Feeling stuck? Here’s how to make lasting change.
Feeling stuck? Here’s how to make lasting change.

Feeling stuck? Here’s how to make lasting change.

Do you want to make a change but can’t seem to make it happen? Read on to learn how to build motivation and get what you want.

Can you think of a pivotal moment in your life, a time when you decided to make a big change? Maybe you quit smoking, stopped eating meat, or decided to leave your partner. What lead to that decision—what happened in your life right before that moment?

Illustration of woman reaching for a star, build motivation.
Illustrated by Joseph Moore

For many of us, strong emotions lead to those pivotal moments. We feel so intensely something (maybe anxious, disgusted or fearful) that we can’t bear to keep going as we are, it’s just too painful. Our emotions override any ambivalence and compel us to make a change.

There are other times when we feel increasingly dissatisfied with an aspect of our lives, but it doesn’t feel urgent or gut-wrenching. Maybe we want to exercise more or finish a degree, but we also feel a little unsure, a little tired, a little more interested in binge-watching a Netflix show. We’ve all been there, right?

So, how do we build motivation when it doesn’t feel like life or death? Fortunately, researchers have studied this. Here’s what they’ve found.

Steps to build motivation and create change

If these steps look overwhelming, try spending 20 minutes on them and see how far you get. If you feel like stopping after that, schedule another chunk of time to pick up where you left off. Slow and steady is just fine.

Step 1 – Explore Your Goal

Take some time to explore what you want to change. Answering these questions will help you better understand your goal, plan for it, and build your motivation to complete it.

  • What is your goal?
  • Why do you want to make this change? What will it accomplish?
  • What got you to the point of wanting to make this change?
  • What are the pros and cons? How will it affect you and your loved ones, for better and worse?
  • What would happen if you didn’t make this change? How would you feel if your life stayed like it is now?
  • How ready are you to make this change? Is there something that would help you feel more ready? Would talking to someone about it help?
  • What keeps you from making this change? What are you afraid might happen?
Step 2 – Plan Each Step

Break your goal into steps, the smaller the better. Each step should be:

  • Specific (say exactly what you’re going to do)
  • Measurable (easy to tell whether you did it or not)
  • Time-sensitive (it must happen within a certain amount of time)

Next, create a concrete plan for the first step of your goal, answering what, when and where you’ll do it. For example:

I will go for a walk at Sylvan Park on Wednesday at 5:00 PM.

A more complex goal, like finishing an educational degree, may require you to break the overarching goal into smaller and smaller goals, until you get down to individual steps.

Step 3 – Recognize Obstacles

Imagine a typical week of your life. How will your daily responsibilities, habits, social desires and other factors conflict with your goal? Write down as many obstacles as you can think of and then brainstorm solutions for each one.

For example, say you want to quit smoking but you also enjoy taking smoke breaks at work. Is there a healthier way to reward yourself?

The more fully you prepare for obstacles, the more likely you are to overcome them.

Step 4 – Build Motivation

Willpower is overrated and unreliable. Lasting change requires you to throw the “kitchen sink” at reaching your goals. Work toward making each step of your goal as easy to complete as possible. Spend time crafting motivational tools—it will pay off in the end!

Create a routine and rituals

Daily rituals are important to keep you inspired and moving toward your goal. Experiment to see what works for you. What consistently makes you feel good? Try to do it every day at around the same time for several days and evaluate. Here are some ideas:

  • Practice a 10-minute yoga routine
  • Write a three-page “brain dump” to clear your mind
  • Play rock anthems while you take a shower
  • Go for a 15-minute jog before breakfast
Develop a mantra

This is a verbal statement that encourages you to keep working toward your goal. Try different ideas until you find one that fits you. Say your mantra aloud to start the day. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • I am capable. I am strong. I can do this.
  • I’m doing this for me.
  • One day at a time.
  • I will get what I need.
  • One foot in front of the other.
Share your goals publicly

Post your goals on social media or tell your friends and family directly. This will help you feel more accountable for achieving your goal. Share your successes with them, too.

Practice optimism

Optimism is correlated with success. You can learn to reframe negative thoughts into more optimistic, constructive thoughts. This will make you feel better, both emotionally and physically, and give you more energy to work on your goal.

Learn from your setbacks and recognize your accomplishments
  • If something doesn’t go well, step back and evaluate why it happened that way and what you could tweak to make it go better next time.
  • Before bed, write down three things that went well during your day and why they went well. This helps you recognize your accomplishments and the specific things you’re doing that work well.
Create a visual reminder of your goal and the progress you’re making

Here are some ideas:

  • Every morning, draw four circles in which you write your goals for the day, the week, the year and your life. Change them as needed.
  • Make a visualization board. Cut out pictures that represent your goals. You can add inspirational quotes or other things that inspire and encourage you.
  • Use a calendar to mark your progress. Each time you complete a step, mark it on your calendar. If you don’t take yourself too seriously, you can even make a sticker chart. They work great for kids, and they might work for you, too. Play around and have fun!
Craft your environment to help you reach your goals

Brainstorm ways to make it easier for you to work toward your goals and harder to work against them.

  • Positive Cues: What things in your environment remind you of your goal? How can you increase their influence? Can you make them more visible?
  • Negative Cues: What things in your environment remind you of your obstacles? How can you decrease their influence? Can you get rid of them, put them out of sight, or create some other barrier to them?
  • If there’s a particular space where you work on your goal, make it nice. Create associations between the work you do and things that make you feel good.
Do something that scares you

Facing your fears boosts your confidence. If you tackle a small fear, what’s to stop you from facing a larger one?

Next Steps

Planning a big change in your life might stir up strong feelings. If you feel overwhelmed or distressed, you might benefit from talking to a psychotherapist to help you work through your feelings and create a plan. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. You deserve wonderful things!

If you or someone you love would benefit from talking to a mental health provider in Tennessee, contact Athena Care.

One of our care coordinators will help you get the assistance you need.

Photo of Rachel Swan
Rachel Swan, MS

Rachel has a Masters of Science in Clinical Psychology from Vanderbilt University, where she spent 16 years as a Research Analyst in the Psychology and Human Development Department.