How to Get Motivated When You Don’t Feel Like It

You’ve probably noticed that it’s hard to be motivated all the time.

No matter what you are working on, there are bound to be days when you don’t feel like showing up. There will be workouts that you don’t feel like starting. There will be reports that you don’t feel like writing. There will be responsibilities that you don’t feel like handling. And there will be “off days” when your energy and emotions are in the gutter.

These fluctuations are part of life, and I face these motivational challenges just as much as the next person. However, for the important things in my life, I’ve also developed a system for dealing with these “off days.”

Let’s talk about that system and how it can help you perform well even when you’re not feeling motivated.

What Baseball Can Teach You About Getting Motivated

I played baseball for 17 years, mostly as a pitcher. During my final season, I had a pretty good year. I was selected to the All–Conference team, I was chosen as the top male athlete at my university, and I was named to ESPN’s Academic All–America team.

But it wasn’t always that way…

Just a few years earlier, I was the only junior to be cut from my high school varsity baseball team. I played on the JV squad with all of the sophomores and didn’t make the varsity team until my senior year … when I threw a whopping 11 innings all season.

There are dozens of reasons for my transformation from high school through college (great teammates, coaching, work ethic, and so on), but there is one thing that I learned to do in college that I wish I had learned much earlier…

I developed a pre–game routine that allowed me to perform well, regardless of whether I was motivated or not.

How You Can Use a Pre–Game Routine to Get Motivated

One thing that makes baseball different from most other sports is the sheer number of games that are played. Major League Baseball teams play 162 games in a season — twice as many as the NBA and ten times as many games as the NFL. Even high school baseball players will routinely play 40 to 60 games each year.

With so many games, there will always be days when you don’t feel motivated, when your body is tired, or you’re just not mentally “up” for the game. In that way, I’d say that baseball is a lot like life. There will always be days when the things that are important to you feel like a grind.

But the game is going to be played whether you feel like playing or not, so you better figure out a solution to overcoming your lackluster emotions. I did this by developing a pre–game routine that would automatically pull me out of a funk and push me over that threshold to perform well.

Here’s what my pre–game routine looked like…

Grab a baseball and my glove. Jog out to the outfield foul pole. Jog across along the outfield wall. Stop at the opposite foul pole. Stretch hips and hamstrings. Jog back along the outfield wall. Toss lightly, working back to 75 feet or so. Head to the bullpen. Stand one step behind the mound and toss three or four times from there to the catcher. Step up onto the mound. Toss a few pitches without going into the full windup. Start throwing from the windup for 10 pitches or so. Throw from the stretch for 10 pitches or so. Finish with one of each pitch (change up, curveball, fastball in, fastball out). Walk to the dugout.

That whole sequence usually took 20 to 25 minutes and I did it the same way every single time.

While this routine physically warmed me up to play, it also — and perhaps more importantly — put me in the correct mental state to compete at a high level. Even if I wasn’t feeling up for the game at the beginning, by the time I finished my pre–game routine, I was in “game mode.”

In other words, it didn’t matter if I came to the ballpark motivated to play. My pre–game routine started a cascade of internal events that pulled me into the right frame of mind and made it more likely that I would succeed.

Imagine if you had a routine that could pull you into “exercise mode” or “work mode”, no matter how little motivation you had at the start.

If you look at top performers in any field, you’ll see similar patterns all over the place. NBA players who do the same thing before every free throw shot. Comedians who recite the same words before they step onto stage. Corporate executives who follow the same meditation sequence every morning.

Do you think these people always feel motivated? No way. There are some days when the most talented people in the world wake up feeling like sluggish lard bombs.

But they use their pre–game routines to pull them into the right mental state, regardless of how they feel. You can use this same process to overcome your motivation threshold and consistently exercise, study, write, speak, or perform any other task that is important to you.

Here’s how to do it…

How to Get Motivated: 3 Steps For Developing Your Routine

Step 1: A good pre–game routine starts by being so easy that you can’t say no to it. You shouldn’t need motivation to start your pre–game routine.

For example…

  • My writing routine starts by getting a glass of water. So easy, I can’t say no.
  • My weightlifting routine starts by putting on my lifting shoes. So easy, I can’t say no.
  • My pitching routine started by picking up a baseball and my glove. So easy, I couldn’t say no. (Also, my coach would have yelled at me.)

The most important part of any task is starting. If you can’t get motivated in the beginning, then you’ll find that motivation often comes after starting. That’s why your pre–game routine needs to be incredibly easy to start.

For example, you could create an exercise routine that starts with filling up your water bottle. That way, when you don’t feel like working out, you can simply tell yourself, “Just fill up the water bottle.” Your only goal is to start the routine and then continue from there.

For more about the importance of getting started, read this.

