How to boost your self-motivation

Raise your hand if you feel motivated all the time! One of the biggest challenges we all face is to stay motivated when we experience difficulties. This is true, whether we try to grow a business or to lose weight, to learn a new language or to do sports on regular bases, to raise a child or to find a treatment for cancer. Self-motivation is the capacity to stay positive and to control one’s negative emotions when faced with adversity. It is the ability to complete something without influence from other people, without being forced by external constraints. A self-motivated person finds within him/herself the strength and the reasons to do something, also when it is challenging, and masters the difficulties without giving up. But motivation is not a permanent state; it is an exhaustible resource that has ups and downs, no matter what your goals are. And sometimes we all need a little push in order to stay interested and engaged in what we do. Here are some things that have worked for me and my clients and that will help you enhance your self-motivation.


Create a meaning

One of my best friends, Filip, used to work as a cook in a restaurant in Strasbourg to get himself through college. I have always found this job very demanding and exhausting: you have to keep a high pace at work (people don’t like to wait too long), you have to do things simultaneously (orders often come at the same time), you have to concentrate, to prioritize, to always deliver a high quality (otherwise meals are sent back and you have to cook them again) and to constantly coordinate with your team. Not to mention the surrounding heat and noise. So back then I asked Filip why he preferred to do such a hard work. And his answer was remarkable: he told me “Slava, I feed people! I make meals for them, so they are not hungry anymore.”

Why am I telling you this story? A few decades ago psychologists used to think that we do things for two main reasons: either to stop or prevent something undesirable in our environment or to induce something desirable. Or otherwise, we used to think that our behavior was motivated by the perspective of avoiding a punishment or that of receiving a reward. Only, this vision neither explains why a higher salary doesn’t always induce a better productivity and quality, nor why people engage in voluntary work. Because human motivation is far from being a simple psychological phenomenon.

Indeed, research has now shown that when it comes to work for instance, the most powerful motivation (along with autonomy and mastery ) is the purpose of what we do, the meaning that we give to our activity. The meaning has nothing to do with money, power, social recognition or reputation. It has to do with our deepest human values, with how we contribute to the world and the society. It is the reason why we are able to put effort and to go to trouble without expecting imminent reward, why we engage in highly complex and challenging activities for free and why things like open source software exist. Let’s get back to Filip. He could view his job as something hard, annoying but necessary for him to get through college. In this case he wouldn’t be able to do it for as long as he did. Instead, he had created a meaning, a reason for what he was doing, that went above the reward he was receiving.

So, think of the meaning of what you do: how do you make the world a better place? Do you improve the quality of life of other people? Do you repair a terrible damage or harm? Maybe you prevent something good from disappearing? Try to complete the following sentence:

“If I stopped doing what I do, the world would be a worse place, because…”

Creating a meaning is no guarantee for success, but, as Guy Kawasaki puts it in “The Art of the Start”, if you fail, you’ll do so by doing something that was worth it.


Do a Success Review

One of the main reasons for experiencing a motivational fall is the lack of self-confidence and that of positive reinforcement. Or in other words, when we don’t see the fruits of our efforts, when we don’t get positive feed-back on what we do, we may think that we are not good enough, that we are not able to succeed and that there is no point in continuing.

It has to do with what the Canadian-American psychologist Albert Bandura calls self-efficacy: the believe in our own ability to accomplish a task or to succeed in a specific situation. The sense of self-efficacy affects our motivation in a powerful way and determines how we approach adversity. A high self-efficacy allows us to see adversity as a challenge we can master, rather than as a difficulty to avoid, and helps us to put more effort and to maintain it longer.

The problem is that the sense of self-efficacy can be lowered by negative experiences, such as failure, and by a lack of positive ones. But most of our goals involve failure before success and we are often inclined to focus on them. In this case, it is important to shift our attention on the positive experiences. One way to do this is a simple memory exercise I call the Success Review.

Take a moment, get yourself comfortable and think about what went well until now. Don’t stay focused on one area of your life, pick positive experiences from your relationships, education, career or any other personal achievement. Ask yourself the following questions (write down the answers, like this you can go back to them any time you feel demotivated):

What did I do until now, that was good, particularly good or excellent?

Where did I start? Where am I today?

In what way what I did was a success? What exactly did I accomplish?

How did I feel about my accomplishment back then? How do I feel about it now?

What did I have to struggle with? What adversities did I overcome?

How did I manage the problems? What skills, qualities and talents did I use?

What did I learn through this particular experience?

How does it make me feel about myself?

The outcome of this exercise is that you will realize how much you have already achieved and it will make you feel good about yourself. You will also find out that you have faced adversity many times before and that you were able to deal with it. This will enhance your sense of self-efficacy and will let you think of your actual situation: “It may be difficult and it may take time. But I am able to do it, as I have all the competencies and abilities I need for”.


Visualize success

Very often, what makes our motivation sink is the fear to fail. And while apprehending doing a new, a risky, an important or a highly complex thing is normal, there is also a good way to prepare for it. Let me tell you about the Patrouille de France, the best pilots of the French Air Force. On different occasions, like the National Day for example, they perform amazing, highly skilled, perfectly executed and extremely risky aerial maneuvers above the heads of everybody. But what is more impressive is how they train: before every flight they do an exercise called “the Music”. They sit in a room and, guided by the voice of the commander, they picture the maneuvers in their heads and repeat the gestures they will have to do.

What does it have to do with you? Well, every time you imagine yourself doing something, you activate in your brain the same neuronal paths that become active when you are actually doing it. Visualization is thus a brain training that helps you prepare for a specific activity, by pre-experiencing it.

So, next time you have to do something new, important, risky, highly complex, or simply something you apprehend, start by doing it in your head. Do the following exercise: sit down in a quiet and comfortable place, close your eyes and imagine yourself doing successfully the thing you want to prepare for. Pick the best case scenario and be precise:

Where does it happen? How does your environment look like? Is it outside, is it inside? Picture yourself the details: space, lights, colors etc.

When does it happen? What day, what time of the day? How is the weather outside?

Are you alone? Who is with you? Do you interact with people around (if there are some)?

What exactly do you do? Visualize your actions with as much details as possible. Are you staying, are you walking, are you talking, doing things with your hands?

How are you dressed? How do you feel? Are you calm, excited, curious, happy, stressed…?

What happens first? And then? How does it end?

The exercise of visualizing not only allows your brain to preset and get used to a particular experience. In the long it also allows you to lower your anxiety and thus helps you master your apprehensions and enhances your motivation.


Build a motivating environment

We are constantly influenced by our environment and so is our self-motivation. While it is possible to enhance the latter by working on internal factors (like in the three previous exercises), it is also important to create a proper and stimulating context around us. There are a lot of different ways to do this and many things depend on how YOU function. You can search for your personal everyday motivational boosters, like a picture of your beloved ones on your desk, a favorite hot beverage on your brake or 15 minutes of meditation before the start of the day. Here is also the place to stress the importance of a good daily routine and that of clear strong goals.

Another way to enhance self-motivation (and that works for all of us) is having a group of supporting people. There is now scientific evidence showing that our brains process positive social interactions like a reward. When we interact with people in a positive way, engage in behaviors such as helping and taking care of someone, or benefit from the support of others, our brains release higher levels of dopamine and oxytocin (two of the “happiness molecules”). This has a direct effect on motivation and explains why we are inclined to help others and why kindness is contagious. You can build a supporting and motivating social environment by surrounding yourself with people you trust, whom you can ask for feed-back, for help and for advice. Working in a team is also a good way, as it makes us feel valuable for others and thus enhances our self-confidence.