How to Stay Motivated When You Feel Stuck

Progress in never linear. But effort can be.

How do we stay motivated? It’s a great question and one I am asked all the time. But to answer it, the better question to ask is: Why do we lose motivation? 

People lose motivation for a whole host of reasons. But they all tie in to one thing: we fail to make progress. 

When we don’t make progress – when we don’t feel like we are improving or getting ahead – we lose interest and we start to lose motivation. It’s very rare that people try something new, are very good at it and improve really quickly, and lose motivation along the way (once they are good, however they can lose interest, but this is only after they have mastered the task).

The problem is this: we rarely start something and are good at it right away. In fact, usually we aren’t very good at all and this can lead to negative feedback – not necessarily feedback from someone else, but feedback in the form of feeling defeated or not achieving what we thought we might. And we all know that negative feedback is not something that reinforces behaviour.

In this case, I am reminded particularly of people who go through our coaching workshops and then try coaching people back in the workplace. Chances are that those coaching conversations don’t go as planned, the coach feels discouraged, then they end up not really trying the method anymore and go back to the way they did it before – the way were comfortable – even though they don’t get stellar results.

Other times still, we might make progress at the start and get some ‘quick wins’ but invariably this dissipates, and we find that we stagnate and don’t make progress for a while. This happens when people try to lose weight of improve their fitness and represents a ‘danger period’ where people are most likely to lose motivation.

So what do we do about it?

There is a saying we used to use with athletes all the time. 

“Progress is never linear. But effort can be.”

It means that even though you will hit barriers and plateaus in your progress along the way to your goal, the effort you put in to achieving that goal can be extremely consistent. To really live and breathe this philosophy, we need to make the accomplishment about effort that goes in, not outcome at the other end.

Here are some examples:

Non-linear: Weight loss, Increases in fitness

Linear: Exercise sessions per week, number of days eating junk-free per week

Non-linear: Sales

Linear: Number of business development meetings, number of cold calls

Non-Linear: Improving coaching technique

Linear: Number of times you have coaching conversations instead of avoiding them, preparing for every coaching meeting properly, de-briefing every coaching meeting with yourself to look for ways to improve.

We get a feeling of progress when we set ourselves goals for the ‘inputs’ or efforts and we are able to tick these goals off as we go. In this way, the journey and the process of improvement and working toward the goal becomes the focus and the motivation. 

If you’re in a team, managing people on effort like this is extremely motivating. People are able to focus on things they can control, and they feel like they don’t get any ‘easy wins’ because the work has to go into everything. This is a great trait to build in a team member.

Of course, outcomes are important and if people are putting in the effort but still not getting the results, then you have to make sure that the inputs are the right ones. 

** Tony Wilson is a Workplace Performance Expert focussed on helping leaders build the environment for high performance. His insights into performance science and it's application in the workplace will make you re-think the way that you approach leadership, culture change, high performance and productivity. Tony has an MBA and a BSc majoring in physiology and combines the two for a different perspective. He is also the author of Jack and the Team that Couldn't See and delivers workshops and keynote presentations around the globe.


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