At some point in every long project, you’ll hit a motivational rock-bottom. A bad day, week, or month where you don’t feel like doing any work. You’ve been writing, coding and working for months and the initial enthusiasm that got you started is gone. Now you’re left staring at your computer screen blankly, as doubts fill your mind about whether you’ll ever get finished.
It doesn’t need to be this way.
Staying motivated on big projects isn’t easy. I’ve worked on several large project without any pressure from a boss or team leader. Some of these projects were a year or more. While working on personal projects (and finishing them) can be incredibly satisfying, it means that motivating yourself is even tougher. After all, nobody is going to fire you if you stop.
But if you want to write a book, start a business or release a piece of software, you need to get the motivation to finish. Unfortunately, I’ve found most of the pump-up motivation techniques are lacking. These can be great when you have a twenty minute performance, but they often die out over weeks and months.
Staying Motivated Means Avoiding Motivation
The best way to stay motivated is to not need motivation in the first place. If you’re constantly needing all your emotional cylinders to be driving at full force to get work done, you’re going to get stuck in long projects. Finishing multi-month efforts means you need to build a baseline.
A baseline is your default level of activity. Although you may do more work than your baseline (and occasionally less), the baseline is your average. It is what gets finished automatically, without whipping yourself into a productive frenzy.
People who finish long projects don’t necessarily have more motivation. But they do have a higher baseline. The amount they do with zero motivation is high enough, that they don’t need to be pumped up every day to stay productive. They can have moments of doubt or disinterest, and they still get work done.
Building a Baseline
Whenever I start a long project, I try to identify what the baseline needs to be to reach the end. If I want to finish writing a book in four months, that might mean writing 1000 words a day. When I had done work on software projects, I would break the entire program into stages and figure out the bare minimum that needed to be accomplished and still finish on schedule.
Once you’ve figured out what the baseline needs to be, you need to make that your default. One way you can do this is establishing a regular level of output. With continuous projects like blogging, this is easy. All you need to do is figure out your posting levels and stick to a schedule.
With complex projects, you may want to define your output in terms of a weekly to-do list which equals roughly a certain amount of productive work. Don’t define your output in terms of hours, that’s just a recipe to procrastinate while watching the clock tick away the day.
Forget Olympic feats of productivity. Just try to get the baseline established. Set it at something that is doable, even if your workweek isn’t perfect, but still large enough to accomplish something meaningful.
Creating a Baseline Through Habits
Another way to build a baseline is by setting up habits that encourage productivity. Waking up early, sticking to a regular work schedule, keeping a daily to-do list or giving up television are all examples of productive habits. Installing habits can be an indirect way to create a baseline level of productivity.
You can set up a new habit by committing to changing it for thirty days. I don’t suggest habit-building as a measure for individual projects, because the process can take too long. If you need 4-5 habits to ensure a baseline, that requires at least 4-5 months of commitment. However, you can use habits to create a general baseline you can use for every project you start.
Restarting the Motivation
With a solid baseline, constant motivation isn’t a requirement to finish projects. But if you combine a high baseline with the ability to restart your motivation, it’s much easier to avoid the motivational traps you can fall into after months of work.
Ignore the Carrot and Stick
People, as a rule, tend to be motivated by rewards and punishment. I feel a lot better after hearing a glowing review of something I’ve written than reading a piece of hate mail. But just because carrots and sticks are universally motivating, doesn’t mean they are the best way to stay motivated in long projects.
A better way to stay motivated is to create a clear picture of what you want the project to accomplish. Create that clear picture, and write down the specifics. Then, when you lose motivation, return to that starting point and re-examine the reasons you got started. It’s better to use your long-term vision to motivate you forward than short-term feedback. Feedback is fickle, so you need to anchor yourself to a long-range plan.
Some days I’ll get great feedback from this website. Some days I’ll get criticism. But I try not to think of either of those when staying motivated to write for this website and constantly improve. Instead, I think of my long-term vision for living entirely off of a web-based business, reaching thousands of people and making something that inspires me.
The best way to stay motivated is not to try. Build a baseline so work happens without constant willpower. Then, regularly refresh your reasons for starting a project. Those should be enough to overcome a temporary lack of encouragement. Staying motivated for months and years isn’t easy, but if you’re smart you can avoid the crashes that plague most projects.