Step 2: Your routine should get you moving towards the end goal.

Most of the time, your routine should include physical movement. It’s hard to think yourself into getting motivated.

Here’s why…

What is your body language like when you’re feeling unmotivated or lacking energy?

Answer: You’re not moving very much. Maybe you’re slumped over like a blob, slowly melting into the couch. This lack of physical movement is directly linked to a lack of mental energy.

The opposite is also true. If you’re physically moving and engaged, then it’s far more likely that you’ll feel mentally engaged and energized. For example, it’s almost impossible to not feel vibrant, awake, and energized when you’re dancing.

While your routine should be as easy as possible to start, it should gradually transition into more and more physical movement. Your mind and your motivation will follow your physical movement.

Related: physical movement doesn’t have to mean exercise. For example, if your goal is to write, then your routine should bring you closer to the physical act of writing.

Step 3: You need to follow the same pattern every single time.

The primary purpose of your pre–game routine is to create a series of events that you always perform before doing a specific task. Your pre–game routine tells your mind, “This is what happens before I do ___.”

Eventually, this routine becomes so tied to your performance that by simply doing the routine, you are pulled into a mental state that is primed to perform. You don’t need motivation, you just need to start your routine.

If you remember the article on the 3 R’s of Habit Change, then you may realize that your pre–game routine is basically creating a “reminder” for yourself. Your pre–game routine is the trigger that kickstarts your habit, even if you’re not motivated to do it.

This is important because when you don’t feel motivated, it’s often too much work to figure out what you should do next. When faced with another decision, you will often decide to just quit. However, the pre–game routine solves that problem because you know exactly what to do next. There’s no debating or decision making. You just follow the pattern.

How to Get Motivated: Make Excellence a Routine

You can train yourself for success just as well as you can train for failure.

Today you may be saying, “I need to be motivated to get anything done,” but I guarantee that it doesn’t have to be that way. If you’ve taught yourself to believe certain limitations, then you can also teach yourself to break through them.

The patterns that you repeat on a daily basis will eventually form the identity that you believe in and the actions that you take. You can transform your identity and become the type of person who doesn’t need motivation to perform well.

This is why it’s so critical to do your pre–game routine every time, not just when you’re struggling with a lack of motivation. These small behaviors reinforce your good habits and the feelings that come with them. Pretty soon, your pre–game routine will not only be a trigger that kickstarts your habit, but also a reminder of what you’re working towards and the type of person you are becoming.

This is the difference between approaching life as a professional or an amateur.

If you only work when you feel motivated, then you’ll never be consistent enough to become a pro. But if you build small routines and patterns that help you overcome the daily battles, then you’ll continue the slow march towards greatness even when it gets tough.

40 Comments

  1. Thanks for this James. I have days when I am a machine and get so much done but other days when it’s not early as good.

    I will be starting using this from tomorrow.

    Andy

    • Awesome. Glad to hear you found it useful, Andy. Be sure to stop back and let me know how it goes. I love hearing about what’s working and what isn’t.

      p.s. Thanks for reading! It’s great to have you here.

  2. Motivating yourself does in fact become easier when you establish a simple routine for yourself. In reflecting on my own marathon training, I have unconsciously developed my own way of not being able to say no – placing my alarm on top of my running shoes each morning. As you mention, these routines become habit.

    -JJ

    P.S. I’m sure those coaches missed out on one hell of an athlete/person your junior year

    • JJ — thanks my man! It’s great to have you as part of the community. And thanks for the kind words.

      p.s. Good luck with the marathon training. Keep grinding!

  3. “So easy I can’t say no”…Love it! I am still searching for the perfect pre-game routine for playing trombone daily. It changes every year or so. Usually I have the horn out already and I will start cleaning it (ha!). Whatever works! Great post!

  4. I have lots of trouble adhering to this. Especially in trying to make the transition of becoming an entrepreneur. You sometimes need to focus on momentum, and using these routines will get you to your end goals. Gread simple read, James.

    • Thanks Galo. And stick with it. Entrepreneurship is a roller coaster.

      p.s. Thanks for reading! I’m always happy to hear that you’re enjoying these articles and if I can help in anyway, just let me know.

  5. This is just what I needed today. For some reason or another I just couldn’t get going. So you know what I did? I picked up the phone and made the call. So easy, I couldn’t say no.

    • Love it! Thanks for reading, Jon. It’s great for me to hear about people putting these ideas into action.

      Keep working hard!

  6. Hi James!

    We often don’t recognize it, but a mini step that we do before the actual routine, can ignite the whole process!

    E.g., if I want to plan my week, I start by opening my planner! ;)

    Thanks for pointing it out!

