How to Stay Motivated When You Feel Like Giving Up

by | Feb 22, 2012 | Science of Happiness | 67 comments

When you were younger, you thought you could do almost anything.

You imagined not just becoming a doctor, but curing cancer.  You didn’t just day-dream about starting a business, but creating inventions that solved big problems.  You didn’t just see yourself as a poet, but the bard who reignited modern culture’s interest in verse.  (Okay, maybe that last one was just me.)

Over time, you reset your expectations of the possible.  Why?

First, friends and family urged you to be “realistic.”  Then the self-doubt crept in.  You became more cautious while also raising your standards.

After all, if you’re going to do something amazing, you have to be amazing, don’t you?

Finally, you realized the whole thing was taking a lot longer than you’d thought it would.  You were tired and your motivation was quickly sapping.

Finally you told yourself: who needs those silly dreams anyway?

When I put together the self-study version of my No Regrets Career Academy last year, I tried to answer all the questions about how to choose a career that I could conceive of in the material itself.

But the most common question I got back wasn’t about how to choose a new career at all.  What most people wanted to know was: how can I stay motivated to keep going on my quest?

In trying to answer one of the most important questions of their lives, too many wanted to just give up.

The problems that caused them to give up on their dream careers the first time were the same issues that caused them to quit the second, third, or fourth time around.  The problem wasn’t that they couldn’t dream big (though that got harder each time they gave up), but that they couldn’t sustain their efforts on a project that felt so huge.

In this post, I discuss the simple solution that’s helping my clients get over the hump, so to speak.  And why I realized I needed a dose of my own medicine.

The surprising reason we quit

In trying to help my clients when they felt overwhelmed and inadequate, the answer seemed obvious: you need to create incremental rewards.

You must take the time to celebrate your small successes, your insights and a-ha moments, not just the end result.

You can’t put the only prize at the end of a very long journey and expect that will be enough.  It would be like asking yourself to cross a desert without a glass of water, with the promise of a lake at the other end.  At some point, you’ll say, “Screw the lake, just take away the pain of this parched throat … now!”

But as an ordinary human (and fellow over-achiever, as many of my clients are), I realized I made the same mistake, just with other endeavors and journeys.

If it hasn’t been obvious from my posts, I’ve been on a bit of an emotional roller-coaster the last couple of months.  Instead of celebrating my successes, I’ve used them to propel me further and faster.

Sounds great, and there were times my happiness soared.  But riding what felt like momentum came with a cost, one that threatened to dissolve everything I’d built as well as my entrepreneurial self-confidence.

When you’re tired and anxious and feel like giving up, it’s easy to ask: what’s wrong with me?  Am I on the wrong path?

The relationship between success and celebration

This week I turned 40.  Last week, Everyday Bright turned 2.

There’s nothing particularly notable about turning 40 as opposed to 39, or a blog turning anything beyond the first 6 months, but it did feel like an important milestone.  Instead of continuing to ask what was wrong, I used the turning point to ask: what am I doing right?

I realized I’ve done so many things that, just a few short years ago, seemed impossible or at the least, overly optimistic.

  • I’m living overseas in Europe, probably the biggest item on my life’s bucket list
  • My business turned profitable in less than a year, despite a massive investment (too much really) in education and training
  • I’ve built a community of people I love to interact with here on Everyday Bright
  • I spend far more quality time with my daughter (around 15 more hours every week, plus 14 weeks of vacation a year)
  • Recently, I made key friendships a priority, making time for friends near and far instead of always giving in to my introverted, workaholic nature

I succeed at resetting my potential and my view of what was possible.

What was wrong was that I failed to pause and enjoy it.  I hardly ever took time to look back and say to myself, “Wow, look at how far I’ve come!  What a view!”

Part of the problem, at least in my mind, is that the word “celebration” seems to imply more work in addition to the reward.  I have to plan something or save some money to pay for the treat.  And when I’m already busy, the last thing I want is more work.

As I’m trying to teach myself (and my clients), a simple celebration is nearly always better than a complicated one.

  • Instead of planning a huge birthday party for all my friends, I’m having our personal chef make one of my favorite meals and a cake for the family
  • Instead of buying something that feels good in the short term but just adds to the clutter, I’m buying books on my Kindle (and giving myself the time to read them)
  • Instead of keeping myself up with worry by repeating “There’s more that needs doing,” I’m rewarding a day’s work with a good night’s sleep

These are small things that deliver bigger impacts to your quality of life … and work.

When you’re busy, it’s tempting to forget about the celebration and move on to working on the next accomplishment.  But that would be a huge mistake.

We like to say “life is a celebration,” but that’s only true if we make time for it, on our calendars and in our hearts.

I have to be very deliberate about my revelry.  I realized I take pride in telling people how hard I work and how busy I am–probably a hold over from a long career in corporate, where such traits are prized.

Turns out, I’d be a lot better off taking and talking about my celebrations.  People get tired of hearing how tired you are.  And the more you hear yourself say how tired you are, the more you’ll feel it.

I said in my post Is Self-Improvement Ruining Your Life that I was going to embrace my over-achiever nature instead of fighting it.

That meant I had to see taking time to celebrate as a mechanism to achieve.  And that’s not hard to do.

Over the last few months, I’ve learned if you continually short change your celebration, you’ll eventually hamstring your accomplishment.

I’m not giving up.

Instead, I’m going to nurture my potential by cultivating the habit of pause and reflection, by taking the time to enjoy those accomplishments as they’re happening.

Which means sometimes a post will be a day late, so I can celebrate 40 years of good living with a fancy dinner out and a classic West End show.

And if I’ve done my celebrating right, when I come back to work, I’ll feel energized, ready to chase my dreams, and darn lucky to have the opportunity to do so.