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11 ways to trick yourself into working hard, even when you're not in the mood

Shana Lebowitz
finish line

(Sometimes motivation needs to come from within.Christian Petersen/Getty)
Motivating yourself to do stuff is hard.

When it's just you on your living-room floor, it's tempting to do a few push-ups and quit, even though you said you'd do 20. And when it's Saturday morning and you're supposed to be working on that novel you said you'd write, it's easy just to… not.

Over on Quora, there are more than 100 potential solutions to this problem, included on the thread, "How can I motivate myself to work hard?"

Below, we've rounded up some of the best tips and strategies on there. Read on and find out how to give yourself a kick in the pants when you need it most.

1. Change the way you talk to yourself

Quora user Bhaskar Bagchi writes about being a success seeker, as opposed to a failure avoider. It's an idea attributable to a TEDx talk by Scott Geller, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Virginia Tech.

In the talk, Geller says finding self-motivation is about reframing the way you talk to yourself. For example, if you're a student, do you go to class so you don't get kicked out of school (i.e. failure avoidance)? Or do you go to class so you learn more and get closer to your career goals (i.e. success seeking)? Chances are, you'll be much more motivated to perform well in the second scenario.

2. Stop comparing yourself to others 

When you feel like you're falling behind on your goals, it's tempting to look around at all the people who seem to be achieving theirs.

But that tendency will only undermine your confidence and your ability to make progress, says Micha Kaufman.

"A case of the Joneses is about the best way to make you feel like you're worth nothing," he writes. "When such comparisons enter your head, recognize that these are just negative thoughts and let them pass."

Research suggests another reason why comparing yourself to others isn't a great idea. We're notoriously poor judges of how other people are feeling, meaning we think that everyone else is happy all the time and we're the only ones struggling, when in fact other people are probably in the same boat.

3. Understand your purpose 

"Find your why," says Nelson Wang. "If you don't know what it is, create it."

Research supports Wang's idea. One study found that call center employees at a public university performed significantly better when they met students who had benefited from donations to the school. In other words, learning about the potential impact of their efforts motivated them to work harder.

Woman notebook writing meeting

(Keeping track of your progress can be motivating.Sebastiaan ter Burg/Flickr)

4. Keep a daily diary 

Gerard Danford mentions research by Teresa Amabile, Ph.D., a professor at Harvard Business School, which found that making even a little bit of progress can be tremendously motivating for workers.

That's why it helps to record your progress along the way — for example, a phone call you made to help secure a sale. That way, you can look back at the end of the day and feel empowered to take another step forward tomorrow.

"Keep track of your small wins," Amabile says in a video posted on Academy Bridge. "Keep track of your progress every day. That can be very motivational."

One way to keep track of that progress is to write a "done list," which features everything useful you did today (as opposed to a to-do list, which indicates how far you have left to go).

5. Remember where you started

Once you start keeping a diary, flip back to your entries from a few weeks or months ago.

"It can be very motivating to look back at where you came from," writes Ben Baert, because you'll realize that you're capable of making great strides.

For example, Baert says, "if you're learning how to draw, draw something (a cup, a tree, an animal), then draw the same thing again after a couple of weeks/months. Then compare with the original. That moment will be very motivational."

6. Don't fear criticism

No one likes to hear that they're doing something wrong. But try to keep your emotions in check.

"Consider the source and decide if the person really has the expertise or knowledge to make his or her comments," writes MaRina Abaza. "If you decide that the words are not just empty accusations, look at it as an opportunity to improve yourself."

In fact, psychologist and executive coach Marshall Goldsmith says that other people's perceptions of you can be even more important than your perception of you, especially in the workplace. That's because their feedback allows you to compare the self you want to be with the self you're really presenting to the rest of the world.

If you approach the criticism with a clear head, it could end up being exactly the motivation you need.

blue morning alarm clock

(Set a time when you'll stop working.Wikimedia Commons)

7. Set a quit time

When you need to get stuff done, it can seem like the only strategy is to work as hard as you can for as long as possible.

But that technique is usually counterproductive and can easily lead to burnout.

Instead, Matt Holmes recommends imposing some deadlines and taking breaks.

It's "important to recognize when enough is enough," he says. "Set a realistic quitting time for yourself, and stick to it at least most days of the week. Stop answering emails after 8 p.m., or take Sundays off. You'll feel more refreshed and more productive when you allow yourself some down time."

8. Spend time with smart people

It's always intimidating to be in a room full of super-intelligent, super-knowledgeable folks — say, at a professional conference. But the experience can prompt you to challenge yourself to work harder than you thought you could.

Devansh Malik recommends spending time with people "who know way more than you about anything and everything. This will encourage you to learn more and to achieve [so] that you'll automatically work hard."

9. Rely on habits

Try as you might to summon it, sometimes motivation will elude you.

That's why Eduardo Matos suggests turning your desired behaviors — like studying — into habits.

"It's better to build the habit of studying X hours/day, and do it religiously, [so that] very soon you're going to be studying automatically," he writes.

One reason why practicing habits often trumps finding motivation is that you don't have to exercise your willpower to make the choice to study. It's simply something you do without thinking.

To start, figure out both the cue and reward for your old habit. For example, maybe you have a bag of chips each day when you get home from work because it relaxes you. If you want to start a healthier habit, you can use arriving home as the cue to change into your jogging gear, and that warm and fuzzy post-exercise feeling as the reward. Soon the exercise habit will have replaced snacking, and you won't need to muster up the motivation to jog every day after work.

10. Anticipate difficulties

If you prepare for challenges instead of pretending they won't come up, you'll be better equipped to fight them when they do arise.

Writes Sean Johnson:

"In the beginning, it will feel uncomfortable. That's to be expected.

"Anticipate this, and come up with a strategy for dealing with it in advance. Tell yourself 'when I get frustrated and want to quit, I will _______.' Your blank could take many forms — a reminder of some goal that your new focus will help you achieve, a reward you'll treat yourself to at the end of the day, etc."

Johnson's suggestion sounds similar to "if/when/then" planning. Here's how it works:

You pick a cue: a specific time or place. Then you pick a desirable action that you can link to that cue.

So if your goal is to lose weight, your plan might be "when I get frustrated and want to quit, I will call my most supportive friend." That way, your brain will be programmed to have you dial said friend — instead of eat a cupcake — every time you get down on yourself.

11. Focus on the process

You've heard it before: Life is a journey, not a destination.

Matthew Jones writes: "Sometimes you find more motivation when you stop focusing on the final destination and start enjoying the journey. Paying too much attention to the end goal produces stress and anxiety that wears you down with time, but when you fall in love with the process itself, you become revitalized."

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely gave Business Insider an example of how focusing on the process might help if your goal is to exercise more.

Ariely's best advice is to schedule time for a workout and trust that you'll like it once you get started. Because once you do, thoughts of getting stronger and looking better — the likely outcomes of exercising regularly — kind of melt away. Instead you take in the sensation of your breath, the music coming through your headphones, and the sound of your feet hitting the ground.

In other words, your in-the-moment experience matters as much as or more than the end result.

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