Leaving Work Behind

18 Ways to Motivate Yourself in the Moment

Written by Tom Ewer on February 10, 2014. 29 Comments

Newton's CradleI’ve talked about motivation a lot here on Leaving Work Behind. In fact, at the time of writing, there are no less than 43 posts in the archives tagged with “Motivation” (this article makes 44).

But the quest for motivation goes on, and with good reason. Being motivated is not an absolute state of mind. You are not either “motivated” or “demotivated.” Motivation exists on a spectrum.

With the above in mind, in this article I intend to make a positive change to your motivation and move you closer to the positive end of the spectrum. More specifically, I want to talk about finding motivation in the moment. This isn’t about motivation on a grand scale — it’s about conjuring the energy to do work right now.

1. Get a Good Start to the Day

Personally speaking, nothing saps my motivation more than getting up late.

If I’m up at 8am sharp and ready to start work by 8:30am, I am invariably more motivated than I would have been if I slid out of bed at 10am. That is one of the reasons that I advocate getting work done early in the morning for those who are still in their jobs — people are typically most motivated shortly after they wake, and you cannot beat the satisfaction of going through the rest of your day knowing that you have achieved something. Similarly, it can be very difficult to motivate yourself to work after a long day (as opposed to before).

Of course, simply saying that you should get up early (or at least on time) does not make it so. I appreciate as much as anyone how difficult it can be to get up in the morning, but that’s a topic for another day.

2. Limit Your To-Do List

A bulky to do list can really limit your motivation. If you seemingly have too much to do in a day before you even begin, an easy decision is to do very little at all. After all, if you’re not going to get it all done, how is a little less going to do any harm? Therefore, your to-do list should be limited.

Before you tell me that you simply have too much to do to limit your list, let’s address the blatant truth: the mere presence of items on your to-do list does not get them done. To state the obvious, it’s making the time to do them and actually doing them that gets them done.

Generally speaking, I do not believe in deadline-based to-do lists unless something absolutely must be done on a particular day. Telling yourself that you simply must get something done on a particular day if there is no fixed deadline can lead to unnecessary stress. Work instead on the simple basis of completing the most important task first, regardless of how long it takes, then moving onto the next most important task. When time is out, anything is yet to be done will have to wait for another time.

3. Write a “Done” List

Few things are more satisfying than crossing off items on a to-do list. I’ve already mentioned above that you do not want to be faced with an enormous list of items, but we still want to get plenty done. So this is for those who feel like a big to-do list motivates them.

Instead of your normal to-do list, write up a “done” list. It’s simple: before starting each new task, write it down on a piece of paper. When you’re finished, cross it off your list and write down the next task.

In my experience, this has an awesome psychological effect. You’re motivated to cross the latest item on your to-do list off, but you’re not overwhelmed by ancillary items on the list. Furthermore, you feel encouraged to complete as many items as possible so that by the end of the day, you have a wealth of crossed-off items.

4. Start Simple

Let’s talk about momentum.

You can’t beat that feeling when you’ve got a few things done and you’re on a roll. You’ll feel far more encouraged to tackle bigger and more complicated tasks if you already have a period of productivity under your belt.

That’s why I suggest that you start any extended period of work with a few simple tasks. Ease your way into your work, and shift gears only when you’ve gained momentum.

Of course, this approach shouldn’t be used as an excuse to do frivolous tasks. The to-dos you cross out should still be worthwhile — just not as taxing as whatever else you have planned for the day.

5. Mix It Up

When I worked in property management, I would typically work 8+ hours straight every day, pausing only to eat lunch (and mid-afternoon doughnuts). I was a productivity machine.

Why? Because my job was varied. I might be working on my computer, in a meeting, talking with colleagues, negotiating on the phone, conducting a viewing or out on the road. I wasn’t just doing the same thing all day long.

As much as possible, you should look to create variety in your work. It may not always be practically possible, but each task should vary from its predecessor.

6. Think About What You’re Doing

Amorphous tasks typically require far more motivation than those that are clearly defined. So if you are struggling for motivation, take a minute or two to ask yourself why.

What is it about the task that you don’t want to do? Often, by answering (and resolving) this question and subsequently clarifying exactly what the task involves, you will find the necessary motivation to get it done.

