Woman staying focused and motivated on task

Has your workout willpower started to wane? Is your quest to learn something new rapidly slipping to the bottom of your to-do list? Then check out our expert advice on how to stay focused and motivated. 

Have you ever started a project full of enthusiasm only to quickly lose interest? Perhaps it’s a new fitness regime but after just two weeks you can see yourself slipping back your old habits? 

The good news is that you are not alone, with psychologists agreeing that to create a habit you need to repeat the action frequently over a period of time (maybe even months). The even better news is that there are ways to hack your brain and neural pathways that will help you rediscover your willpower.

Step 1: Work out what really matters to you

If you’re struggling to stick with a goal, try to remember what motivated you to set it in the first place and drill down to the emotional driver behind your decision. 

If you decided to pick up piano lessons for the first time in years, for example, really think about why you wanted to do that. Was it to give you some time just for you, the chance to zone out and focus on something creative or the fulfilment of mastering something new? 

If you decided you wanted to start a new fitness regime, the same rule applies. What drove that decision: a desire to feel stronger and healthier; to take time for you and your mental health; to feel more energised – or all of those reasons?

The thinking here is that if you can tap into what matters to you personally (known as intrinsic motivation), rather than trying to meet goals for other people (extrinsic motivation), then you are much more likely to be able to harness your resolve and make a lasting change. 

Step 2: Set clear goals

Telling yourself to ‘eat well’ or ‘start running’ isn’t enough, says psychologist Linda Blair, so she recommends making goals that are measurable. For instance, it’s more helpful to decide to walk 10,000 steps a day instead of to vaguely ‘get fitter’ and to take a moment as soon as you wake to map out on paper how you’ll fit this into your day. Having a defined goal in sight helps us to stay motivated and see the results as they happen.

Step 3: Enlist support

Starting and sticking with a new habit is easier if you have encouragement. Join an online group, or tell your partner or close family and friends. This makes staying motivated much easier to sustain and helps you stay on track because it gives you accountability. The thinking behind this is that now you’ve enlisted support and roped in other people, it will make it harder to for you to skip out on whatever you are focused on.

Step 4: Savour the small moments

The smell of coffee, the feel of the warm shower on your back, the birds singing outside… It might sound cheesy but by giving your brain a chance to notice and process small pleasures, levels of the feel good hormone serotonin are boosted, mood is elevated and focus and energy stores are increased, says Professor Lea Waters, positive psychology expert at the University of Melbourne. 

Step 5: Switch focus

Service to others has a powerful effect on how we feel about ourselves. Research by US psychologist Richard J. Davidson has suggested that when we do things for others, neural pathways that boost wellbeing are activated in the brain, and we are more likely to be able to mobilise energy and overcome obstacles to reaching our goals. Within the constraints of social distancing, donating food or money to local food banks, leaving thank you notes for your local key workers like the postman and refuse collectors, or ordering a meal to be delivered to a neighbour who is shielding, are all great ways to serve your community. 

Step 6: Don’t give up

Consistent practice strengthens a behaviour and makes it habitual. In a study by University College London, researchers found that it can take from 18 to 254 days for a behaviour to become a habit, with an average of 66 days.

If you skip a session or have a duvet day, don’t worry: building better habits is not an all-or-nothing process; the UCL study found that the odd missed session didn’t make any difference to the end result. If you slip up, simply resume. It takes time and practice to make a habit stick, so don’t be too tough on yourself. 

Want to turn your ‘failures’ into successes? We have some advice on how you can turn those set-backs around and focus on the positives moving forward.