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How The Most Persistent People Stay Motivated

We asked people who have achieved big goals how they have stayed motivated in the face of big challenges.

[Photo: Everett Collection via Shutterstock]

There is an art to staying motivated, especially when it involves developing new habits, breaking old patterns, or being persistent when all of the odds appear to be against you. We interviewed an award-winning author, a woman who lost 157 pounds, and an entrepreneur about how they kept their eye on the prize . . . especially when that goal was not within reach.

Persistently Make Small Progress

Anthony Marra is the New York Times best-selling author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, winner of the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in fiction, and the Barnes and Noble Discover Award, and recently finished his second book, The Tsar of Love and Techno. Marra shared how he stayed motivated, even when he was ready to be finished.

The thought of spending several years writing a 400-page book can be, even in the best of times, daunting. So rather than think of a novel in terms of years, I try to conceptualize it into what I can accomplish in a day. I think in terms of 1,000-word increments, because even on a bad day I can write 1,000 words. A 120,000-word novel becomes 120 1,000-word segments, which allows for a small sense of accomplishment at the end of every writing session. To keep myself honest, I keep a word count log. On the days I get to 1,000 words or more, I record the word count in black ink. If it’s under 1,000 words, I use red ink.

Marra explains how one of the most successful components to his storytelling is his commitment to make it work when it isn’t.

I revise my books by retyping them from the beginning. With Constellation, I really thought the third draft was going to be it, but still found it lacking and felt mild despair at the idea of having to retype the book from the beginning again. In retrospect, I’m so glad I did. Only in that fourth time through did I stumble upon the omniscient perspective—a narrator who can peer into the future of every character and give the history of every object . . . that transformed the book into something much more ambitious, and is perhaps the aspect of the novel most remarked upon by readers.

Marra’s Motto: "A thousand words a day."

Harness The Power Of Community

Sara Kaplan was 320 pounds when she realized she was eating herself to death in front of her children. She decided that if she was going to make a change, it wasn’t going to be just about losing weight, but rather transforming her relationship to how she loved herself. In the process of sharing photos of her progress along with the stories of her ups and downs online, Kaplan created an online community on Instagram and Facebook where she inspired others.

When we are working toward our goals, it is easy to feel alone on our path. It is inspiring to feel included, and a part of something. Even if people aren't a direct part of your goals, cultivating more relationships that support your efforts is extremely helpful. We all need people, so cultivating existing healthy relationships and releasing toxic ones will keep you motivated, connected, and supported. To keep it fun, I would make dates with friends to meet me to walk. This 6 a.m. walk and talk became a fun motivating daily activity. Realizing that the goal is to progress, not be perfect, is so encouraging.

Create Accountability

Kaplan found motivation in being accountable to others.

When I made myself vulnerable and told people about my goals and approach, I was more motivated to succeed. One of my personal lows was not believing my own word. I despised how I would not keep promises to myself, which left me feeling like I wouldn't want to be my own friend. Therefore, when I was creating my goals, I knew that I wanted to keep my feet to the fire. I imagined that people would support my efforts, if they were aware of my aspirations.

Plot Your Goals And Throw A Party

Like Marra, Kaplan’s approach to staying motivated consists of creating measurable steps. "I knew that I was going to break my yearlong self-love journey into four-month increments," she says. Creating small goals along the way, and celebrating each milestone also keeps you motivated. "I created a ruckus and threw myself a party at every milestone, because my efforts and my life are worth it," Kaplan explains.

Kaplan’s motto: "Progress not perfection."

Trusting Your Vision

Stephanie Bernstein launched her company, To-Go Ware (which was sold to Chico Bags in 2015), with a social mission to end the production of single-use plastics. Her aha moment came when she visited an ice cream shop in college, and was served a plastic cup without being asked if it was to-go. It was at the beginning of the awareness of how plastics were creating harm to the oceans and to the planet, and she wanted to provide a solution. Seven years later, she launched a company that would provide a travel kit so people could avoid disposables.

"We had our share of problems that businesses go through, cash flow problems, inventory issues," explains Bernstein. Like Kaplan, Bernstein sourced her motivation from community, but also through her own faith.

I really believed in our mission, and I had to trust that the idea came to me for a reason. I also didn’t want to let people down. A strong community had formed around it on social media and in the sustainability movement; those peers kept me going. There were other companies I called our ‘coopertition,’ those with whom we could collectively push the movement ahead with a variety of products while working and collaborating with each other. It really helped to have other like-minded peers that then became friends. The practical side of running a business kept me focused, I didn’t want to let down the shareholders, and I was putting food on my employee’s table. I was also motivated by the love of entrepreneurship and the thrill that came with finding the next innovation that serves a greater purpose. Even when we were broke, that kept me motivated.

Make The Most Of Opportunities

Bernstein was having a difficult time finding financing when one of Oprah Winfrey’s producers called with a request to feature to-go ware on their earth day show.

We were in a pit. We were desperately in need of capital, and I wasn’t sure if we were going to be able to keep operating. Then out of nowhere, we got a call from Oprah’s producer. It felt like an angel came and kissed me on the forehead. I wanted to figure out how I could make the most of the opportunity, so we offered a 20% discount coupon. As a result, we received a special mention on air. We received so much traffic we couldn’t keep the website up. The dollars came rolling in which was great, and that segment really helped to lend legitimacy to our business and the category of reusables. It led to our doing a Series A round of investment the next year. You have to make the most of the opportunities when they come.

Bernstein’s motto: Make the most of every situation.

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