Why we lose motivation (and how to get it back)

Have you ever had trouble getting motivated (even to do something you actually enjoy doing)? If so, then I think you’ll be able to relate to this (and find some helpful tips for getting and staying motivated).

Today I went on my first legit trail run in three years!

And by legit, I don’t mean anything related to my running performance or form, because those were as unimpressive as ever (despite being a runner for over 15 years, I’m still a terrible runner . . . not quite like Phoebe on Friends, but not far from it).

By legit trail run, I mean on a real dirt trail . . . with rocks and roots to dodge . . . through the woods and surrounded by trees . . . where you can almost forget you’re in the middle of a big city . . . with no music playing or bicycles speeding by or fumes from cars choking you . . . where you know you were the first person on that trail today because you run into one spider web after another (even my least favorite things about trail running were endearing and nostalgic today!) . . . and where you can feel connected to nature and maybe even see some wildlife (today I saw two squirrels and a bird that wasn’t a pigeon and I was ecstatic!).

You see, before moving from Georgia to Dallas a little over three years ago, I was a trail runner. I was lucky to have amazing wooded trails within ten minutes of my house, and while my running was nothing to write home about, I was consistent and generally ran three to four times a week.

It was exercise for me, of course, but it was so much more . . . that’s where I would commune and connect with nature (which is so important to my emotional and spiritual wellbeing), enjoy either quiet time to myself or time with running friends, and clear my head, relieve stress, allow my thoughts to run free and be inspired.

It was an important part of my overall health and wellbeing, and also part of my identity.

When we moved to Dallas, I searched high and low for running trails like the ones back home, but the trails here are mostly paved (which doesn’t count as a trail in my book), and the only dirt trails I could find were either deemed too “unsafe” by my then-fiance, were too far away to be practical, or were primarily mountain biking trails — and dodging fast-moving two-wheeled vehicles doesn’t exactly make for a relaxing or pleasurable run.

So my quest for running trails eventually fizzled out, and since I don’t enjoy road running (especially in the Texas heat!), I just started adding in other exercise to my routine to make up for the running.

From a health standpoint this was fine, but from a wellness standpoint, it was really detrimental to my overall wellbeing. It felt like a little piece of my soul was being lost.

So when we moved out to White Rock Lake this summer, I figured this might be my chance to become a trail runner again. I searched and asked and, with the help of some kind people on NextDoor, I found some legit trails!

I couldn’t wait to go scout them out and plan my grand return to trail running!

Well, that was about two months ago and it wasn’t until today that I actually went back and did a run.

As I was out there running today, I felt like a part of my spirit awakened after lying dormant for a long time. I was reminded how much I love trail running and how exhilarating and restorative it is for my body, mind and spirit.

And while I was running, I was pondering this . . . why is it that, despite missing something so much and longing for it so desperately, I waited two months after finding it to actually take advantage of it??


The only answer I could come up with is this . . . Inertia.

The series of steps before, during, and after a trail run used to be second nature to me . . . packing up my clothes and water bottle and taking them to work, changing at the trails, lacing up my running shoes, hitting the trail, stretching after my run, driving home all sweaty and gross, throwing my sweaty running clothes in the laundry, hitting the shower, and then packing up clothes for the next day and doing it all over again.

It was a habit and it had become a part of my life. There wasn’t really a question of will I go for a run or not, it was just like, it’s Tuesday so it’s my running day. Now that’s not to say I never slacked off or skipped a run, but if I did it was easy to get right back to it.

But it’s been a long time since I’ve done all that, and when I would think of going for a trail run on my newly discovered trails, I would think about all the steps involved to get myself up off the sofa and onto the trail . . . and it was just so much easier to do my workout at home or stay on the sofa and watch the next episode of Stranger Things.

But beyond all that, I think I’d lost the memory of the “feeling” I get while running and being out on the trail, plus how good I feel afterward.

I was so disconnected from it that I couldn’t conjure up that feeling, and since so much of motivation is rooted in emotion, it’s like I’d lost the fuel to my fire.  

So what finally got me out on the trail today? Honestly, I think it was another emotion . . . guilt.

That sounded ridiculous even as I was typing it, but I seriously think that’s what it was. After searching all that time for some trails to run, complaining bitterly about it, pouting, and basically mourning the loss of them (just ask my husband), I finally found them and it just felt wrong that I wasn’t taking advantage of it. It felt ungrateful and unappreciative of this gift the Universe had brought back into my life.

Now, I don’t recommend using guilt as a motivator. It may have (unintentionally) worked for me today, but generally I don’t think it’s healthy for our psyches to motivate ourselves with guilt. In the end it just makes us feel bad ourselves.

So what I learned from all this reflecting is this . . .