  7. James, thank you so much for saying “lard bombs.” I believe that was the gem of the article. I also agree with what you’re saying. I termed my new year’s resolution the One Push-Up Challenge. Not 100 push-ups, not 43…just one! It’s because of what you’re saying about starting small. I can’t say no to just one push-up, and I’ll probably do more once I’m in position and blood is pumping.

    Great insights about the mental/physical connection too. I’ve found it useful to be able to trigger mental or physical reactions by using the other one.

    Mental to physical – While feeling lazy in bed one day, I imagined a tiger was running towards me and was going to eat me if I didn’t get up. It worked.

    Physical to mental – Whenever I exercise, writing comes much easier to me.

    The connection goes both ways! I think you started with Passive Panda, but you’ve got a great mind for personal development, James.

  8. Your words ring so true… I always start an exercise regime when I’m not feeling motivated by saying to myself “I’ll just do 10 minutes”. That’s usually all it takes to complete the whole 30-45min routine.

    • I’ve seen the same thing, Ella! The hardest part is getting yourself to start.

      p.s. Thanks for reading!

  9. Hey James… this (great!) article struck a chord with me as I had an awesome workout last Wednesday, which I posted about here:

    http://paulonfitness.wordpress.com/2013/03/08/training-log-awesome-bench-and-chinning-workout/

    I don’t quite know what happened, but somehow my mind was fully engaged that night and I literally blasted through my bench press. I think I lamented that I want EVERY workout to be just like that, and from reading this post, that goal might not be as far fetched as I thought!

    I was talking to a fellow blogger just tonight actually, and he “wished we could bottle-up those good days”. Better still, why not have those days “on tap”!

    I need to conceive and practice my pre-workout routine!

    • Paul — first, congrats on dominating your bench press! Keep up the good work my man.

      And yes, get to practicing that pre-workout routine. The same way, the same time, every time. Make it your own pattern and it will help get you in the right frame of mind every time you step into the gym.

  10. I agree that it is very important to keep motivation and to set right goals, especially in fitness. In order to move forward I need a lot of energy, and it is perfectly provided by military grade nutritionals. Their pre-workouts are awesome. They give me quick boost of energy and enhance my physical capacities. I am gaining muscle and strength and achieve all goals I have set.

    • Thanks for sharing, Lauren! It’s great to hear about your progress. Keep up the good work.

      p.s. Thanks for reading. It’s great to have you in our little community!

  11. This is a great article for anyone who is trying to find that eye-opening light.

    I am in court reporting school training to become a Stenographer and finding that determination to practice on your machine everyday is tough, especially when you have a bunch of other priorities. It really is about that first step, and before you know it, you’re practicing & time is flying by before your very eyes!

  12. James thank you so much for this great and inspirational article. I do have one question however — how can this be applied to entrepreneurship? I have some pretty hard time figuring out even a basic pre-game routine for starting a day as a leader of a small (20 people) company, there seems to be no clear sequence that gets me into the working mode, so I was wondering perhaps some samples could help me with that.
    Thank you so much!

  13. Greetings from Brazil! A Friend shared this article, and I found it very interesting! I do have some problems with lousy days! And yet, I might already practice this “pre game” routine, when I say a day has not started until the first cup of coffe… But I’ll work harder to create a better one, and not struggle in those days!
    Thank you, and congratulations on your text!

  14. Hi James,

    Stumbled onto this site through Lifehack (or some other productivity page, not too sure was simply looking for some inspiration).

    Have spent the last few hrs reading most of the articles you posted. Love your work , you seem to have honed your craft of efficiency and effectiveness to an art form.

    I love the methodical manner in which you present your systems of productivity, keep up the good work mate , looking forward to reading this site for more clever ideas you come up with.

    Cheer,
    TL

    • Thanks TL! I’m glad you have enjoyed what you have read so far. I’ll do my best to keep good ideas coming your way.

      • I read this article, thinking here goes another preacher of motivation, just more tips and clap trap, but no, it has hit the nail on the head.

        It’s simple, elegant, and one method that can stand on it’s own.
        Believe me I am sick of people telling me the top 10 or 20 tips to motivation. This is a good method, thanks for sharing James Clear!

        I look forward to trying.

  15. Dude. Someone in my Facebook newsfeed linked to your Seinfeld post, and I’ve spent the better part of the last three hours reading through your site.

    I need to stop, because at some point my Facebook friends are going to say “We get it, you like this guy’s site – now stop updating your status with his quotes!”

    But I keep running into advice that is either new, or is so clearly phrased that, this time, (I hope) it’s going to stick.

    So, thanks. Keep up the good work!

    • Thanks Adam! I’m glad you’re enjoying my work. I’ll do my best to keep good ideas coming your way. (And feel free to share on Facebook all you want!)

