Self-motivation: the challenge

People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily. /Zig Ziglar/

In one of my last posts I mentioned self-motivation among the five challenges of successful learning online. The ability to carry through that what you have started, and doing it without outside influence, is important in so many ways: from carrying through with the New Year’s fitness goals to being successful at work, to (as I can testify!) finishing a doctoral dissertation. Being motivated is so easy when you’re just starting, really excited about your new endeavor and looking forward to all the things that might come. But when the results are slow to appear and your daily agenda is crowded with so many other tasks, the motivation dwindles. So what can be done to get it back? Or perhaps there is a way how not to lose it in the first place? With these questions in mind, I set out to search the depths of the Internet and here’s a summary of what I found.

The vast majority of self-motivation advice can be boiled down to three elements:

motivation4Positive attitude. Optimism or a positive outlook seems to be the nr.1 ingredient for self-motivation. You should focus on your successes as opposed to your failures, take pride in what you do, concentrate on your strengths and advantages, look for the good in the bad etc. The goal of all this self-suggestion is to feel happy, successful, confident and, ultimately, more motivated.

  • Tip: when motivation starts to wane, take a break and try working on something else instead. It should be something simple and perhaps even completely unrelated to your work, e.g., cleaning up your desk, but getting it done will help you to regain positive momentum and feel more successful. Use that drive and get back to work! (source)

Communication. Keeping in touch with others (friends, spouse, colleagues, doesn’t really matter who exactly) and discussing and sharing your ideas and concerns can be an effective way to boost energy. In particular, it seems, there are two approaches: (1) you should seek out people who are positive and motivated to boost your motivation or (2) assist, support and motivate others as it should keep you motivated in return.

  • Tip: if the majority of your tasks require individual work, try to balance it with some teamwork: in the right doses it should help to energize and motivate you. (source)

Goal-orientation. The third group of advice is related to organisational skills and working right. The usual suggestions are: define your goals in a concrete and measurable way, outline smaller steps towards achieving the big goal and, when working on the details, do not lose focus of your target. Also, keep track of your progress as success keeps the motivation up and encourages to continue working towards the goal.

  • Tip: motivating yourself with rewards (“once I finish this, I’ll get an ice cream”) can be helpful but, if used too often, it leads to relying on the reward instead of your natural motivation. Instead, find rewards in the task itself: does getting it done make you feel happy? Perhaps it gets you closer to your target? Or maybe it does something good to a friend or a client? (source)


I suppose this advice can be somewhat obvious. Yet, it could be quite useful to think of optimism, communication, and goal-orientation as the three foundations of self-motivation. And, in order to stay motivated  ALL of them need to be present. So, for example, even the most positive and sociable person can lose self-motivation if they get stuck in details and lose sight of the target. Or contrary, one can have a perfect work plan with clearly outlined tasks but still fail to achieve the goal because of a pessimistic attitude and a lack of confidence in themselves. Bottom line, you have to figure out which of the three spheres are your weak points and find balance.

I hope that some of these ideas will be effective for motivating myself to finally write-up that damn dissertation (yes, that’s how I call it these days). Perhaps it can be useful also to you, my dear readers?

Some valuable resources:


A test “How Self Motivated Are You?” with tips for improving your weak points

13 Motivation Techniques:  a list of practical ways to combat procrastination and more

A critical overview of the most popular productivity techniques.

If you really cannot muster up the willpower yourself, Lifehacker has made a list of sadistic apps that might help (or blackmail) you to get stuff done.

Image credits: abduzeedo.comMushy Cloud (Creative Commons)


  1. I thought this was really nicely laid out. Simple and easy to read. I like the tips. And I totally agree re have to think about the goals. Since January I have started 2 MOOCs, given up,smoking, getting fitter, losing weight and given up coffee. Motivation goes up and down like a yoyo and, for exams, when you first give up smoking the physical benefits are immediate and tangible. This gets you the first few days. However, when things settle down the temptation to smoke increases. Equally when losing weight I only started being motivated when I actually lost some weight (only 3 pounds but to me a big deal) and made me give up the snacks.
    Oh and desk cleaning? I do this on a regular basis. Clearing a shredding pile is equally as satisfying!

    Great post, thanks.

    1. Wow sounds like you’re doing a great job. Will keep my fingers crossed that you succeed with the goals!

  2. Self-motivation is constant struggle so thanks for providing tips on how to address the challenge. I usually start with an optimistic outlook but then what Seth Godin refers to the “Lizard Brain” starts to take over and results in irrational thoughts and behavior that pull you back from accomplishing your goals. I like the idea to talk to others to re-ignite the initial enthusiasm. No question that sharing and discussing ideas can provides a great rush of energy.

    Having said that, I find that the first two tips may enable ADD behavior which I know has been my own downfall on many projects.

    However, the third step of goal orientation is one that I know can be applied successfully. Breaking down projects into tasks and taking pride in achievement of each task is a great way to stay motivated and get things done!

    1. Thanks for your comments! I hadn’t thought of the first two steps in that way but, now when you say it, I see the pitfall there. And I had never heard about the “lizard brain”, I’m definitely gonna store that in my brain for later use 🙂

  3. Really enjoyed this post, and always find it interesting what resonates with people on motivation, especially with the plethora of opinions available.

    The reward system resonates with me. This week has been about Chocolate Chip Cookies, and time on Twitter (one of my distractions of choice). So if I read or watched X amount of course material, then I could have a cookie, or 10/15 minutes on Twitter, plus a short walk, or play with my puppies. If was I really productive, I would also allow myself time to participate on the course’s social media platforms as well, AND have a cookie ;D

    From my first post grad studies, I found holding onto the image of a marathon helped, especially close to the end, when motivation and energy lags the most: you’re in the final lap, in the stadium or finishing zone, the people all around, the cheering (even if its not for you specifically), your legs are tired, lungs bursting, and skin is both parched dry and soaking damp, but you can see the finish line, in all its glory…lovely oversized banner overhead, officials around, big stop watch counting down…you just keep running, one foot in front of the other till you cross, hit your stop watch, knowing it was a job well done. (By the way I’m not a marathon runner; closet I got was short distance school running.)

    Sometimes, it just helps to find the funny in what you need to review…laughter is the best medicine.

    Great quote and last image – I “copied” the image. Will certainly credit you, when I do use it (“,)

    1. Hm, cookie motivation, I should try that out 🙂 And I love your marathon analogy, pretty much describes how I feel right now in my “last lap” (not that I know how that feels either!)
      The image is not from me though, see the link to “Mushy cloud” in image credits at the bottom of the post.

  4. There is a great article in the NYT this week that talks about being more productive which for sure helps with motivation:
    Relax! You’ll Be More Productive

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