Scaling the Mountain of Self-Motivation

Sometimes, it feels like a herculean task to sit down and do a specific task. Some days I would rather do anything than complete an assignment. I also tend to feel really guilty when I don’t do the tasks I tell myself I will, and a day without completing important tasks can feel like a failure. Feeling this way makes it even harder to get things done, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this experience. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to change my habits, so that not only it’s easier to get things done, but also so that I am honest, realistic, and fair towards myself. Having finished two years of college and gone through many runs of trial and error, and here are a few suggestions on how to figure out your own methods for self-motivation:

  1. Whenever possible, intentionally set aside time that is not devoted to necessary tasks. Undoing the voice in my head– that I’m doing something wrong by not producing work– is a major piece of this, and probably is also going to be a lifelong process for me. I had to recognize that both the things I need to do and the things I want to do are important. Giving priority to– rather than postponing– time for things I am interested in has made it easier to approach the things I need to do. Shifting my perspective in this way, although certainly helpful, doesn’t change the fact that it’s still really hard to motivate myself to do necessary tasks. This is where the next few suggestions come in:
  2. When I’m faced with a task that feels impossible, I’ll think about my mental list of random and more basic (i.e. requiring less mental effort) tasks I need to do, like responding to that one email, cleaning out my files (I am always running out of storage!), returning my library books, decluttering my desk, or folding my laundry. It really helps me to start with tasks I need to do anyway in order to make the original task feel a lot less impossible.
  3. I also need to break down my tasks into smaller, more attainable chunks. For example, if all I tell myself is “do X paper,” I’m going to feel super sluggish about it. Instead, maybe I’ll decide that on Tuesday I should do my preliminary research and decide on a thesis. The next day, I’ll have something to work with and can finish the next segment, like an outline or first draft (whatever your writing process is!) to do. “Do X paper” can feel like a looming disaster, and “Read 5 sources” is something I can (if not begrudgingly) do.
  4. Relatedly, make your expectations more attainable. Be realistic about what you can get done in a day. When I set vague and unattainable expectations for myself, I’m only setting myself up to feel like I’ve failed, which really doesn’t help me get anything done.
  5. Spend time getting to know yourself better! What are the times of day where it’s easier to do different kinds of tasks? Do you feel more engaged in your work in the mornings or evenings? Is it helpful to have people around you, or to be alone? In my experience, half of the battle of getting my shit done is recognizing when and how I should do my tasks. Figure out how to make your tasks and schedule work for YOU, not the other way around.
    • As a side note, the unfortunate truth is that a lot of aspects of life are out of our control. I will never be able to change the fact that school starts in the morning, for example. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to work with the time and space that is under your control!
  6. Be honest and fair with yourself. Like everyone else, you deserve grace and compassion. If someone told you that they had a hard day and couldn’t do all the tasks they needed to do, would you be upset with them? I certainly wouldn’t. So why should you be upset with yourself? It’s not always as simple as this, and certainly isn’t easy, but changing the way you talk about yourself goes a long way.

Most importantly, remember that you are a human being who deserves to do things that interest you. Many tasks are indeed necessary, but they should never make up your entire life.

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