Maintaining motivation in difficult times


A friend of mine, last week, was preparing for a tough grind ahead. The stakes were high. The task demanded everything they had, and even that might not be enough. They asked me for tips about maintaining motivation in difficult situations for long periods of time. I shared a few. Here's the abbreviated version.


(Remember the usual disclaimers about the typical mind fallacy and the law of equal and opposite advice. These ideas have proved useful to some, but may be anti-useful to you.)

Prepare the line of retreat. If the stakes are high, and there is a decent chance that you'll lose no matter how hard you try, then it's often the case that some part of your brain is panicking. It's going through a loop where it shouts "what if I fail?!" while never actually allowing you to stare that possibility of failure in the face. You might develop a sense of flinching away from the thought of failure as the mind keeps reminding you what is on the line.

It's good to remember what you're fighting for, but this sort of panic can be extremely detrimental, especially if the mind panics about what could be lost while you're trying to solve the problem, and it's hindering your ability to focus and actually solve the problem.

One way to deal with this problem—and this is not a new idea—is to grab that possibility of failure and stare it directly in the eyes. Fully visualize the worst case, in vivid detail. And then plan for it. Are you going to lose your job? Your house? Are you going to go to jail? Fine. Take a deep breath, and fully imagine the possibility, and imagine what you would do then. You're teetering at the top of a cliff, and there might be sharp rocks at the bottom. But don't shut your eyes to it, look over the edge and see what you're dealing with.

Then, prepare the line of retreat. If the worst happens, what would need to change? Is there bad news that you would have to break to friends and family? Would you have to leave the country? Would you need to lean on someone for financial support? Prepare those paths now.

Find all the people that you would dread telling about the failure, and explain the situation and tell them what's at stake. Contact the people you would need to lean on if you failed, and let them know what you're going through and what the odds are. You might well fall of this cliff, but you can at least ensure that there is a landing pad at the bottom.

The part of your mind that panics about failure is part of the mental mob; for most people, reasoning with it is (or shouting "shut up I need to focus now!") is futile. The panic stems from the fact that you don't have a line of retreat, that you are not actually prepared for failure. It doesn't speak in reason: when you go about preparing the line of retreat, do so ritualistically, each motion preparing you for that worst case scenario.

I'm not saying to resign yourself to your fate, by any means. I'm not the type to condone giving up. Rather, the goal is to actually convince your mind that, whatever comes, you can handle that too. Then, you will be able to focus, to fight for those high stakes, without parts of you panicking about what happens if you fail.

(N.B. even if failure means the literal end of the world, in which case you probably can't handle what happens next, I still expect better performance if your brain is not in panic-mode. In almost all cases, you can prepare a line of retreat, but if you really can't and your brain is still panicking, then you may need to find other ways to come to terms with reality.)

Mentally step aside. Sometimes, you're just going to need to work really hard for weeks or months. Harder than you've worked before. The demands for attention and focus are just going to keep on coming. There may be a part of you that looks at the task ahead, and feels like it's just insurmountable. How are you even supposed to do this? How will you keep motivation up for all that time?

In these situations, I have a mental motion that is somewhat hard to describe, but which works pretty well. The first step is to fully examine the task ahead. Stare it in the face. See how difficult it is going to be. Calculate the odds of success, and verify that it is worth attempting. Look really hard for cheat codes, for easier paths—and if there aren't any, then simply commit to doing the hard work, and then "step aside."

Have the part of you that worries about whether you can stay motivated and whether you'll succeed look at the situation. Have it point you at the task at hand, and then "check out" until January (or whenever).

It's a bit hard to describe how to do this, but the internal experience is one of some part of me saying "I acknowledge that this is going to be hard, and now I am going to point you at it, and I will check back in after it is done to see how things went."

Then, in the midst of the difficult task, whenever I am feeling overwhelmed or under motivated, and I internally check the status of "can I actually do this?", I remember that the part of me which handles those worries is checked out, and I just need to keep moving towards the goal.

When people are trying to do something very difficult, I think they're often stopped up by the part of them that says "I don't think I can do this." In the checked-out state, those concerns still arise, but they don't attach to anything. The response is simply "oh, right, I expected this to be difficult," and then I am free to keep pressing on. The fact that I pre-acknowledged the difficulty removes the need to doubt and fret during the execution.

Write a letter to your future self. One way to get the effect of mentally stepping aside without needing to interpret my vague advice is to just right your future self a note. Maybe something like

Hey, this is going to be tough. I know that.

You're going to get demotivated two or three times. You're going to feel overwhelmed. Important things are going to slip schedule. Your body is probably already experiencing lots of stress symptoms. You might fail, despite all the effort you put into this. No, seriously, there's a decent chance of failure; maybe XX%. But we ran the numbers, and the attempt is worth the effort.

I'm sorry to put you into a situation like this. I looked for easier paths, for cheats, but none were found. You're just going to have to grind this one out.

This is going to last for a while, but it will end. On [DATE], things will settle down, one way or the other.

Just remember that I put you here on purpose, knowing that it would be tough.

Remember what you're fighting for. [What you're fighting for]

Keep moving towards the goal.

I strongly suggest writing your own, by hand, and not from a template. Then keep the note present. It may seem a bit silly, writing a note to yourself, but I have found the technique to be powerful. There are parts of me, at least, which control the motivation system, and which are much more amenable to ritualistic acknowledgement than reasoned arguments. I have done this twice, and in both cases, when times got particularly tough, there was a part of me that deeply appreciated knowing that I was put into the situation on purpose, and which appreciated explicit pre-emptive acknowledgement.


The real trick to doing difficult work, of course, is to start doing it and then not stop. But many people are hindered by themselves when they try this, by the parts that panic about what happens if they fail, by the parts that don't know whether or not they can press on. Treat with these parts of you, show them loyalty. Show yourself that you will be able to handle whatever comes, even in the worst case. Pre-acknowledge the difficulty, and then when it's difficult in the moment, you are free to simply keep moving forward.

Humans can do some incredible things, when they are able to start and then not stop.