How to Motivate Yourself: 10 Tips for Self Improvement

Written by Coursera • Updated on Oct 25, 2021

Achieve your goals with these science-backed motivation enhancers.

A smiling man wearing a shoulder bag and carrying a to-go cup of coffee leaps from one bench to the next outside an office building.

Setting a goal—anything from getting a degree or landing a new job to achieving a new level of physical fitness—is a big step toward improving your life. But following through to achieve what we’ve set out to accomplish can be challenging, especially on those days when motivation wanes. So how do you follow through on your commitments during those times when you just don’t feel like putting in the work?

We all lose motivation from time to time. When you’re feeling unmotivated, try one of these science-backed strategies to get yourself back on track toward your goal.

1. Put your goal on the calendar.

One way to give a boost to your internal motivation is to create some external motivation: a target date. Whatever it is you’re aiming to accomplish, put it on the calendar. You may be working toward a goal with a set finish date built in. Examples include preparing for a test or taking a course with a fixed end date. 

If your goal lacks this structure, you can add it by deciding on a date by which you could realistically achieve your goal. 

Want to run a 5k or marathon? Sign up for a race on or near your target date. Considering a degree? Research the application deadline and write it down. Aiming to learn a new career skill? Register for a course and set a target date to finish. 

Having a target date not only helps you stay motivated, it also helps you track your progress—you always know how much further you have to go. This can have a big impact on your performance [1].

Tip: Setting a target date

Be realistic when setting your target date, but resist the urge to give yourself more time than you’ll need. Studies show that we sometimes perceive longer goals as more difficult, even when they’re not. This can lead to a greater likelihood of procrastination or quitting [2].

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2. Make working toward your goal a habit.

When you make working toward your goal a habit—an automatic conditioned response—you no longer have to rely so much on feeling motivated. How do you turn a behavior into a habit?

Identify a trigger. 

Choose something that you already do everyday, like brushing your teeth or eating lunch, to be a trigger for the action you want to make a habit. Write out an “if-then” plan (also known as an implementation intention).

For example, if you want to create a habit of studying for a class everyday, your if-then plan might look like this:

If I pour my first cup of coffee, then I will spend five minutes on my math homework. 

To build consistency in exercise, it might look like this:

If I get up and brush my teeth, then I will immediately put on my workout clothes.

Making this plan and committing it to writing could increase the likelihood of following through [3].

Start small.

Notice that the above examples do not say that you’ll read six chapters of your textbook, watch two hours of lecture videos, or spend an hour sweating on the treadmill.

Getting started is often the hardest part on low-motivation days, and starting is much easier when the task is small: Five minutes of study or putting on your workout clothes [4]. 

These seemingly small actions can prime your mind for the task at hand, so the followthrough—a longer study session or a full workout—can happen more naturally with less mental resistance, according to The Science of Self Help [5]. 

3. Plan for imperfection.

It’s great to feel excited and confident about achieving your goal, but it’s also possible to be too optimistic [6]. Not every day will go exactly as planned, and that’s okay. Life happens. 

But one way to boost motivation on difficult days is simply to plan for them. As you think about your goal, jot down a list of the things that could get in your way. If you’re taking an online course, this could include:

  • Losing internet access

  • Getting a phone call in the middle of a study session

  • Having a child home sick

  • Feeling stuck on a difficult concept or assignment

If your goal is to go running everyday, some obstacles might include:

  • Rainy weather

  • Injury

  • Illness

  • Getting asked to stay late at work during the time you usually run

We can’t predict everything that could happen, but we can predict those obstacles that are likely to happen from time to time based on our unique circumstances. 

Once you have your list, make a plan for how to handle the obstacle. How can you plan ahead for when your internet goes out? Maybe you could keep a few lecture videos downloaded to your phone or computer for offline access, or you could identify a nearby coffee shop that offers free wifi. 

Now when that obstacle pops up, instead of losing motivation and feeling deflated, you have a plan in place to keep the momentum going.

Keep in mind that for some obstacles, missing your task is a perfectly acceptable plan.  

The WOOP method

Next time you’re setting a goal for yourself, practice the WOOP technique, pioneered by Dr. Gabriele Oettingen. This stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, and Plan. What is your wish? What would be the outcome of that wish coming true? What main obstacle stands in your way? What can you do to overcome that obstacle?

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4. Set small goals to build momentum.

“If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed. If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task, and another, and another.” 

Naval Admiral William H. McRaven gave this advice during his commencement speech at the University of Texas at Austin in 2014. The former Navy SEAL was onto something.