7. Work for Thirty

If you really don’t feel like working, agree with yourself to work for just thirty minutes. This is such a relatively small period of time that you should have little trouble in making a start.

If thirty minutes passes and you’re ready to quit, take a break. If however you’re content to carry on, do so until you run out of steam.

8. Take Breaks

Personally speaking, I can only work for 45-90 minutes at a time before my concentration starts to wane. I really need to be involved in my work in order to make it further than that. In my experience, if you try to force yourself through distraction, the quality of your work will suffer and you’ll really struggle to motivate yourself.

So take regular breaks — as many as you need (within reason). I used to work in strict 90 minute blocks (four blocks per day, six hours solid work total), but I ultimately found this to be too restrictive. Instead, I have a set “working period” (9-5) and simply get whatever work I can get done within that time.

On some days I might take loads of breaks and on others I might only take a few. I allow myself to go with the flow, so long as my “breaks” aren’t just getting nothing done in disguise. Break activities are limited to just a handful of things (playing piano, taking a walk, making tea, eating a snack, etc.) to ensure that I’m not fooling myself into simply avoiding work, but the key distinction is that I must get up and away from my working environment for a period of time.

9. Avoid Avoidance

If the next item on your list is complicated, do not avoid it. You’ve got to do it at some point, and if it’s the most important item on your list, now is the best time.

Avoiding difficult tasks and attacking simpler issues may seem somewhat satisfying, but you’re doing your motivation no good in the long run. That important yet complicated task will still be there tomorrow.

Typically, those difficult tasks aren’t quite as difficult as you previously envisaged. They might take a little more critical thinking and more time, but at the end of the day, time is linear. More time for a more important task is fair trade in my book.

10. Reward Yourself

When it comes to leaving work behind, you’re not in it to punish yourself. While the work will not always be easy, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t reward yourself accordingly (quite the opposite).

When it comes to attacking a task, decide how you will reward yourself when you’re finished. It could be as simple as a brisk walk through the park or a chocolate bar (on occasion!), but assigning a reward to a completed task gives it both a finality and clear event to work towards.

11. Change Your Environment

Motivation is often affected by your environment. For example, will I be more motivated to work if I get out of the house and away from the distractions of easily available food and television? The answer is invariably yes.

Changing my environment is my go-to move when I’m lacking motivation, and it is usually highly effective. It could be as simple as getting off your sofa and sitting at a table, or you could get out of the house and work from your local library or a coffee shop.

12. Surround Yourself With Activity

When it comes to changing your environment, I am a huge advocate of getting out of the damned house and surrounding yourself with activity.

By “activity,” I mean people who are getting on with their lives. Even better, people who are working.

When you’re cocooned inside your home, it is all too easy to lose touch with the world outside the window. Inaction is easy because your environment is inert (unless you’re surrounded by screaming kids of course).

Meanwhile, if you get out of the house and surround yourself with the rest of the world, you’ll be far more motivated to work. Once I’m in the library and I see everyone around me, getting on with whatever it is they’re doing, I’d feel like a real waste of space if I continued to do nothing.

13. Work With Someone

I am a big believer in observing the positive actions of others in order to fuel your own motivation. If you have a friend who is totally dedicated to their online business and is constantly working at it, you can piggyback on their driven spirit and get far more done by working alongside them.

If you don’t have such a friend, there are plenty of alternative options. Working amongst other professionals in co-working spaces (available in most cities) can be a great option — especially if you strike up friendships and, as such, get compelling reasons to “go to work.”

Even working from a library or cafe is a good way to work “alongside” others. Enter any such environment and take a look around you — there are bound to be at least of handful of people busy working. Take your cue from them.

14. Remove Distractions

When it comes to getting work done, distractions are a killer. You’re no doubt aware of this already and may consider the suggestion to remove distractions not particularly innovative.

However, it is important that you remove what you consider to be distractions and retain those things that enable a productive working environment — even if other people might consider them distractions.

Let’s use me as an example. When I’m out of the house (in the library or a cafe), I listen to music on my iPod. This is something I could never do if I was working from home, as I would start singing along and get completely distracted. However, I’m not likely to start singing along in a crowded Starbucks, and the music helps me to disconnect from the bustle around me, create a productivity “bubble” and get on with what I’m doing.

One person’s distraction is another person’s productivity tool. Find out what works for you and run with it.

