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!
Feel free to jump straight to any technique that looks interesting or especially applicable to you and your life:
- The Ulysses Pact
- Artificial Positive Reinforcement
- Gentle Self-Talk
- The Seinfeld Strategy
- Social Support (the Right Way)
- Productive Procrastination
- The Distractions Lists
- The Bumpy Wagon Plan
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.
6. The Seinfeld Strategy
The Seinfeld Strategy is a simple but powerful way to stay motivated, especially when it comes to first developing a new habit.
The strategy comes from some advice comedian Jerry Seinfeld gave someone once about how to stay motivated and consistent in your work.
He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker.
He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. “After a few days, you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”
“Don’t break the chain,” he said again for emphasis.
So the strategy itself is simple:
- For any habit, task, or routine you’d like to stick with, plan do you a little bit of it every day.
- Each day you successfully complete the task, mark of that day on a calendar with a big red (or another color) X.
- Try to keep your streak alive as long as possible. If you do miss a day, note how long your streak was next to that box. This is your new goal to beat.
The Seinfeld Strategy is an especially powerful way to stay motivated because it’s a Double Motivator. A double motivator is one that is motivating in two different ways simultaneously.
In this case, crossing off each successful day gives you a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction—positive reinforcement.
But avoiding the pain that comes from breaking your streak is also motivates you to keep going—negative reinforcement.
Finally, the fact that you’ve got a big calendar full of red Xs on your desk or where you work is a tangible reminder that you need to do your task. Memory enhancement always helps you stay motivated, too.
7. Social Support (the Right Way)
When it comes to building a new habit and staying motivated to follow through on a new goal or commitment, the idea of social support is pretty common. You’ll often hear the advice to get an “accountability buddy” or something similar.
While the idea of recruiting positive social support to stay motivated is a good idea in principle, most people make two big mistakes:
- They think their social support person’s main role is to check in on their progress toward their goal or outcome. This is a problem since the best way to stay motivated and actually achieve our goals is to mostly ignore the end goal itself and keep your focus on the daily routines or tasks that will move you toward your goal.
- They think of their social support person as someone who will stop them from slipping up. This is problematic because it frames the challenge in negative terms—an accountability partner is there to stop you from messing up. But in general, positive reinforcement is far more reliable and powerful for keeping us motivated, especially in the long run.
All that being said, if you want to recruit a friend or partner to help you stay motivated and make progress toward your goal, try these two approaches:
- Don’t tell them your end goal. For example, if your end goal is to lose 30 pounds, tell your social support person that their job is to help you show up at the gym 5 days a week, nothing more. The more focused you and your social support person are on the regular routines you need to do to be successful, the more likely you are to stay motivated to stick with them.
- Tell your social support person that their entire job is to support your wins. Their job is to validate you and encourage you, not to serve as a form of social threat to keep you from slipping up. Their job is to congratulate you after a tough workout, not guilt-trip you to showing up at the gym.
Recruiting a friend or partner to aid you in your goal can be a powerful source of motivation and encouragement. Just make sure you set things up right from the beginning.
8. Productive Procrastination
One of the most damaging factors in our ability to stay motivated to achieve our goals is procrastination.
On the one hand, in the moment, procrastinating can be detrimental because it causes us to miss a task or routine and/or make it far more inefficient than it needs to be. Just one more episode of The Office, then I’ll go to the gym.
But more significant in the long run, when we procrastinate we lose trust and confidence in ourselves. It’s as if we tell ourselves that we can’t be trusted with important projects and goals. Over time, this erodes our sense of self-efficacy, the belief that I’m the kind of person who is competent and accomplishes what I set out to do.
But, if we can find a better way to deal with procrastination and foster our self-confidence and self-efficacy, not only will it help us stay motivated, it will actually boost our overall levels of motivation.
I’ve found that the best way to deal effectively with procrastination is through a series of techniques I call Productive Procrastination.
The basic idea is that fighting against our tendency to procrastinate doesn’t work very well in the long run. And instead, it’s best to accept that it’s normal to want to procrastinate and figure out a way to work with this tendency.
For example: One way to look at procrastination differently is that it’s the result of our brain’s natural desire for novel and change. Instead of getting down on ourselves because we crave novelty, what if we embraced this?
Suppose you’re working on staying motivated to keep up your journaling habit every evening. But you find yourself regularly procrastinating on doing it. Instead of fighting this, build in a little enjoyable activity right before your journaling.
Chances are, if you give yourself permission to procrastinate in small ways on a regular basis and in a structured deliberate way, you’ll be less likely to end up procrastinating in major, chaotic ways.
9. The Distractions List
The of the biggest obstacles to our ability to stay motivated and make progress on our goals is distraction: the unexpected text from our spouse in the middle of a workout, the old friend we bump into at the coffee shop while we’re trying to get work done, etc.
But it’s not just external distractions that can derail our motivation and sidetrack us on our goals… Sometimes the most powerful and destructive distractions are internal: worry about how the big meeting will go tomorrow distracts us from our work today; daydreaming about how great it will be to look fit distracts us from going on that run; replaying a frustrating conversation from the day before in our heads makes it hard to be present in our actual conversations.
The Distractions List is a tiny tool you can use to manage internal distractions like these and keep your motivation high.
Here’s how it works:
- Whenever you set out to do your task, routine, habits tc., keep a small notebook or pad of paper and pencil with you.
- If you notice yourself getting distracted by a thought, feeling, memory or any other internal distractor, quickly jot it down and then shift your focus back to your task.
- Once your task is over, quickly review your distractions list. If there’s anything actually important, make a brief plan for addressing it.
Most of us don’t deal with internal distractions very well because our strategy is brute force ignoring. And while this can sometimes work temporarily, it usually leads to an even stronger surge of internal distractions.
The distractions list works so well because it helps you lean into your distractions. By briefly acknowledging them and having a plan to deal with them later, you can train yourself to becomes less reactive to them and better able to stay focused on your work.
10. The Bumpy Wagon Plan
I think there’s a lot of truth the saying Failing to plan is planning to fail. But I also think that Failing to plan to fail is just as dangerous.
In other words, it’s both naive and counterproductive to assume that you’ll never slip up or stumble in your journey toward your goals (if you never do, it probably means you should reexamine the goals you’re setting ).
So instead of getting blindsided and frustrated by slip-ups, we could save ourselves a lot of grief and stay motivated more effectively if we had a concrete plan for what to do should we slip up or stumble on the journey toward our goals.
Here are some examples of the types of specific action items you might include in your plan:
- Avoid negative self-talk at all costs. In the long-run, beating yourself up with lots of overly critical self-talk only leads to excessive guilt, shame, and frustration, which in turn only make it less likely that you’ll bounce back and continue working.
- Text your social support buddy right away and own the slip-up. Talk with them ahead of time about what you would like to hear from them by way of support and encouragement when you slip up.
- Avoid over-interpreting failure. Acknowledge that at some point you will fall off the wagon and slip up. And when you do, remind yourself that it doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Slip-ups happen. Stewing on it is unlikely to be helpful.
- If you are consistently slipping up in the same way, do some reflection. In a non-judgmental way, try to understand what is going on to make it difficult to follow through with your routine. At this point, the key is to think mechanically not morally. Instead of: What’s wrong with me? Try: Some part of the system isn’t functioning quite right, so can I identify it and make the necessary repairs?
The details of your plan are less important, I think, than the simple fact of having one in the first place. And aside from making it more likely that you’ll recover better and faster from slip-ups, simply knowing that you have a plan may actually give you more confidence and motivation as you work toward your goals.