Research shows that frequent small successes can build a sense of momentum that can in turn drive long-term success, especially early in the process [7, 8]. Whatever your big goal may be, start by breaking it down into smaller chunks. Getting a new job might be a big goal. Smaller goals could be updating your resume, making a portfolio website, earning a certification, or attending a networking event.

Did you know?

Setting goals at the start of a new week, month, or year can naturally lead to increased motivation [9]. We tend to mentally associate these temporal landmarks with new beginnings while creating mental distance from any perceived shortcomings in our past. Now that’s what we call a motivational Monday.

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5. Track your progress.

Seeing progress can be highly motivating [10]. You’ll find many tools out there to help you track your goals. This could be as simple as a to-do list or calendar where you can cross off tasks or days as you complete them. Or you might opt for a free tool like Trello, which allows you to create a personalized digital task board to categorize your big goal into daily, weekly, monthly, or even yearly sub goals.

Another option is to draw a progress bar on a sheet of poster board or paper. Hang it somewhere where you’ll see it regularly, and fill it in as you get closer to your goal.

What is a SMART goal?

Sometimes the best goals are SMART goals—specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time bound. 

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6. Reward yourself for the little wins as well as the big ones.

It feels good to be rewarded for our work. But rewards can also improve motivation and performance. Rewarding yourself for reaching small milestones and completing big goals could boost your interest and enjoyment in the work you’re doing [11]. 

These rewards don’t have to be big or cost a lot of money. Here’s a quick list of ideas you could use to reward yourself:

  • Take a short break

  • Go for a walk outside

  • Enjoy your favorite snack

  • Read a chapter of your favorite book

  • Spend a few minutes meditating

  • Listen to an episode of your favorite podcast

  • Plan a night out with friends

  • Play an online game

  • Visit a free museum or attraction

  • Have a long bath or shower

  • Call a friend or family member

Spend a few minutes making your own reward list so that you’re ready to celebrate your wins, big and small.

7. Embrace positive peer pressure.

You’re ultimately the one who puts in the work to achieve your goals. But other people can be a great motivator. 

Research shows that feeling like you’re part of a team can lead to boosted perseverance, engagement, and performance, even if you’re working alone [12]. Depending on your goal, this might mean joining a study group, running team, gym class, professional organization, or virtual challenge. 

Another study suggests that sharing your goal with someone whose opinion you value can strengthen your commitment to attaining that goal [13]. For work goals, consider sharing with a mentor or supervisor. You might choose to share educational goals with a teacher or academic advisor, or fitness goals with a coach or fellow gym member who you admire.

8. Practice gratitude (including for yourself).

It might seem like gratitude would lead to complacency and acceptance of the status quo. Yet some studies have shown otherwise. Feelings of gratitude can:

  • Motivate self-improvement [14]

  • Make us feel connected to others (i.e. part of the team) [15]

  • Enhance motivation across time, beyond the duration of the gratitude practice [16]

  • Induce a sense of wanting to give back [17]

  • Improve physical and mental health, as well as sleep [18]

There’s more than one way to foster an attitude of gratitude. Spend the first five minutes after you wake up going through all the things you feel grateful for. Better yet, write them down in a gratitude journal. Is there someone in your life you’re particularly grateful for? Write them a letter expressing your thanks. 

9. Do some mood lifting. 

A good mood has been linked to increased productivity, and improvement in both quality and quantity of work [19, 20]. This doesn’t mean that you have to be positive all the time—that’s not realistic. But if you’re feeling sluggish about working toward your goal, a quick mood lift could be enough to get you started.

Need some ideas for how to boost your mood? You could try to:

  • Spend some time in nature (or at least get some sunlight) [21]

  • Look at some cute pictures or videos of animals on r/aww [22]

  • Watch funny videos on YouTube [23]

  • Exercise [24]

  • Adopt an alter ego (i.e. the Batman effect) [25]

10. Change your environment. 

Sometimes a change of scenery can help you approach your task with fresh eyes (and a new sense of motivation). This is called the novelty effect—a short-term boost that comes from altering your environment [26]. 

If you usually study at home, have a session at your local library. Do you always watch lecture videos on your computer? Try downloading them to your phone to watch outside in the park. Switch up your running route, or try a new exercise routine. 

11. Remember your “why.”

Why is this goal important to you? Why is that reason important to you? Why is that important to you? Keep digging until you get to your ultimate “why”—the core value that’s driving your goal. 

To further reinforce your “why,” set an alarm every morning to remind yourself to spend one or two minutes visualizing what success would look like. What would it feel like to achieve your goal?

What’s your career goal?

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Article sources

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Written by Coursera • Updated on Oct 25, 2021

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