9 Secrets of Motivated People

Real-life strategies that will help you to actually accomplish the goals you’ve set for yourself this year.

Photo by  Dan Winters

New year, new you. It’s the perennial January catchphrase that holds such conquer-the-world promise. And then, well, you get sidetracked with conquering your to-do list. But even the loftiest resolutions (running a marathon, writing a book) don’t have to fall by the wayside come February. Staying motivated―and achieving what you set out to do on that bright New Year’s Day―is surprisingly possible. Just follow these nine mantras, provided by researchers who study motivation and backed up by women who have used them to realize their biggest ambitions.

1. When you make a plan, anticipate bumps. Before even trying to achieve a goal, target potential pitfalls and troubleshoot them. Peter Gollwitzer, a professor of psychology at New York University, in New York City, says that people who plan for obstacles are more likely to stick with projects than those who don’t. In a 2009 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Gollwitzer compared two groups of women who wanted to be more active. Both groups were given information on leading healthy lifestyles. But the second was also taught how to foresee obstacles (example: “The weather forecast is bad, but I’m planning to go for a jog”) and work around them using if-then statements (“If it rains, then I’ll go to the gym and use the treadmill rather than skip exercising altogether”). No surprise, those in the second group fared better. Michelle Tillis Lederman of New York City practiced this strategy when she was writing a book last year. She installed blinds on her home-office door to minimize disruptions and hired an editor to give feedback on each chapter so she wouldn’t get stuck along the way. She also established rules, like checking e-mails only after she had written for two hours. “It was easier to follow this plan,” says Lederman, “than to wrestle with every distraction in the moment.” Her book, The 11 Laws of Likability (American Management Association), will be published later this year.

2. Channel the little engine that couldreally. A person’s drive is often based on what she believes about her abilities, not on how objectively talented she is, according to research by Albert Bandura, a professor of psychology at Stanford University. His work has shown that people who have perceived self-efficacy (that is, the belief that they can accomplish what they set out to do) perform better than those who don’t. That self-belief is what helped Ingrid Daniels of Newark, New Jersey, leave a stable corporate job to develop a T-shirt line after the birth of her first child. “It never occurred to me I could fail, even though I had no experience,” she says. Today Daniels runs two successful small businesses (the T-shirt company and a line of stationery), which allows her to stay at home with her three children.


3. Don't let your goals run wild... When your sights are too ambitious, they can backfire, burn you out, and actually become demotivating, says Lisa Ordóñez, a professor of management and organizations at the Eller College of Management, at the University of Arizona, in Tucson. Instead of aiming unrealistically high (such as trying to save enough money for a down payment on a home in six months), set goals that are a stretch but not an overreach (come up with a doable savings plan for your budget).

...But work on them everyday. According to Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us ($27, amazon.com), taking small steps every day will not only help hold your interest in what you’re trying to achieve but will also ensure that you move slowly, but surely, toward your goal. So, for example, set up a down-payment-fund jar and dump your change into it every night. You’ll get a sense of accomplishment each day, to boot.

4. Go public with it. Instead of keeping your intentions to yourself, make them known to many. “Other people can help reinforce your behavior,” says James Fowler, a political scientist who studies social networks at the University of California, San Diego. After all, it’s harder to abandon a dream when you know that people are tracking your progress. Take Stefanie Samarripa of Dallas, 25, who wanted to lose 20 pounds. She created a blog and told all her friends to read it. “I wanted something to hold me accountable,” she says. Samarripa weighs herself weekly and announces the result on Desperately Seeking Skinny (skinnystefsam.blogspot.com). During her first three weeks, she lost six pounds. “People read my updates and make comments, which helps me keep going,” she says.

5. Lean on a support crew when struggling. Think of the friends and family who truly want to see you succeed. Enlisting those with whom you have authentic relationships is key when your motivation begins to wane. Choose people who may have seen you fail in the past and who know how much success means to you, says Edward L. Deci, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, in New York. For Jane Arginteanu of New York City, support came in the form of her fiancé, Glenn. Arginteanu had smoked from the time she was a teenager and had tried to quit before. When she decided to give it another go, Arginteanu says, “Glenn stood by me and told me, without ever issuing an ultimatum, that he wanted to grow old with me. That was terrific motivation.” A year later, she’s smoke-free.


6. Make yourself a priority. Put your needs first, even when it feels utterly selfish. You will derail your progress if you sacrifice yourself for others in order to please them (such as eating a cupcake that a coworker baked even though you’re on a diet). A few years ago, Karen Holtgrefe of Cincinnati was at the bottom of her own priority list. “I had a demanding full-time job as a physical-therapy manager and was teaching physical therapy part-time,” she says. “Plus, I had a husband and two children to care for.” As a result, she found herself stressed-out, overweight, and suffering from constant backaches. “I hit a wall and realized I needed to make some changes for my sanity,” Holtgrefe says. So she quit the part-time teaching job, joined Weight Watchers, and scheduled nonnegotiable walks six days a week―just for her. In a year, she lost 85 pounds, and her back pain (and stress) disappeared.

7. Challenge yourselfand change things up. It’s hard to remain enthusiastic when everything stays the same, says Frank Busch, who has coached three Olympic swimming teams. To keep his athletes motivated, he constantly challenges and surprises them―adding a new exercise to a weight routine or giving them a break from one practice so they can recharge. Amy Litvak of Atlanta did the same thing. She had several half-marathons under her belt but wanted something new, so she signed up for a series of mini triathlons. “Each race was longer than the last or had a slightly different challenge,” she says. She breezed through them and is now training for a full marathon.

8. Keep on learning. To refuel your efforts, focus on enjoying the process of getting to the goal, rather than just eyeing the finish line. Janet Casson of Queens, New York, set out to teach yoga. She completed her training, but finding a position took longer than anticipated. So she wouldn’t lose steam and become discouraged, Casson used the time to perfect her skills. She attended workshops and studied with different teachers. “It was invigorating and kept me working toward my goal,” says Casson, who now teaches five classes a week.

9. Remember the deeper meaning. You’re more likely to realize a goal when it has true personal significance to you, according to Deci. (For example, “I want to learn to speak French so I can communicate with my Canadian relatives” is a more powerful reason than “I should learn French so that I can be a more cultured person.”) And when the process isn’t a pleasant one, it helps to recall that personal meaning. Not all dedicated gym-goers love working out, Deci points out, but because they have a deep desire to be healthy, they exercise week after week. Jennie Perez-Ray of Parsippany, New Jersey, is a good example of this. She was working full-time when she decided to get her master’s degree. However, she knew that pursuing that goal would mean spending less time with her friends and family. “But I was the first person in my family to get a degree, so it was very important to me,” Perez-Ray says. She kept this in mind every evening that she spent in the classroom. Although the sacrifices she made were hard, she reflects, “reaching my goal made it all worthwhile.”