Skip to content

Staying Motivated

Why do New Year’s Resolutions usually fail? How can you stay motivated?
Why does our New Year’s Day determination to achieve our long-term objectives so often fade after a few weeks? Why do the same goals reappear year after year? This isn’t another reason to beat ourselves up for lack of self-discipline. It’s not enough just to set a goal and rely on willpower. And psychology research has found that many of the other techniques we think will help us to achieve our goals are also ineffective.
Last year I finally managed to achieve one of the goals that kept reappearing on my New Year list: starting running. I loved the idea of running – getting out in the fresh air, ‘easy’ to fit in with my schedule – but April arrived & I still hadn’t put a trainer-clad foot out of doors. I had lots of excuses (running a business, demanding teenagers, waiting for warmer weather) but the truth was that my motivation just wasn’t strong enough. The short-term comfort of staying home in the warmth always outweighed the long-term gain of getting healthier.
The turning point for me was signing up in May for a beginners’ running class on our local common. I realised that I needed the push of the weekly commitment in my diary, together with the pull of the sociable side of the group to give me the motivational boost to get out of the door. And it worked! I can’t say that I’ve turned into a dedicated runner, or managed to run regularly more than once a week, but I’ve shown up each week, even on those freezing, wet & windy mornings when a hot coffee in a warm house seems infinitely more appealing, I now enjoy running comfortably for half an hour, and I’ve signed up for the improvers’ class this year!
How can we boost our motivation?
There’s a lot of research evidence that having a long-term end goal just isn’t enough. A study into motivation at the University of California found that students asked to visualise the end goal – getting a high grade in their exam – for a few minutes each day ended up working less and getting worse marks. Another experiment found that students who often fantasised about their dream job were actually less likely to get job offers.

Richard Wiseman*, one of my psychology gurus, conducted two large-scale global scientific studies into motivation and found that only 10% of people successfully achieved their aims. He looked at the techniques that participants used most often and discovered that half were effective and half ineffective, and that most people were using the ineffective ones.

He identified 5 effective ways to boost your motivation …:

1. Making a step-by-step plan, breaking the goal into achievable sub-goals to reduce the fear and hesitation of change.
2. Telling friends, family and other people about your goals. In this way you both strengthen your resolve and get support.
3. Thinking about the specific ways in which your life will be better if you achieve your goal.
4. Rewarding yourself in small ways for progress towards your goal.
5. Making plans, progress, benefits and rewards more concrete and specific by writing them down.

… and 5 ineffective techniques to avoid:

1. Focusing on a successful role model.
2. Thinking about the bad things that will happen if you don’t achieve your goals.
3. Trying to suppress negative or unhelpful thoughts.
4. Relying on willpower.
5. Fantasising about how great life will be when you achieve your goal.
For me, the first thing that most strengthened my motivation was having a regular commitment that I treated as an important not-to-be-cancelled meeting in my diary. This created a ‘healthy habit’ out of running. The second was the group aspect, as we encourage each other and enjoy running together.
If you’ve committed to yourself to return to work this year, think about how you can apply these principles to build your own motivation when your New Year enthusiasm wanes and the rest of life gets in the way. Maybe create your own ‘return to work’ peer group to share your goals and support each other; set aside regular times each week to work on your job exploration; set achievable weekly return-to-work goals; and buy a journal to record and reward yourself for progress. And use our Network and LinkedIn group as an extra source of support and encouragement.

* See 59 Seconds for more of Richard Wiseman’s research-based advice