Motivation. It’s the holy grail of self development. We all know how good it feels and how much more we accomplish when we are motivated.

Motivation makes hard work seem fun and enables us to move mountains and achieve amazing feats. Like this man who cycled 169.9 km continuously on a unicycle. Or like this guy who was so retro he ran a marathon backwards in under four hours. Or this crazy bastard who spent over 100 minutes in direct, full-body contact with ice.

But while it’s easy to get excited and start moving mountains, for most of us the mountain becomes pretty big and overwhelming very quickly. It’s insanely hard to sustain your drive. We start strong, but after a few weeks or months, our initial enthusiasm has all but evaporated and all we can do is muster the minimum effort. And even the minimum effort is sometimes asking too much.

And as our motivation fizzles out, inevitably so do our dreams of extraordinary rewards of wealth, health and happiness. So what do we do?

The self help industry’s approach to sustaining motivation has been to offer us one list after another of practical steps you can take to fix the problem.

It sounds great, until you realize that most of us ultimately gain next to nothing from reading these lists. The reason being that how-tos aren’t nearly as useful as most of us would like to believe. In fact, how-tos are a particularly poor tool for habit transformation, because it is very difficult to remember even one or two things in the heat of the moment, let alone ten or twenty. And if you can remember them, they are insanely hard to implement when your mind is racing in the opposite direction.

So what’s the alternative?

As counterintuitive as it sounds, the answer is theory.

Theory?!

Yes, theory. Theory isn’t just something that you read in books or what academics spend all their days discussing. Theories underpin everything we understand – or think we understand – about the world around us. A theory is a conceptual model of cause and effect that makes it possible to better predict the outcomes in different circumstances.

You see, what’s missing from all the how-to lists is that they give us little to no understanding of how things relate to one another and what causes what. In other words, they are lacking the theory that ties it all together so that we can understand and internalize how something works instead of trying to memorize countless individual snippets of information.

So rather than offer you yet another list of things to remember, let’s see if we can’t internalize the theory of sustaining motivation, shall we?

There are three criteria you will need to fulfill. Once you understand the three elements of sustaining motivation, you will be able to pinpoint where or what exactly your own problem is and how you can go about fixing it.

1. What’s Your Goal?

Two men floating in a sea with sad faces and wounds on a body

 

The first criteria required for sustaining motivation is to clearly define a meaningful goal or destination. Not something you think you want. Something you really want.

Your goal needs to be personal, meaningful and powerful. I cannot stress enough how important it is to find a goal or destination that you yourself want as opposed to what others want or expect of you. You need an intrinsic goal, which is something that you find personally rewarding and that you’d almost do for its own sake, not because of any reward or outcome. When you lack a destination to aim for, why would you try any harder or go any faster? Why would you sacrifice, sweat or bleed for something you don’t fully believe in? You wouldn’t.

If you don’t have a clear goal, you’ll find yourself drifting aimlessly. Any path is as good as the next, and all that matters is feeling good in the immediate moment. Jumping from one source of immediate satisfaction to another will not help you get you to your destination.

But it’s not just your motivation that’s stilted when you are drifting aimlessly: there is no reason not to enjoy yourself to pass the time. Without a destination, you have no reason to channel or conserve your energy for a greater cause, so why not indulge in every pleasure and temptation that comes your way?

The power of a goal lies in its ability to channel your energy, and keep you heading in the right direction, despite the many tempting alternative paths along the way. It keeps you going in the face of adversity, fear and doubt, and gives you the strength to delay gratification.

2. Are You on the Right Path?

Road closed sign at night before the road construction

 

Having a goal is important, but it’s just as important to feel that the path you are on is actually taking you toward your goal and not somewhere else.

Few things in life are as deflating as realizing that the path you’re on will never lead you to your goal. Whether it’s your career, your relationship, your health or your social life, the feeling of progress toward a better future is vital for our emotional well-being and our ability to stay motivated.

If you find yourself In the unfortunate – yet not at all uncommon – situation that you are on the wrong path, you have two choices: change paths or remain on the current path and accept all the consequences that come with it.