Tips for staying motivated 

  • Inertia is a sneaky and dangerous enemy that will really hurt your wellness and wellbeing if you let it, and it’s something that needs to be diligently guarded against.
  • The more you can incorporate the things that are good for you and make you happy into your lifestyle, and make them habits and part of your routine, the more likely you are to keep them up. And the easier it’ll be to go back to them when you fall off the wagon (which happens to all of us!).
  • Anchoring your healthy habits to a positive emotion, and being able to recall that emotion when you’re wavering, might just be the secret to staying motivated. Emotion is a powerful tool, so use it to your advantage!

How to overcome inertia & get your motivation back 

Remove as many obstacles as possible. For example, if your goal is to work out in the mornings before work, make it as easy as possible for yourself in the morning by doing things like laying out your workout clothes the night before, plan the workout you’ll be doing so you’ll be prepared and ready to get to it, etc.

If you know that talking to your best friend every week makes you so happy but you’ve somehow gotten out of the habit of calling, schedule time for it in your calendar with a reminder.

If journaling makes you feel more peaceful and less stressed but you find yourself resisting it, keep your journal and pen by your bed so it’s easy to access and there as a reminder.

Make it fun. Using the same examples above, maybe you could buy yourself some cute new workout clothes to help get you excited about your morning workout.

When it’s time to have a phone chat with your bestie, fix yourself a cup of coffee or glass of wine and make it feel like a fun coffee/wine date, even though you might be miles away.

For journaling (this is the nerd coming out in me!), go buy yourself a pretty new journal or some fun new colored pens.

Use successive approximations. Ahh . . .  a throwback to my days as a psychology major. This basically just means taking baby steps or easing into the desired behavior.

Instead of doing a full-on workout in the morning, just get up and do some easy stretching or a short yoga routine. When you get to the point that this feels easy and starts to become a habit, then you can add some more exercises or progress to a shorter version of the workout you eventually want to be doing in the mornings.

Or if actually getting out of bed in time is the culprit, just start by getting up earlier for a few days without the workout, to ease yourself into creating a new morning routine.

If you’re having trouble finding time to call your friend, make it a point to at least send a text message or short email, or even a picture of something that’s happening with you that you think she’d appreciate.

If pouring out your soul onto your journal pages just feels like too much, try a “light” version of journaling, like list making. One super easy + quick + super beneficial journal practice is keeping a gratitude journal. It’s as easy as taking a minute each night (or whenever) to write down three things (or pick a number) that you’re grateful for that day.

Each little step (aka “successive approximation”) builds on itself, creates momentum, and eventually turns into you doing the thing you were wanting to do . . . and doing it consistently.

Get a partner in crime. Whether it’s a good friend, your partner, or a relative, tell someone what it is that you’re wanting to do but have been resisting.

Make a plan and tell them about it. It’s amazing how just knowing that someone else knows you’ve committed to something can help you follow through when you’re bitten by the inertia bug. Or if it’s something you could do together, enlist someone to do it with you (like exercising in the morning).

So those are a few ideas that I hope will help you break out of inertia and get motivated again, but I’d love to know . . . what have you tried that has worked for you?

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  1. Good Morning! I saw your website on my Facebook and thought I would look to see what you’re up to these days. I like it. I read what you had to say about motivation and I totally get it. Really making time to even think about those things I love to do and the emotions behind it get lost in my busy world. But to be honest, it’s not that I don’t have time to bring more wellness to my life but making it a priority is my problem. I like what you had to say about successive approximations (even though I don’t remember that in my psychology classes) baby steps. I think I usually create these huge goals instead of breaking it down into manageable steps, where I can measure success. I’m doing a leadership class right now and we talked about goal setting, making them SMART goals, and creating small steps with deadlines. Normally my donkey comes out,but believe it or not it sounded appealing to me. I think it’s because I am having success with goal setting in another area in my life, I see the value in it. I’ll read the goal setting part of your website tonight and see what you have to say on that topic. Nice to see you are doing well.

    1. Hi Carmen! It’s so good to hear from you and I’m sorry that I’m just seeing this (I’m supposed to get an email notification when someone leaves a comment, but apparently that is not working). I’m so glad you found my site and especially glad that you found this post helpful — that makes me happy!! I know what you mean, making wellness a priority can be challenging when all the everyday things get in the way. I love that you’re controlling your “inner donkey” (hehe…such a funny memory) and that you’re finding goal setting to be a useful tool. That’s awesome! Like you, I have the tendency to set goals that are huge and then hard to make progress on (which leaves me feeling discouraged and frustrated). The baby steps really help, and another little trick is to commit to setting aside just 15 minutes a day to focus on the goal you’re working toward. 15 minutes doesn’t seem like much, but it can really add up! Let me know how the goal-setting guide works for you, and I’m always here for you if you need some help with it (I owe you for all those years of free counseling ;). I’m really glad to hear from you and to know that you’re doing well. 🙂