How do you stay motivated? Motivation – the energy and power behind any project, task, or achievement – helps us stick to our goals, make progress during the hard times, and keep us moving forward.

But motivation can be fleeting. When I find myself in bursts of activity (usually at the peak of my motivation on a project), I like to prepare for the months ahead by setting up ways to keep myself motivated. It’s a like a plan of attack, if you will, but for my psyche and mental preparation.

When the inspiration hits (and I NEVER know when I’ll get a creative urge, so I try to let myself get sucked in and follow the pulls whenever I find them, devoting a few hours to the immediacy of the inspiration), I have a handful of tricks, tools and great quotes that inspire me during the “slogs in the trenches” — the time when you have to grind, work, and stay committed to your project.

First: I whip out my notebook (or a napkin and pen; or the back of a grocery bag; or I write myself messages on my phone. Sometimes I even call myself to leave a message with ramblings of an idea, if I don’t have any other means to record the thoughts). I write down every possible idea and phrase related to the project at hand, and even draw graphs, maps, dotted lines, or whatever else illustrates the idea I have. I like to carry a graph-paper notebook around with me to record my ideas. When I get home, I have a large binder that I keep all of these random ideas in (backs of receipts included!)  so that in the future, when I’m trying to remember my amazing insight from the day or week before, I can recall these thoughts while leafing through my binders.

I jot down a top ten list of reasons why I like the project. My “Top Ten List” is one of the best ways to keep myself going during the dreary days.  The top ten list is a quick brainstorm of things I like about the idea, what the next steps might be, who I might call or contact, and what directions to take next. Mapping out the project as early as possible helps progress the ideas beyond an initial “napkin sketch.” I find that brainstorming early and extensively as possible is the most productive.

If the project looks like it will pencil out, I then spend time creating a solid project manifesto. Before I embark on any project, I like to spend time writing down the “project manifesto” and answer basic questions about the project:  What is it for? why am I doing it? how will I measure accomplishments? This is a great way to test out the idea, quickly: imagine it as much as possible and try to flush it out into it’s layers before actually taking any action towards completion.

This is the project manifesto: the reason for being, the rationale behind the project. For any project to pencil out, it’s important to answer questions such as: “who is this project for?” “why is this project useful?” and “why am I doing this project?”  In the future, as I get bogged down with the details and minutiae of the enormous task I’ve mapped out in front of me, I’ll need to look back on the large ideas to remind myself of my initial ambitions and goals.

Next, I have a handy list of motivational phrases and quotes: I repeat these quotes like a mantra to keep me going during the tough times (sort of like listening to Tom Petty’s “I won’t back down”  during a flat stretch on a run or “Uprising” by Muse while training for marathon hills). Because, let’s be honest: Not every day is filled with the excitement and energy of the initial project phases. There are really tough days. Days when you’re not sure if you’ll be able to finish, when you doubt your own abilities and wonder whether or not the work you’re doing is useful.

If looking back at the project manifesto isn’t cutting it, here are some of my favorite quotes for working hard:

“Excellence rarely exceeds expectations.”

“If not you, then who? if not now, then when?” (For more on this topic, see “Jump start your next project”)

“Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.”

“If you don’t want to do something, any excuse will do.”

“Really great people make you feel that you, too, can become great.” ~ Mark Twain

“It’s my conviction that slight shifts in imagination have more impact on living than major efforts at change…deep changes in life follow movements in imagination.” – Thomas Moore

“The truth is, creativity isn’t about wild talent as much as its about productivity. To find a few ideas that work, you need to try a lot that don’t. Its a pure numbers game.” – Robert Sutton

“You have thousands of excuses to stop. But really, what excuse do you have not to do it?”

And when the going gets tough(er): Fill yourself up with knowledge and seek inspiration from other people who have worked hard to achieve great things. My bookshelves are near and dear to me, as they hold countless stories of inspirational people doing unbelievable things.

Chris Guillebeau, The Art of Nonconformity: “Unless you set aside dedicated time to produce your art, the art will not get made. There are some times when making the art is fun, but other times it’s not — so if you want to build something sustainable, you have to find a way to keep making the art during the not-so-fun times.”

Haruki Murakami, What I talk about when I talk about running:  “I’m struck by how, except when you’re young, you really need to prioritize in life, figuring out in what order you should divide up your time and energy. If you don’t get that sort of system set by a certain age, you’ll lack focus and your life will be out of balance.”

Christopher McDougall, Born to Run: “This is the most advanced weapon in the ultrarunner’s arsenal: instead of cringing from fatigue, you embrace it. You refuse to let it go. You get to know it so well, you’re not afraid of it anymore. … the only way to truly conquer something, as every great philosopher and geneticist will tell you, is to love it.”


Surround yourself with great people. The best asset you have towards your own success are the people around you, cheering you on. If you’ve told people of your goals, your visions, and your dreams, then let them know of your progress, your hard times, and your struggles. Some of the best feedback can come in the form of really great mentors and I’ve been lucky to have a few along the way. (I’m also always searching for amazing mentors, especially as I embark on my new writing career!).

Find a way to make yourself accountable. Ideally, we’re all accountable to ourselves, but sometimes we need external commitments to keep ourselves accountable.  Publish your commitment. Write it down, and make it a measurable goal. (For example, my goal for the first year of my blog is to post once weekly, without fail. I want to build content and grow as a blogger without missing any weeks). These specific goals keep you accountable, especially when inspiration gets thin or the workload starts bearing down during the tough times.

Create a calendar and check list of specific, measurable goals. I like to set clear, precise goals that outline the project from start to completion.  I frame out a goals’ list with achievable, measurable goals with a target date. I make both long term as well as short-term goals.  Setting measurable goals allows me to frame out later stages of the project. The best way to set great goals, for me, is to start by asking good questions:

  • Why am I doing this?
  • What is my end goal?
  • What tools will I use to evaluate my progress?
  • When I’m swamped, how will I know I’m making progress?
  • Who around me can give me good, positive, and critical feedback?

Having checkable, achievable goals, no matter how small, can keep the train moving forward. In order to track my progress, I set up a calendar with interim deadlines.  “Completable deadlines” that you can check off, cross off, smile and say “YES! I did that!” is a way to keep yourself making progress during the tough times. There’s nothing like a bit of deadline pressure to keep your butt moving.

Remember, no one can achieve your goals but you. You are the only person capable of fulfilling your dreams – and the bigger the dream, the scarier it is to fail. How do you stay accountable to yourself and track your progress?