  16. This article is just fantastic. I had your blog emailed to me from one of my own followers that have come to my blog. I created my own blog about five years ago, as a place for me to show my family and friends digital scrapbooking pages I’d created. Two years ago, I turned that blog into a place where I gave what is called “wordart” (I give freebies) which I make for those that share my passion for photography. My blog is http://www.grands9creations.blogspot.com.

    Approximately three months ago I suffered a minor stroke, which I am LUCKY to say happened to me. You may be surprised to hear me say this, however, after my initial hospital stay I believe I came to understanding the full extent of living your life daily to the fullest.

    I have taken on brand new challenges that if someone would have told me even six months ago, I could finish “impossibilities” I’d only dreamed of. I’d have said, that’s what they are … just dreams.

    One week ago, on my 64th birthday I completed my first ever 5K. Not only did achieve this, is went after if with more determination that I would have believed possible. I have done some form of exercise for six weeks daily.

    This article spoke volumes to me. I have created that “pattern” you spoke of, creating a habit to make physical exercise enjoyable. I get up each day and I start my day with exercise of some type. I have that routine that you talk about. I choice what new “workout” outfit I am going to where, I fill my water bottle and strap it around my waist, I get my house key and place it around my neck and I get my ipod. It happens each and every single time!!! And, I didn’t even realize I was doing what your article suggests.

    Exercise has become something that I have never, never done on a regular basis my entire life. It was A CHORE I didn’t want to do, unless I needed to lose weight. Have I been on that “let’s lose weight, let’s regain weight” my entire life. Ofcourse, I have. But, you see … this time it is different. It is no longer important whether I lose weight or not (and I have only lost three pounds in the last six weeks), what is more important is to become stronger.

    My daughter, Angie now calls me “A BADASS” and that is just fine with me. I will take on life, the goods and the bads with gusto. Isn’t life just the greatest? And, God has helped make sure I spend the rest of my life living to the fullest of all my potentials. Even this old lady!!!

    I just love that I have found you.

    Hugs, Sue

  17. Thanks James for this nice Article. I just feel that internet and reading posts sometimes, keeps one in the loop, instead taking action. !! You shift from one post to another, just to look for motivation, and 2 hrs are gone.!! Its important to take action, even when you are not motivated!

  18. I’m seriously considering making reading one post about motivation every morning my get to work routine.

    Unlike other readables, you can’t really pretend it actually brought you something unless you do start moving.

  19. Hi James,

    Indeed a great tutorial. I have just started reading your articles and I am very pleased to tell you that they seriously get me going. I start my office work by reading one of your articles daily.

    But this article was a little confusing for me. I think I didn’t get the crux of it. Actually I am software developer by profession so I would be grateful to you if you could suggest me some tips for a good pre-game routine.

  20. Thanks James for this article, I am going to implement this. Ever since I started reading your articles on Entrepreneur.com I have been hooked. I wanted to let you know that your writing and content on habits and personal development is changing my life. I usually never finish through ebooks because there is usually a lot of fluff but your book “Transform Your Habits” is a gold mine! Thank you so much, keep up the great work, and the great habits!

  21. This is one of the most non-bullshit articles I have ever read in my Internet experience. Short, interesting and straight to the point. Love it. I am tired every single day (several reasons), but what I am most tired of is hurting my body over and over again. Every single one of my work-outs are tough, and though I love it afterwards, I dread the next one to come. Us athletes love pain (if you catch my drift), but there is a limit and I am closing in on mine. Now, my next project will be to find the perfect pre-routine that will get my blood pumping like before.

  22. Hi,

    I really liked your article. I am in the summer between my junior year and my senior year and I’m having trouble finding motivation to work towards my goals this summer. See, I want to play hockey in college (DIII women’s) and the last year alone I have somehow gotten myself a full scholarship to go to a boarding school to play and I went, but now that I’m home for the summer I feel so overwhelmed. I need to be so much better next year. I need to WOW people instead of just being good. I’m so terrified of what I have to do that I just can’t get started on a summer regimen. There’s so much pressure I’m getting from my parents and my family and I just don’t know what to do. My motivation that I used to have is gone. I don’t know what to do. I’m terrified.

    Do you have any words of encouragement?

    Thank you… :)

    M.E.

  23. I’m starting a website for my life coaching business, and I’m looking for articles to link to on my site under ‘Links and Resources’. Can I put a link to this article on it?

    • Eli — you are welcome to share and spread my work however you see fit. I appreciate the support. Good luck with your website!

  24. I used to have a lot of motivation when I was young. I lost it about 10 years ago. I’ve read your post, and I just feel like crying.

    Its seems so simple and obvious when I look back at those years, the only times I was actually able to stick with an idea is when I did the exact things you mentioned.

    I’ve really needed to read this. And it also came in the perfect moment. Thank you so much. :)