Changing paths sounds like the obvious choice until you realize that changing paths almost always causes disruption in your life and that there are no guarantees you will succeed or that the other path is any better than your current one. This is why most people begrudgingly stay on the wrong path. It isn’t exactly trivial or easy to jump from one career to another or to give up on a relationship you’ve been committed to for a long time.

But staying on the wrong path is a motivation killer. Why would you put in any more effort than you have to since the road isn’t taking you to where you want to go?

So what do you do? The current path is sapping you of your motivation, and none of the alternatives seems like a sure thing. My recommendation is that you start working on an alternative path in your free time. Put 30 minutes every day towards the path that you believe will lead to your goal. Start a website. Heck, start three different websites. Take a course. Go talk to people who already have what you want. Over one year, those 30 minutes will add up and they will make your transition significantly easier when you finally decide to make it.

Once you’ve managed to correct course and are back on the right path, you will know it. It feels like a relaxing sense of confidence. It doesn’t matter to you if you have to start from the mailroom or being someone’s assistant or starting things slow in a new relationship. As long as you feel that this is the path that will get you where you want to go, you can deal with a lot of unpleasant and difficult things in your path.

3. Do You Have Traction?

Traction is the third component of sustaining motivation

 

So you have a goal that motivates you, and you can feel you’re on the right path. There’s just one final ingredient you need for sustaining motivation.

What you need is traction. You need to know your effort translates into results instead of being stuck in mud spinning your wheels. In other words, you need to know that the more effort you put in the closer you get to your goal. Without this belief, you’ll struggle to maintain any reasonable level of motivation.

There are many situations in life where we may lack traction and we feel the final outcome is out of our control. Maybe the the firm you work for doesn’t reward effort, making it impossible for you to advance your career no matter how hard you work. Maybe the ultimate success of your business is dependent on some outside force, such as a change in legislation or market conditions. Maybe investors are evaluating your company and all you can do is wait for their decision, which is taking forever.

Not surprisingly, when you don’t feel that your effort correlates with the results, it becomes hard to continue taking meaningful action. You’re like a car with a powerful engine but no traction in your wheels. No traction, no progress. No matter how hard you work, your lack of traction won’t help you transfer the power your engine is producing to the wheels and you can’t get to your goal any faster. Nor are you able to correct course when you notice yourself staring to veer off the path. Since we are wired to conserve energy when our actions lack meaning, the logical response here is to take your foot off the accelerator and resort to doing the bare minimum.

This is why it’s so important for our motivation to feel that we control our destiny. It not only empowers us to take action, but keeps us taking action day after day. When you see a direct link between your effort and the outcome, you become highly motivated to take even more action. However, if you don’t control the means by which you’ll get to your goal, you might as well take a seat at the back of the bus, crack open a beer and let the ones driving the bus decide your fate for you.

The general rule of thumb is to try and seek out situations where you have as much control over your destiny as possible. If you find yourself in a situation where you don’t seem to have much control, the first step I recommend is doing an analysis of what you truly need control over to get to your goal. Then see what small changes you can make to alleviate the situation. If the situation can’t be changed, then you are challenged to either accept it or move on to something else.

WHAT WILL YOU DO?

The ability to sustain your motivation is decisive in your ability to live a successful life. Whether it’s your career, your personal life, or your health, the ability to take meaningful action day after day is what separates the haves from the have nots.

By understanding the three elements of sustaining motivation, you will not only be able to live up your game, but you will be able to identify and fix where your motivation might be broken or lacking.

The three requirements for sustaining motivation to take root are a meaningful goal to aim for, a feeling of certainty that the path you are on will take you to your destination, and a sense of control that your effort will lead you to your goal. Once all three of these elements are in place, you can start tapping into your true potential by focusing your motivation to where it will be of the greatest benefit to you.

Perhaps you will start a firm that solves world hunger or a movement that will change the world. Or maybe you will break the world record for most t-shirts worn at once (currently at 257). With sustaining motivation, you’ll have a much better chance of moving any mountain you choose.

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