Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist who specializes in helping clients deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.

“I’m just not motivated.”

That’s something I hear so often from my clients. Usually after we have had a discussion of why they aren’t following through on a change they want to make in their lives to better manage their chronic conditions and improve their quality of life. A change like watching what they eat. Upping their activity level. Or getting out and connecting with supportive people.

The awareness of how important their own self-care is usually seems to be there, along with all kinds of good intentions. But the motivation? Nope.

Ever felt unmotivated before? Frustrating, right?

Understanding motivation starts with how you define it

Let’s take a look at the meaning of the word motivation.

When I Googled the definition of motivation, this is what came up: “The general desire or willingness of someone to do something.” So . . . that leaves me with another thought about motivation. If you have the desire to do something, does that mean you’re motivated?

Well, kind of. But let’s take a look at that other word in the Google definition: willingness. That leads us to a second question: while you have the desire, are you also willing? As in, are you willing to do the work that’s required to make positive changes in your life?

Yes, that’s a hard question. But at the risk of sounding confrontational, it’s a question I have learned to ask my clients when they say they aren’t motivated, because that’s what motivation comes down to. Willingness to do the work.

My quibble with the Google definition of motivation is that, from my experience, being motivated requires desire and willingness to do something.

So . . . do we need to stop worrying about whether we are motivated or not? Or do we need to motivate ourselves?

The answer is both. Here’s how to do it:

Waiting to “feel” motivated can be an excuse not to take action. We often use expressions like “I don’t feel like it” or “I’m not feeling it.” Sure, it’s important to be aware of our feelings and to express them as they come up. But when it comes to managing our lives, we also have to use our rational minds to evaluate our needs and our options, and to make decisions that benefit us. So don’t wait to feel like doing what your rational mind tells you that you need to do. Decide to take positive action whether you’re feeling it or not. Let the feelings catch up.

Visualize a goal. If you’re looking for something to motivate you, then there’s nothing like a good goal to give you a reason to take action. Your goal can be something from within, like having more energy, feeling better about yourself, or being more confident about the future. Or your goal can be something that will be validated by others, such as watching your doctor or family react when you have improved test results, having them notice that you look or act like you’re doing better, or taking part in an activity that you had trouble with or avoided in the past. Hang onto that goal when your willingness to press forward is temporarily on the wane.

Get support. Let people who care about you know what you’re up to in your life, what you are doing to take care of yourself, and the struggles you are facing to stay on the road. Have people around you who are willing to let you vent when you need to, who can listen without judging you. Tell them what they can do to help you keep going.

Add some accountability. Checking in with your support network, and asking them to check in with you, can help keep you “honest” and encouraged, especially when you have daily tasks that you have to stay on top of. Sure, it’s important to manufacture your own motivation. But help here and there, along with a little tough love, can’t hurt.

Watch your self-talk. This goes back to cultivating desire and willingness, the essential ingredients of motivation. Be you own coach. Remind yourself of how important it is to manage your chronic condition. Review your progress toward your goals. Give yourself daily encouragement. And don’t indulge that voice of criticism and self-doubt that wants to sound off when the road is especially rough.

Remember your desire to take the best care of yourself. And your willingness to do what it takes. That’s motivation! Don’t wait for it to come to you. Seize it! And then take action!

What helps motivate you to achieve your health goals? Share your tips with our community by commenting below.