15. Get Outside

You should never underestimate the power of sunlight and fresh air when it comes to recharging your batteries. If you’re at a productive dead end and feel like doing nothing other than collapsing into a heap, get outside and go for a walk.

I don’t care if you’re only outside for a few minutes; it’s bound to have a positive effect. You’ll clear your mind, get the blood pumping through your veins and provide yourself with a burst of energy that might be all you need to get back to work.

16. Take a Nap

It’s tempting to feel like your lack of motivation is rooted in some complex underlying psychological issues, but you may just be tired. Everyone finds it harder to work when tired, which is why I am a huge advocate of naps.

A lot has been said of naps in recent time; Google will tell you everything you need to know. My nap solution is simple: I set an alarm for twenty minutes from the moment I lie down. It doesn’t even matter if I get to sleep proper — I’ll still feel far more awake afterwards.

If you’re really tired, it might feel like a battle to get up after twenty minutes. If may feel like you need more sleep at that point. However, the brief minutes-long period of grogginess will wear off and you’ll be ready to take the world on afterwards.

17. Ask for Help

If you’re really struggling with something, it can help to gain some perspective. Another person may be able to spot precisely what is stalling your motivation and help you to overcome your issues.

You can speak to anyone — your brother or your mother, friend or colleague, or even us here on the community forums. Perspective is rarely a bad thing. Don’t be afraid to seek help!

18. Switch Gears

Sometimes, regardless of what you try, you just will not be motivated to complete a particular task. If you have exhausted all of the options above and you still find yourself procrastinating, try something else. After all, there’s little value to be had from trying to force yourself to do something — the quality of your work will invariably be poor.

Whatever you choose to do should still be work, but work that you can more “approachable” at that moment in time.

What Are Your Tips for Motivation?

The above tips work for me most of the time, but I’m always looking for fresh ideas when it comes to keeping motivated. So if you have anything that you would like to share (or if you have any questions about my own tips), please fire away in the comments section below!

Photo Credit: Stock Monkeys

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29 Responses to “18 Ways to Motivate Yourself in the Moment”

  1. Razwana
    February 10, 2014 at 4:28 pm

    I love the idea of writing a ‘done’ list! I’m very visual and this will definitely help answer the question of ‘what did I do today?’

    This may sound like an anti-tip for motivation, but usually if I can’t get started at all, and it’s getting worse throughout the day, then I go and do something fun. Whether it’s seeing a friend, seeing a part of Paris (where I live) that’s new to me, or whatever. Rather than fighting to get started, I succumb to it and know that the next day I will be better.

    Note: this is usually when I don’t have a deadline to meet. So the other tip is to set myself a deadline. 60 minutes for a blog post, or 50 minutes on client copy. And when I meet the target time? Take a dance break !

    – Razwana

  2. Josh May
    February 10, 2014 at 5:28 pm

    Hey Tom,

    10, 11, and 12 are definitely my favorites. I’m always switching up where I work (sometimes I go to like 2-3 different coffee shops every day haha.)

    But a lot of great tips man. Motivation is huge, and there are definitely those days when I’m lacking a good amount of it.

    Hope you’re having a great afternoon man

    Josh May

    • Tom Ewer
      February 12, 2014 at 11:31 pm

      Thanks Josh! I love mixing things up when it comes to environments, but gale/hurricane strength winds have kept me in the house today. And guess what? Wasn’t too productive…

  3. Mary Biz
    February 10, 2014 at 7:59 pm

    Number 13 resonates with me. As a newly retired, suddenly have “some” time on my hands, infant blogger, I am a late starter. I start late because I am secretly rebelling the years of very early wake up calls, yet you are correct in saying that there’s a great feeling of accomplishment when tasks are completed in the early morning. It’s a much stronger feeling than completing the task later in the day. Back to #13 ~ it’s good to connect with someone that is an early riser to motivate myself to do the same. If I commit to meeting at a particular time, I “rise to the challenge” (no pun intended) because I am committed to someone else. That’s a great motivator for me. ‘nuf said!

    PS: Since I am a newbie at blogging the simplest things, like understanding code, are roadblocks to getting the job done. I am learning albeit slowly 😀

  4. Jackson Anderson
    February 10, 2014 at 10:47 pm

    The biggest motivation for myself personally is similar to the “done list” but without the visual.

