couldn’t even finish the last 5 minutes. You’ll never get in shape for that 5K. Gentle Self-Talk: I’m a little disappointed that I didn’t make it all the way to the end, but the fact that I’m so tired means I must be really giving my muscles a good workout.
- Imagine you impulsively blurt out a sarcastic comment to your spouse after dinner, even though you’ve been working on being less sarcastic in your relationship… Harsh Self-Talk: I knew I’d mess up again. I’m just a sarcastic person. What’s the use in fighting it? Gentle Self-Talk: Ah, man, I did it again. I’ll keep working at it because I know old habits are hard to break.
Our own habitual negative self-talk is one of the most powerful obstacles to staying motivated and working through challenges to our goals.
If you can learn to notice and then re-shape your self-talk to be more constructive and gentle, you’ll be amazed at how much motivation you’ll already have.