Staying motivated without urgency

How do I stay motivated when there’s no sense of urgency? I’ve moved from a stressful ‘everything due yesterday’ full time job to part time teaching and working on my portfolio, and am slipping into some bad habits.

Motivation — when we want it most, it just isn’t there. For example; motivation to close Slack and focus on an important task. Motivation to stop procrastinating and go to the gym. Motivation to say no to a chocolate bar and yes to a healthy snack.

When it comes to meaningful work and productivity, motivation is an essential driver. It keeps the coals burning and the engine running.

What does your motivation depend on?

Does it depend on passion, goals, scarcity or urgency? You may feel motivated to work hard because the number in your bank account is getting lower (scarcity), or you have a large bill to pay soon (urgency).

Whatever the driver behind your motivation, it’s easy to fall into a trap of feeling like we should feel motivated 24/7. With the glorification of workaholics and hustlers, you may feel like a failure or are slipping behind if you’re not showing up every day.

Too much of this mindset is unhealthy and built on fear. We’re told that bad habits have detrimental affects and prevents you from moving forward. I’m a believer in moderation, so while excessive use of bad habits could be detrimental, you shouldn’t punish yourself for the infrequent slip up.

Bad habits are part of what makes as human. We’re not machines, so it’s normal to have down days, off days or times when you need a break. It’s when this becomes routine or influences our motivations that it’s time for action.

If you’re finding yourself in a situation where bad habits and lack of urgency are affecting your motivation, here’s what I suggest:

Know your long-term goal

Whether you’re a developer, designer or teacher — why did you get into this field of work? How is this work getting you closer to your long term goal? Having a long-term goal is one of the biggest assets you can have in life. This knowledge is like your anchor. It’s immensely valuable when it comes to decision making, motivation, productivity and personal fulfilment.

Having a goal means there are things at stake. It’s true that you don’t have forever to complete this goal, but you do have now.

How can you use now to motivate you to get one step closer to where you want to be? Nothing creates urgency more than awareness that forever isn’t an option.

Re-establish why this work matters to you

It’s impossible to force motivation, but fulfilling work tends to encourage it naturally. When doing the things we love or matter most it’s easier to cut distractions and eliminate bad habits.

Procrastination and bad habits are a sign that something has to change — whether that be the work itself or your current style of working.

Examining your motives and establishing why the work matters helps provide that sense of purpose and belonging. Understanding why you’re investing your time in this activity — whether it be a job or a project — helps to connect and gives you that fire to put in the work.

The next time you find yourself struggling to stay productive or motivated with your work, remind yourself why you’re doing it and why it matters.

Ask yourself:

  • Is this something I love and enjoy?
  • Am I excited to get up in the morning and do this?
  • Why am I doing this?
  • Am I making the most of this opportunity? If not, what would that look like?

Acknowledge your bad habits

Before you can quit a bad habit, you need to identify it. What are your bad habits that prevent you from completing your work? Is it social media, a cluttered desk, hunger, watching YouTube, online shopping…?

Get out a sheet of paper and write down a list of all of your bad habits or activities that prevent you from being motivated and completing your work.

If you don’t know your bad habits, be attentive the next time one arises. What triggered this habit? How was I feeling when this habit arose? What are the urges I feel? What work is this habit distracting me from? Write this down.

When the habit arises, be conscious of it’s presence but try not to act on it. Acknowledge that it has arisen and ask yourself why you are feeling this urge.

Perhaps it helps to keep a tally for each time you feel the urge towards a bad habit throughout a focus session. Log this in a notebook or on a whiteboard with a time stamp. At the end the session, assess how often and when the bad habits arose.

Be aware of what triggers your bad habits

What triggers your bad habit? Once you’ve acknowledged the presence of a bad habit, channel that urge towards something productive and meaningful.

Bad habits often arise due to triggers such as change in mood or behaviour, or a notification alert. They can be difficult to control. However if you can identify and be aware of the trigger (that moment when the bad habit or urge arises), you can either eliminate the trigger (turn notifications off!) or train yourself to respond differently.

For example I know that if I don’t write my daily tasks in my bullet journal the night before, there’s a chance I might spend the morning procrastinating or doing un-important tasks instead. Knowing this is a trigger for me, I try to encourage myself to set my tasks the night before to avoid falling into that bad habit.

Write a ‘stop-doing’ list

We’re great at writing down the things we have to do, yet always end up doing the things we’re not supposed to do. Jim Collins wrote once about the idea of creating a stop doing list. A stop doing list is where you write down all the things you’re not going to do. This could be a list that lasts for a day, week, year or lifetime.

“In this Age of Distraction, we’re all dodging and weaving between so much incoming information that what you don’t do on a daily basis has become as important — if not more — as what you do execute on.”

Jocelyn K Glei

Consider what things you’re going to stop doing, to make space for things you want to start doing.

Set your own deadlines

There’s nothing as motivating as a deadline when it comes to urgency. If it weren’t for deadlines I’m not sure I ever would have finished my university papers or even written this article.

Deadlines are typically put in place by someone other than ourselves — a manager, teacher or official. When they’re out of our control there’s not much wiggle room, so we tend to respect them and get on with the work.

However, when it comes to our own work or less-urgent tasks — where there is no deadline — motivation can start to slip quickly.

Setting yourself deadlines can help with accountability and productivity. Rather than writing down a simple to-do list, set due dates next to each individual task. This helps to not only plan and prioritise, but hold yourself accountable.

Setting deadline is the easy part. Staying accountable is the challenge.

If you’re struggling with accountability, find an accountability partner or consider small rewards for yourself when you meet certain goals or milestones. Rewards could be as small as letting yourself have a dessert treat after dinner, or giving yourself 30 minutes of extra Netflix time.

We all have bad habits and it’s normal for motivation to dip from time to time. Don’t punish yourself. What’s most important is that you recognise when this is happening or holding you back from meaningful work. There’s many suggestions above on how to work through this. Though it may take some trial and error or soul-searching, it’s in your hands to get your motivation back.

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About the author

Hi I’m Femke — a designer, writer and podcaster who overlaps between a day job, freelancing and side projects. I love to help other creatives be the best version of themselves. I’d love to get to know you more, say hi on Twitter 👋

Kiwi in Canada, Product designer at Uber, Podcasting at @DesignLifeFM, Videos about design:

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