    The more I’m achieving on the regular basis, the more momentum I find I’m able to build and in-return get more productive work done.

    For example after letting myself have a break over the Christmas holidays and into early January the harder it has been to get going again in the new year and ultimately has lead to the decision to re-assess my direction.

    But I know the minute I get started again – the ball will be rolling and I’ll let the momentum lead my motivation!

    Great post Tom and I’m enjoying the frequency of your posts, hope that keeps up haha!

    Cheers

  5. Giles Lascelle
    February 10, 2014 at 10:56 pm

    All of these are great tips, obviously allowing for variations in attention span, body clock etc.

    One of my favourites is trying to keep the outcome in mind when completing tasks. Having a sense of the bigger picture can make otherwise dull tasks feel relevant and meaningful. I sometimes write down in a column next to my list of items to do, either the project that they are part of or some other beneficial outcome. It even works for trivial tasks, e.g. ‘Change the cat litter – nicer smell!’

    • Tom Ewer
      February 12, 2014 at 11:35 pm

      Agree completely Giles. However, that particular method tends to be less effective when working on a specific task for a big project. It’s far easier to motivate yourself to do something that has an immediate effect than do a little bit of work on a long term project. That’s where you have to utilize other methods of boosting motivation.

  6. Anna Kochetkova
    February 11, 2014 at 7:00 am

    Awesome tips! Thanks. There is a lot I’ve learnt today. I never really realised that I often don’t even feel like waking up because, in fact, tired of the gloomy cocoon of my home. Something for me to think over!

  7. Anthony Dezenzio
    February 11, 2014 at 12:45 pm

    I take a daily walk along the waterfront each morning. During my walks, I take in a lot of activity such as ships coming in, fishermen on the wharf while pelicans wait for their meal. Being surrounded by all of these activities creates lots of ideas for my writing. And you can’t beat the fresh air.

  8. Joe
    February 11, 2014 at 2:52 pm

    Another one I use is to add the amount each ‘done’ item has earned me.

    That way I can look back over the day and previous days and see that I am actually earning money and exactly how much.

    Money is a good motivator!

    Joe

  9. DeChon Williams
    February 12, 2014 at 4:54 am

    Loving this post. The Done list and the work for thirty is my favorite. I just hung my shingle out as a freelance writer, and being a Daddy of 4 children and a husband of one wife. I thought i never have the time for anything.

    This piece of advice is spot on. Taking small action steps and crossing them off can help me build up the momentum I need.

    Thanks Tom

  10. Greg Answer
    February 12, 2014 at 5:02 pm

    Even the motivators need motivation. This has reminded me of the importance of motivation and why it is a key focus on my website. I hope everyone who needs some drive get’s a chance to read this post.

    13. Work With Someone. I completely agree. I would like to take it a step further and say you need to find an accountability partner.

    Sometimes, even us entrepreneurs need a boss. An accountability partner is simply a friend or a colleague — hopefully someone with similar interests — who you can report your progress to. Think of them like a personal cheerleader and supervisor. The last thing you want to do is let your personal cheerleader down.

    For example, I have 2 entrepreneurial friends who I meet with once a month — due to our limited time — to discuss our progress. This also includes personal health and fitness goals, like getting enough sleep and working out efficiently. This has been one of the driving forces for the pursuit of our goals and passions.

    For more info, please reference chapter 10 in Think & Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. I placed a link to this post on my website under Banana Simplicity: Recommended Links.

    Thank you for being a continuing source of inspiration.

  11. Freddy
    February 18, 2014 at 11:41 am

    When I’m out of my element and I cannot bring myself to write even a single word, I make a cup of coffee or take a nap. I also read posts such as this, which provide quite a kick in the [nether regions]. Thanks for this motivating piece, it’s really invigorating, you know, like a cold coke on a sunny day 🙂

  12. Naomi@business start ups
    April 22, 2014 at 10:21 pm

    Hi Tom,

    I really love the ‘done’ list idea. I will be trying this one out and I’ll let you know how I get on!

    Thanks

    Naomi

  13. Vision Shine
    July 25, 2014 at 8:28 pm

    true lines for life motivation in right direction..we should have right priorities in life and keep our focus.

    as they says “There is no use of doing it better what should not done at all”.

    we always keep our self busy in wrong things and procrastinate on other things that are deep inside us. today is the time to start. do it now 🙂

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