Motivation Medicine: How to Stay Motivated When Everything Seems to be Going Wrong

I was recently interviewed for an online magazine and the first question asked was how I keep myself motivated, “even when everything seems to be going wrong”. We’ve all been there, haven’t we? Motivation waxes and wanes, and it can be especially demoralizing — and easy to throw in the towel — when you feel like you are turning your wheels and just not getting anywhere.

I certainly don’t have all the answers — for myself let alone anyone else.  But I do have a personal prescription that seems to keep me pluggin’ along, even when the going gets tough.

1. Remember Your Why

One of the keys to staying motivated is returning to your “bigger picture” purpose.  Smaller, actionable goals are definitely in order (we’ll get to that in a minute), but it’s critical to remind yourself of what drives you from the core.  I slogged through the crazy hours and nonstop work of medical school because I wanted to be a doctor.  This likely wouldn’t have worked so well had it been my parents’ dream and not my own.  Make sure the why is yours and not what you or anyone else thinks it “should” be.  Own it. Write it down. And keep coming back to it. Often.

2. Set “SMART” Goals

This is something I have written about before.  We need to break our “top-tier” goal into Smaller, specific, Manageable, Action-oriented, Realistic, Time-based (“SMART”) tasks.  I find goals work best for me when they are challenging but achievable, with activities I can schedule, and well-defined short-term milestones.

You may want to “get fit” for better control of your diabetes (avoiding complications so you can enjoy your grandkids may be your bigger “why” here), but that’s going to be a hard one to use for motivation if you’ve been a self-diagnosed couch potato for years.  Talk about daunting! What does it even mean and where would you begin? A SMART strategy might be to challenge yourself with three 15 minute walks per week. When this starts to feel more manageable, build up from there. (See my SMART article for more information on how to set and achieve your goals.)

3. Celebrate Your Progress

Not only do you need to acknowledge when you’ve hit a milestone in your journey, you need to celebrate it!  How wonderful to pause and appreciate the progress you’ve made. Consider rewarding yourself for your hard work or sharing your accomplishments with someone supportive for an extra dose of encouragement.

4. Hold Yourself Accountable

Accountability has negative connotations for many of us.  We tend to refer to it after we have experienced a disappointment and want to “make” or hold someone accountable.  However, here I am talking about accountability as a supportive, proactive mechanism to facilitate commitment to goals and promote ownership of behaviour and responsibilities.  We can empower ourselves by creating an accountability framework that helps us establish reasonable goals, monitor progress, provide encouragement and feedback, and celebrate the journey.

What does this look like?  For some people, sharing their goal with family or friends or making a public declaration via social media can be motivating.  Others may need to join a group with like-minded individuals, find a mentor or partner — in the example above, a walking partner you can schedule “walk dates” with — or consult an expert such as a nutritionist, physician, personal trainer, financial planner, or life coach.  

5. Change Your Strategy

For me, being open to new strategies is extremely effective to maintain motivation.  This may involve trying a different approach to a problem, altering my perspective, or switching up the environment to both reduce distractions and get into a new space, literally and figuratively (which is why I am currently writing this at my local Starbucks!).

Setbacks can really derail us if we get hung up on them as “failures”.  Shifting to a growth mindset — where we see mistakes as learning opportunities and use them to improve and move forward in a more productive way — can be a total game changer.  Same goes with adjusting how we perceive and implement our tasks. We can look at exercise as a chore, or we can choose to see it as a privilege.  We can then consider alternatives that allow us that privilege.  Instead of exercise or no exercise, try giving yourself the option of yoga vs pilates or walking outside vs on the treadmill.

6. Find Your Five

Motivational speaker Jim Rohn once said, “You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”  Truth is, the influence of our social network extends beyond these five and the influence is significant. Most of us are affected by our environment far more than we believe.  The people around us impact what we talk about, our choices and behaviours, and even our results.

So what’s the underlying message here?  If you want to be more positive, more motivated, more “successful”, surround yourself with positive, supportive, passionate people.  People you admire. People who stimulate and challenge you, who hold you to a higher standard and propel you forward instead of holding you back.  Sometimes we need to make changes to our social environment in order to see our dreams fulfilled. Spend less time chatting with Negative Nelly at work.  Arrange a coffee date with a friend who makes you laugh and just happens to eat the way your doctor wants you to eat. Follow the social media accounts that inspire you and unfollow the ones that don’t.

7. Invest in Self-Care

It’s easier to stay motivated when we’re in a better place, both physically & emotionally.  When I find my motivation waning, it is often because I haven’t taken the time I need to sleep, exercise, eat properly, engage in a creative outlet, or truly connect with the people I care about.  For others, self-care essentials — those personal rituals needed for optimal functioning — may involve time outdoors, doing yoga, or meditating. It’s important to remember that self-care looks different for everyone and doesn’t need to consume your entire day or paycheque.  Some days, a quick coffee with a close friend is all I require to feel more grounded.

Similarly, thoughtful well-timed breaks are essential for maintaining motivation.  Taking a long weekend off from your fitness regimen or stepping away from your computer or studies (or for bloggers like me, social media!) for an afternoon can help you to refocus and reconnect with your purpose and your passion.

8. Live Mindfully with Greater Meaning

This one is two-fold and harder to articulate but perhaps the most motivating of all.  For one, while I’m talking goals and planning and productivity, it’s essential that we not overlook the importance of engaging fully and actively in the moment.  Be present in what you are doing.  Feel it, live it, embrace it, be grateful for it in all its complex, painful, difficult, frustrating, beautiful, and perfectly imperfect glory.  But also look beyond yourself for higher meaning. Find a way to help others, to contribute to something bigger than yourself, to be a part of the greater good.  This in and of itself may be enough to drive you forward.