How to Stay Motivated When the Excitement of a New Goal Wears Off

Use these seven tips to plan and tackle a goal without losing focus.

Shape Goals Lead
Photo:

Unsplash

It's a familiar cycle: You set a wellness goal and you're really excited to get started — to finally complete that triathlon or take up meditation. For the next few weeks, everything goes to plan: You follow your training schedule to the letter or find the perfect meditation cushion, but eventually, your enthusiasm dwindles. If this rollercoaster sounds familiar, you’re not alone. One 2020 study found that only half of participants stuck to their New Year's resolutions after a year, while another found that a third of people abandoned their resolutions after just one month. 

Once motivation starts to wane, it's easy to feel demoralized, which can often lead you to give up on the goal you were once so excited about entirely, whether gradually or all at once. But, chances are that you  really do want  to run that triathlon, start meditating, or commit to some other goal, and you don't have to resign yourself to abandoning that aim. There are some key adjustments you can make to your routine and, importantly, your mindset, to ensure you actually stick to your fitness, nutrition, or general health goals for the months (and years!) ahead. The ultimate goal: To turn them from one-time finish lines into longterm habits. 

Set Realistic Goals

Before you get started on building a consistent gym routine or altering what you consume, it's important to go in with realistic expectations for goals that are "sustainable, achievable, and meaningful," says Linh-Han Ikehara, M.S.W., LISW-S, a behavioral health therapist at the Center for the Female Athlete at Dayton Children's Hospital. "The key here is that informed plans and actions will yield consistent behaviors and those behaviors then produce habits and the habits culminate into a healthy lifestyle." To help you set your goal and plan for how you might achieve it, Ikehara recommends the "WOOP" method, which helps you anticipate any obstacles you could run into and how you might overcome them. Here’s how it works:

  • Wish: Write a wish that is important to you. The wish should be difficult, but achievable.
  • Outcome: How will it feel when you accomplish this? Close your eyes and really imagine it.
  • Obstacle: What is an internal obstacle? This must be something that you have control over. Close your eyes and imagine your obstacle.
  • Plan: What is your specific plan? What is the exact thing you will do? This plan should be easy to remember.

For example, if you WISH you could feel less stressed, with the OUTCOME that you could be more present around loved ones, scrolling on your phone could be an OBSTACLE to your goal. In this case, your PLAN might be programming your phone to be on 'do not disturb' during mealtimes and designated work times, suggests Ikehara. Writing down your WOOP might help you remember your plan (and tap back into your motivation) when obstacles inevitably come up.

Take One Step at a Time

Relatedly, try dividing your overall goal (for example, "get stronger" or "go to bed earlier") into smaller, more manageable goals, so that you don't feel overwhelmed by trying to achieve it all at once. "Chain together short-term, measurable goals — goals that seem out of reach are perceived to be too difficult and decrease motivation," says Wendy Rasmussen, Ph.D., director of clinical engagement at SonderMind. "By focusing on shorter, challenging (but not insurmountable) goals, you're more likely to achieve these goals, and the sense of achievement drives a sense of momentum keeping you going to the next one."

You should also tune into your individual body and mind and take generalized health recommendations with a grain of salt. "You often hear minimum requirements [such as] 30 minutes of exercise a day, or drinking eight glasses of water or [getting] eight hours of uninterrupted sleep, and you take those as the minimum goal you should set for yourself," says Ali Greco, Psy.D., director of user experience at SonderMind. But plot twist: Those standards aren’t universal. "If you find yourself frustrated by trying to reach those kinds of goals, realize they might not be right for you right now," she advises. 

Be gentle with yourself as you adjust to a new habit. "Think about what you can do consistently, even if that seems too easy," adds Greco. "It's the repetition that's important, rather than the activity itself, when you're overcoming a lack of motivation." So you might start by making sure you drink three glasses of water per day, and once that feels easy, slowly increasing that amount over time.

Identify Your “Whys”

It's not enough to simply know you want to achieve something; you also have to determine your reasons for wanting to achieve it. This way, when motivation dwindles, you can come back to your "why" rather than focusing on obstacles. "Research clearly shows that one should recruit multiple reasons or motivations to participate in competition or a physical activity," says Eric A. Zillmer, Psy.D., professor of neuropsychology and former director of athletics at Drexel University. "Your success is going to be self-determined by whether you are competent to engage in the fitness activity, whether you have some autonomy to pursue the activity, and whether you have a social connectedness,” i.e., a feeling of belonging. 

