Updated: Apr 23
How do you find the motivation to do what needs to be done? Every human being has times when motivation is difficult. Some of us have a harder time starting a project; others have challenges maintaining or finishing work. Everybody procrastinates.
I have a lot of personal drive (aka, intrinsic motivation) to do the things that engage me. That means I have no problem writing as soon as I have my first cup of coffee in hand, and I can write for 10 hours straight and never notice time has passed.
Unfortunately, not everything in the world is that engaging. Some people go to their happy place when they wash dishes or do laundry. For me, those maintenance tasks are the most boring on the planet.
Over the years, I have gathered a toolbox of motivators for overcoming inertia and finishing uninteresting activities. I use this toolbox myself and with coaching clients. Use the following ideas to identify tools for your motivational toolbox, choosing items that resonate with you and testing them to see how they work for you. As the Messy Desk Rules say, every person is unique and no solution is universal.
Goals: Keep Your Eye on the Prize
Long-term self-motivation relies on having a vision of your future. SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) goals are the stepping stones to get you to that vision.
On a daily level, reminding yourself of those goals can help you take action. For example, if you have made a goal to run a 5K at the end of the year, reminding yourself of that goal might help you put on your shoes and get out the door to run around the block.
Ways to remind yourself of your goals:
Look at a vision board or a single talisman. If your goal is to graduate from college, a graduation cap can be your talisman. A few years ago, when I was trying to root an exercise habit, my vision board was full of gorgeous, strong older women.
Know your "whys." I have a whiteboard in a place I see every day that reminds me of why I want to be healthy. It says "waterfall hikes." I have a little waterfall icon I draw when I want to remind myself that it takes some stamina to get up and down a trail to the base of a waterfall. It gets me out for a walk or keeps me from eating one more serving of nachos.
Habit Tracking and Streaks
When you are trying to build a consistent routine, keeping track of "streaks" helps you motivate yourself for the journey. You note any time you do the task on schedule (daily, weekly, monthly). You can use a habit tracker or an app. I like to put stickers on the calendar I keep next to my vision board.
Habit tracking encompasses a few different motivators. First, it keeps you accountable for your goals and gives you hard data about when you followed through on your intention. Depending on your mindset, your fallible memory might inflate or minimize the work you have put in. Once you have kept an unbroken streak for a while, it becomes a challenge to keep it going. Then the streak itself becomes a reward, like a pat on the back for doing well. (Be sure to give yourself a literal reward when you hit milestones in your streak, too)
When you reward yourself after doing something hard, you boost brain chemicals that encourage you to do that task again. It can also help you persist in a job if you know that there will be a reward when you complete it.
A reward can be anything positive you give yourself after finishing a task or meeting a goal. You get a little boost of happiness for completing the job and then a bit more from the reward. All that feel-good energy might just keep you going enough to jump into the next task on your to-do list.
Check out this list of enticing rewards to help you identify some that work for you. I consciously save up fun activities to use as rewards, especially for big projects. I might not go to a new restaurant in town, for example, until after I finish the Annual Report at work.
For smaller actions, find a little reward that makes you smile--a fist pump, a literal pat on your own back, a touchdown dance, or saying "ta-da!" will all work.
Positive self-talk when you do something right is critical. When you feel silly doing a happy dance because you finished washing all the dishes in the sink, think about how many times you have called yourself names when the sink was overfull. Try to balance all that negative self-talk with positive talk when you do it right.
I like to make bigger bargains with myself to encourage project completion. I am great at starting projects but finishing them is more difficult for me. So, I might tell myself that I have to finish writing this article before I begin refinishing the dresser I dragged home from the thrift store the other day. It's a good bargain because I really want to work on that dresser, but I also want this article to be polished for submission this week.
I started making bargains like these in college. For example, I wouldn't let myself go to a party if I hadn't finished homework for math class first. But you have to have the willpower to delay gratification this way to make bargains like this work.
Try a Short Workout
Rewards give us a boost after a task is done, but a workout releases feel-good chemicals that might make it easier to tackle difficult tasks. So get up and do a few jumping jacks when you are feeling lethargic to get your blood flowing.
Do you remember The Little Engine That Could? That Little Engine taught me the value of positive self-talk. My coworkers often catch me walking into my office saying, "I can do this!" when a few minutes earlier, my interior thoughts sounded like a whiney teenager, "Awww, do I have to? I don't wanna."
Unlike rewards, games and competition don't rely on finishing the task for a fun thing to happen. You get to have fun while doing the work.
Beat your best time
A timer is a core tool in my motivation toolbox. When I have a task that I hate to do (especially house cleaning), or when I have been procrastinating, the timer is an excellent motivator for me.
For cleaning, I set a timer for 15 minutes and go at it without stopping until the timer goes off. If the task isn't done, I rest for a few minutes, drink some water (stay hydrated!), and then go at it again. Wash, rinse, repeat until the cleaning is complete.
Sometimes I time myself to see how long it takes me to do a particular task and then compete with my best score the next time I have to do the job. Then I reward myself when I beat my best time.
Timing a process has some other good outcomes. If you have a hard time predicting how long a task will take, timing will tell you exactly how long it will take in the future. When I played the "beat my best time" game with unloading the dishwasher, I learned that it takes less than 10 minutes to do the whole thing. Eventually, I could unload the dishwasher within the 5 minutes it takes to toast my breakfast bread. Now I've made a habit of loading or unloading the dishwasher while making breakfast.
Make it a Family Game
A little family competition can also make mundane tasks fun. For example, set a timer for five minutes and challenge every player to put as many items to give or throw away into the bag as possible. Set ground rules that the items must be appropriate for purging and belong to the player. (No fair tossing sis's favorite toy in the give-away bag!) The person who gathers the most items in a five-minute period wins the round. Five minutes is painless, and this can be a daily event until rooms are cleared out—with a small prize going to each day's winner.
52 Pick Up
A solo variation of this game is "52 pick up." For that, you treat trash like a treasure hunt. You walk around the house with a trash bag in hand and try to find 52 items to throw away and reward yourself when you are done.
A Tiny Task is something that takes less than a minute to complete. It painlessly moves you toward a big goal, so it can be a great way to reduce procrastination.
I play my favorite Tiny Task game when I am hanging out at home, feeling lazy. I promise myself that I will put away or throw away one thing whenever I walk into a new room. I have to remind myself I am playing the game, but I can get a remarkable amount of stuff picked up in this indolent way.
Anytime it feels like a lot to do a single task, try to break it down into tiny tasks. For example, if the idea of dusting the living room is bumming you out, break it into tiny parts: 1) Dust the bookcase; 2) dust the end tables; 3) dust the coffee table; 4) dust the TV.
Each one of those parts takes less than a minute, and that should feel much more doable. So you can just start by dusting the bookcase and give yourself permission to stop afterward. If, however, you catch a wave of energy by doing that one thing, you can just keep going until you are ready to stop.
Do it for Someone Else
I don't recommend this as an ongoing strategy--constant people-pleasing is not healthy--but it definitely works for me when a task is more important to someone else in my life than it is to me. My husband dislikes white dog fur on our navy blue carpet; I hate vacuuming. When it's my turn to vacuum, I can make myself do it by reminding myself that it is a gift for him.
If you find repetitive tasks boring, here are some ways to change them up:
Take work to a different place. Work outside. Make calls from a park. Work on your laptop at a sidewalk cafe.
Try doing a task you usually do on a computer in an analog mode, or vice-versa.
Try using a new tool to do the job. I'm a sucker for office supplies, cleaning supplies, and new apps. Something new and shiny can make an old and boring task much more fun for me.
Another way to use a timer is to break up large tasks into time blocks so that you focus for a set time, take a break, and then focus again. Research shows that regular breaks help reduce stress and increase productivity. In particular, hourly breaks are recommended.
In the Pomodoro Technique, you work in four sets of 25 minutes each. Between each rep, you take a 3-5 minute break. After your fourth rep, you take a longer break of 15 minutes or so.
Try different timings to see what works best for you. For me, 25 minutes is about where I hit flow, so I prefer 15 minutes for tasks I have a hard time focusing on, but 50 minutes when I can really immerse myself.
There are several free apps on the market to help you time your Pomodoros. Lately, I've enjoyed Forest, which penalizes you if you use your phone in the middle of a work block.
Optimize Your Schedule
Do you know the rhythms of your day? When do you feel most energetic? Most social? Most focused? For women, can you predict your energy level based on your monthly cycles? Try to schedule your life around those peaks and valleys whenever possible and use high energy times to complete the most difficult tasks.
Optimize Your Environment
What sounds--or lack thereof--might motivate you to do a particular task? Loud 80s music is my choice for house cleaning, but instrumental music is better for me when writing. Experiment not only with music, but also with noise-canceling headphones, earplugs, white noise, or binaural beats. Do you focus better with a little bit of noise around you, or in quieter places?
Pay attention to visual stimuli. Do you work better in natural light? Do you prefer your desk facing the door or the wall?
Even scent can motivate. Some people love to spritz an air freshener after they finish cleaning. I prefer a zesty natural oil in an atomizer to boost energy while I'm working on a high-energy job. Warm and calming scents are good when stress is distracting from focus. Choosing your tools
When you are procrastinating or something's not working for you, use reflective practice to consider what barriers prevent you from success. Are you distracted? Are there steps in the process you don't know how to do? Are you bored with it? Each of the tools above addresses a barrier of one kind or another. Match the tool with your barrier. For example, if you are bored with a task, try to liven it up with a game or do it in a new location.
Some tools work for some people and not for others. Don't follow anyone's self-help advice blindly--even mine. Think of each idea as a mini-experiment. Does a suggestion make sense to you? Try it. Afterward, consider how well it worked for you and if you might respond differently in another situation. Add the ideas that work for you into your toolbox. Along the way, you'll learn more about yourself, and you can modify or create tools to make them fit your individual needs. Every brain is unique.
Marie's motivational toolbox has helped her get a doctoral degree, direct an academic library, teach college and graduate classes, and run a side gig at Messy Desk Consulting. She is the author of some boring academic works and, most recently, The Messy Planner.