Where does your motivation come from?

As Hugh Kearns and Maria Gardiner write in Waiting for the motivation fairy: ‘Most people have a fundamental misunderstanding: we like to think that motivation leads to action, or, more simply, that when you feel like doing something, you'll do it’. However, and this is the crucial part: You have to start before you feel ready; then you'll feel more motivated, and then you'll take more action.’

It might sometimes seem easier said than done.

Just imagine one of those days – you need to work on a paper, finish a report or analyse all the research data gathered and you just don’t feel like doing it. It feels indeed like waiting for the motivation fairy to stop by. But she might never come because the motivation needs to be awakened from within you. It is often your attitude in the moment when you feel like not bothering with the work at all or the training that you planned that determines where you go next. If you catch yourself in this moment, stop and pause; acknowledge what’s happening and don’t give in, you have a chance to do something great.


We all have days when we just feel like it doesn’t flow and it’s not worth it. It might not be the perfect day for writing or analysis, but you can still do a good job. You can do the best possible work today and tomorrow based on what you wrote today you might write a brilliant report. All of this, just because you haven’t given up and stayed with the task.

What helps is to create some structure for your day; if you know you have two hours to work on something or an hour and half stay with it and do your best. Stick with the plan. That’s why it’s important to be very clear about what you are doing on a particular day – it focuses your brain and sets time for a particular activity. ‘I will do it sometime this week’ won’t do because you will not do it.

Be clear about your exact starting time, exact activity and set duration time. If you say you will work on something for two hours – do it. Don’t go over and spend four hours working on it still feeling you are not done. When you create a clear deadline for yourself you will set a clear intention that by a particular time you want to be done with an activity. This doesn’t mean that you won’t need to continue working on it tomorrow but set a clear task for today and don’t aim to write the whole paper in two hours – decide on where your focus will be TODAY.

If your productivity is not the best on a particular day – don’t beat yourself up and as a result of it, enter the land of ‘I should have..’. It doesn’t matter what you think you should have done. Don’t waste your energy on ‘shoulds’. Recognise what happened, learn from it and recover. There is always an opportunity to start again but you need to commit and make that decision. By doing this you will also protect your self-confidence.

Years ago, when I was working on my PhD, it often felt like the writing was not going. In those times, I started to question if I am doing the right thing; if I am actually meant to be doing a PhD at all and if I am qualified enough (impostor syndrome! – a topic for another blog) and if I can present my work at a workshop (What if nobody turns up?). It seemed like everybody else was doing well. It was a challenging time but also a time when I learnt most about me and worked on getting better. It was all worth it and completing the PhD remains one of my biggest achievements. As the saying goes: ‘Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides’. You often don’t know what’s going on for others on the inside and how they are struggling to keep up their motivation!

In April 2015 I ran the London Marathon. It was one of the best and at the same time most challenging experiences in my life (probably followed closely after the PhD!). I have always enjoyed recreational running but have never taken part in a race like that. I started training in January and followed a four months plan with running three times a week. There were so many days when it was cold and dark and the last thing I wanted to do was running! But I stuck with it and kept on my mind the bigger picture and the April run. I also had a cause and was raising money for Muscular Dystrophy UK. This often made the biggest difference – I was clear on my intention and commitment and how what I do will have a positive impact (money raised). I became also more aware of the fact that ‘I can run’ and many other people can’t, so it felt like I needed to do it even more.

When you work on a research, policy, project or do some lab work and you feel totally unmotivated – you always have a chance to change your mindset by reminding yourself why you really do all of this. What is the practical application? If your work will have an impact on people on the ground – clients, students, patients or your own staff – and you will improve some standards and conditions it’s worth pushing yourself. Because once you push the limit you thought you had you realise you can go further. Then you enter the territory of possibility and opportunities – it’s a place full of magic and creativity.

If you feel like there is no practical application and you don’t feel your work is meaningful or you are adding value – you have two choices:

First, think about the last time you did a great job and helped somebody because of what you did. Got it? Ok, so what did you do? It’s clear your role is relevant, so bring up more of these kinds of activities and design your own ways of impact. Talk to people you work with and see if you can make any changes to your responsibilities (even minor ones!), ask for help, show people the great work you do. You will be surprised how much leeway there is for you to be creative. Empower yourself. Step by step.

Second, you are not motivated at all because you don’t like your job; there is no fulfilment on the personal level and you are not feeling like you are adding any value. If this is the case maybe it’s time for a change. As Eckhart Tolle mentions in his great book ‘The Power of Now’ if you are in an unpleasant situation you have three options – accept it (without moaning; this is critical!), make a change or remove yourself from the situation. The latter might not be an option in this case, but you have still two other ways to go. Take some time – reflect, ask yourself what you like doing, what is it that you really want to do. And then design steps to enter this new path. In the meantime, look for ways how to make your work more meaningful – there is always a way how to improve things until you make the bigger change. Small changes can have a bigger impact on how you feel.

Beyond all, stay focused. It’s all about baby steps. As long as you know why you do what you do and what would you like the final result to be you are set for success. Motivation will be on your side. If you would like some support with getting there get in touch.