So what does this look like in practice? "If you are good at riding a bicycle, and you have time during your lunch break or after work to go on a ride, and if you enjoy doing so with a group of friends,” says Zillmer, “…you are increasing the likelihood of succeeding in your long-term goal — perhaps a 100-mile ride — because you have woven together several motivational variables in your long-term fitness goal."

Focus on Gratitude

When you lose your motivation, reframing a goal in positive terms can help you find that drive again. "Based on the cognitive behavioral therapy model, your thoughts are influential in how you feel and ultimately how you behave," says Ikehara. "When you're stressed, you might notice that your motivation to follow through with goals is low. Gratitude is one [strategy] to reframe or shift your current perspective to be more realistic and supportive."

To reap the power of gratitude as it relates to motivation, "try thinking of three things that you're grateful for and why," says Ikehara. "This practice, if used daily, is even more powerful to shape our intrinsic thinking patterns." For example, if you want to start going to a workout class three times a week, you might write down that you're grateful for your body that allows you to move through exercise, for access to public transport to get to the gym, and for the other people taking the class who can help motivate you.

Sustainability in Goal Making

Kaitlyn Collins

Be Kind to Yourself

There’s truth to the cliché “mind over matter.” Your thoughts can work for or against you when it comes to motivation. "Rather than self-criticize for unfavorable circumstances and outcomes, acknowledge how you're feeling and think of how to support yourself in the moment," says Ikehara. "Think of it as tuning into your inner coach or talking to yourself like a friend." Self-criticism clearly decreases your motivation, while self-compassion empowers you to learn from your mistakes, according to The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University.

While it's normal to feel disappointed if you don't stick to your original plan, you should remember, "it is okay to fail and to even quit for periods of time," says Zillmer. "Even elite athletes have their ups and downs." In order to get back on track, you need to accept that you can't always be perfect, believe that you're capable of achieving your goal, and speak to yourself kindly, which will make you better able to achieve the goal. It can help to talk to yourself in the third person, so that it actually feels like another person speaking to you, as suggested by Meaghan B. Murphy in her book Your Fully Charged Life, notes Ikeahara. Use statements such as, "You've got this," or "You're improving every day."

Recruit Cheerleaders

Negative self-talk can be a hard habit to shed, so it's a good idea to recruit a solid support system who can be kind to you when you're not able to be kind to yourself. A psychological concept called attribution theory is a key component to finding long-term motivation, explains Zillmer. "Attribution theory focuses on how an individual explains their success or their failures," or in other words, what they attribute the successes or failures to, says Zillmer. "Research suggests that one's attribution affects the expectations of future success or failure."

Unfortunately, humans tend to make negative and incorrect attributions, such as "I'm not strong enough to lift these weights," or "I'm terrible at swimming." Research shows “that your personal attributions are often wrong and thus it helps to have someone, [such as] a coach or training partner, validate your attribution," says Zillmer. "This is why hiring a personal trainer or a coach, or being part of a group of fitness enthusiasts or friends, is essential to keep going."

Here’s why: Someone you trust can help you have a more realistic view of the situation (a valid attribution, if you will) — whether that's encouraging you when you're putting yourself down unnecessarily, or helping you see when you're potentially feeling overconfident. "It is good to have a friend or a training partner who might pick you up and say ‘you're doing great’ when you have a bad moment, or who tells you, 'hey this is a tough one, you might wanna put some extra work into it,'" explains Zillmer.

Get Creative

Boredom obviously clashes with the motivation. "Treat boredom as a flag, a signal, that you want to pay more attention and switch something up," says Greco. Focus on "adding novelty (new music, new clothes, or new routes for your run) and reconnecting with what you used to love (learning something new, mastering a specific skill, or connecting with new people)."​​ This will put the excitement back into working toward your goal.

Similarly, try to make the journey fun for you. "There is a lot of science behind novel rewards and playing-to-win strategies to improve and maintain habits," says Douglas Newton, M.D., M.P.H., chief medical officer at SonderMind. "Many health and wellness apps and programs work in this way. Setting goals and using set milestones with fun activities and 'pay-offs' can lead to better success." You could try apps such as StepBet, which allows you to earn money for achieving fitness goals, or Vizer, which donates meals based on your tracked exercise.

TBH, it's very human to eventually lose long-term motivation. However, when you implement strategies such as setting achievable goals, shifting to positive self-talk, surrounding yourself with a great support system and generally having fun on the journey, you are more likely to keep shooting for the stars — and reaching them too.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles