I’m sitting at my desk. A blank Word document glares at me from my computer screen. The blinking cursor urges me to type something—anything. I have a large glass of water, a mug full of coffee and the “Deep Focus” Spotify playlist on in the background. I’m primed for work, but my brain’s just not feeling it.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from being self-employed as a writer, it’s that motivation is a complex and fickle beast. Some days, I’m in a groove—I can crank out articles left and right, only taking a quick break to refill my coffee or eat lunch. Other days, I have to force myself not to surf Reddit and run unimportant errands.
Unfortunately, deadlines don’t wait for me to regain my motivation. The same is true in nearly every other solopreneur profession: A patient doesn’t wait for her therapist’s coffee to kick in, nor does a customer wait for an Etsy owner to have the energy to ship their package.
When motivation has to be intrinsic (meaning there’s no boss breathing down your neck to get things done), it can be harder to come by. Below, you’ll find a series of research-backed tips and tricks that entrepreneurs swear by when they’re stuck:
1. Capitalize on your peaks.
This is my go-to strategy. Over the past few years, I’ve identified the times when I’m most productive: 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Thursday. I make sure to schedule the work that requires the most focus during these windows. I’ll never leave an article that’s due on a Monday morning, for example, for Friday afternoon because I know it’s unlikely I’ll muster the mental energy required to do it.
2. Remind yourself of your why.
Michelle Martin, CEO of Travara, a company that promotes sustainable travel, says her strategy for getting motivated is reminding herself why she started her business in the first place. For her, it’s all about freedom.
“As hard as it is to be an entrepreneur, I know I want to be working on my own terms and living my best life,” says Martin, who’s based in San Diego. “When it gets overwhelming or I feel stuck, I remind myself that I am creating the best possible scenario for myself and my family and I need to push through—for all of us.”
Hassan Alnassir, founder and owner of educational toy company Premium Joy, takes a similar approach to remembering his why.
“The method I use to get motivated when I feel stuck is simply remembering who I’m ultimately doing all of this for: my child,” says Hassan, who’s based in Walnut, California “I have a photo of my kid on my work desk, which I’m able to see whenever I need some encouragement to push me forward.”
3. Give yourself small rewards for achieving tasks.
Research has shown people are incredibly driven when rewards are thrown into the mix. In fact, one study found rewards account for 75% of our “personal motivation toward accomplishments,” according to a widely cited statistic from The 100 Simple Secrets of Successful People by David Niven.
If you’re struggling to accomplish certain tasks, give yourself a reward upon completion. These rewards can be large or small. For example, I set an income goal for myself each month, and promise myself that if I hit it, I’ll treat myself to something I’ve been eyeing—a nice dress, a handmade journal, a new cooking utensil.
You can also leverage the power of self-administered rewards on a smaller scale: Promise yourself that once you get two hours of work done, for instance, you’ll enjoy a delicious lunch or go for a walk in nature.
4. Practice leap frogging.
Karen Koenig, a self-employed psychotherapist based in Sarasota, Florida, overcomes dips in motivation by practicing something she calls leap frogging.
“Rather than think about the task I want to do and am not doing, I ‘leap frog’ over it and focus on how great I’ll feel when it’s done,” she says. “For example, I picture myself smiling after I’ve done my end-of-year record-keeping and having a celebratory cup of coffee sitting on my porch.”
5. Take a close look at your inner circle.
We all know the Jim Rohn adage that you are the sum of the five people you spend the most time with. If those people aren’t driven, high performing and energetic, they’re likely not doing anything to positively contribute to your sense of motivation.
Look at your immediate circle of friends and family. If there’s a theme of negativity, laziness or complacency, consider making some changes. This is a strategy Juanika Cuthbertson, founder and president of Ladypreneur Academy based in Richmond, Virginia, encourages entrepreneurs she works with to use.
“Inspect your daily conversations,” she says. “Are they uplifting? If not, change them. Do those closest to you inspire you or drain you? Make the shift as needed.”
6. Reset your mind.
Most of us who are self-employed have systems in place for achieving our goals. But on the off days when even your tried-and-true strategies aren’t working, what you likely need is a little reset. Let your mind focus on something other than work.
For Liam Smith, a self-employed wedding photographer based in London, allowing his mind time to wander and focus on something other than work is what helps him stay on track toward his goals. “Einstein took naps, Beethoven took long walks, Bill Gates washes dishes by hand,” he says. “Solitude, distraction and fresh challenges give your conscious mind valuable distance from your problems.”
7. Write it out.
Research has shown the far-reaching mental health benefits of taking a pen to paper. Journaling is a core tenet of mindfulness, and it can stave off anxiety, stress and depression by helping us prioritize (and solve) our problems, clarify our feelings, and engage in positive self-talk.
For me, journaling means writing every single morning right when I wake up, no matter what. I strive to write at least three full pages each day, which helps me purge the stressors and worries in my mind, priming my brain to be solely focused on work.
For Lori Mihalich-Levin, J.D., a lawyer and author based in Washington, D.C., it means list-making. “My solution is brain dump list-making,” she says. “I get all of the to-do’s from work and life out of my head and onto a sheet of paper. That way, they can stop swirling around my mind—taking up precious brain space—and I can organize the list. Once it’s all out, I pick one thing to focus on and start giving myself deadlines for small pieces of the task.”
8. Find an accountability buddy.
Susan Santoro, a professional home organizer based in Northern Virginia, says the key to getting work done is by sharing her goals with someone else. “Often just telling my partner a goal or task is enough to motivate me, but having her ask how it’s going and brainstorming solutions when I hit a roadblock is always the motivation I need to keep going and [find a solution],” she says.
Santoro’s strategy is backed by research. If you simply have an idea or goal, there’s a 10% chance you’ll achieve it. By telling someone else you will do it, you increase your odds of completion to 65%. And by making an accountability appointment with the person you’ve shared the goal with, you increase your chances to 95%.
9. Read about the success of others in your industry.
Seems counterintuitive, right? In fact, many entrepreneurs actually derive motivation from reading about others in their field who have succeeded. Heather Manto, a barbershop owner in Austin, Texas, finds inspiration by listening to The Side Hustle Show, a podcast that explores the success of others. “It really motivates me to get ideas and to also hear about successes of others who started where I did,” she says.
John Linden, an interior and furniture designer based in Los Angeles, says he likes to read biographies about entrepreneurs, artists, politicians, activists—anyone who’s been successful, really. “When you read a biography, you learn that every great person encountered periods where they felt stuck,” he says. “It’s a great way to find inspiration when you feel completely uninspired.”
Photo by @itsjuliwilliams/Twenty20.com
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Jamie Friedlander is a freelance writer based in Chicago and the former features editor of SUCCESS magazine. Her work has been published in The Cut, VICE, Inc., The Chicago Tribune and Business Insider, among other publications. When she's not writing, she can usually be found drinking matcha tea into excess, traveling somewhere new with her husband or surfing Etsy late into the night.