Before we throw in the towel, let's reframe how we view our effort, progress, and goals.

The forces of motivation are such a mystery to me. Some days I wake up raring to start that new project—I’m going to declutter the house, say. If the motivation lasted, I’d be a domestic goddess. But more often than not, that initial burst of enthusiasm gives way to a feeling of overwhelm, quickly followed by despair. It hardly seems worth it, anymore, tackling those impossible junk drawers, and I resolve to just get used to my chaotic house. It’s never going to change.

If I could tap back into that motivation, if I knew where my brain kept it and how to get at it when I need it, my life would look so different.

Have you ever thought about what your life would look like if you didn’t get dragged under by overwhelm and despair?

Monitoring motivation

I found some answers in a new book by twin sisters Emily and Amelia Nagoski. Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, in addition to chronicling the many causes of burnout for women, includes an amazing discussion about the part of our brains that’s responsible for either helping us stay motivated, or flipping the switch, and saying, “Enough of this; it’s time to give up.”

The technical name for this mechanism of our brain is the “discrepancy-reducing/increasing feedback loop,” but the Nagoski sisters call it “the Monitor.”

The Monitor has a crucial job. It keeps track of how much energy you’re expending toward your goal and measures that against how much actual progress you’re making toward your goal. When the discrepancy between energy and progress gets too big, the Monitor starts wondering whether it’s even worth it. You’re spinning your wheels, and not getting anywhere—and your brain is very interested in making sure the energy it expends is used wisely. It’s not in infinite supply, after all.

When it becomes clear to your brain that you’re pouring all your emotional and mental resources into a bottomless pit, it pulls the plug on motivation. That’s when you throw up your hands and quit. You no longer believe that “just trying harder” is going to get you anywhere.

This is good news, actually. With this knowledge, now we know how we get burnt out. Now it makes sense why, at some point, the sheer force of willpower alone stops working. With this knowledge, we can learn how to hack the system.

Stopping the overwhelm loop

Since the Monitor tracks our effort, our progress, and our goal, we can make tweaks to each of those categories to help convince our brains that our effort is worthwhile, our progress is reasonable, and our goal is attainable.

Effort: Maybe you just need to change the type of effort you’re putting into your goal. If you’re sprinting when you ought to be pacing yourself, there’s nothing wrong with the finish line; the problem is how you’ve decided you’re going to get there. That cliché about working “smarter, not harder” is kind of true, here. I think of this every time I sit down to write in a noisy coffee shop, instead of forgoing the exciting pastry and finding a quiet corner of the library to work in. I’m writing, but my efforts go a lot farther in the right environment.

Progress: Did you expect to be breezing through this project in an afternoon? Maybe your slogging, incremental progress is actually a more realistic pace, and the real problem is your expectations. If your brain is expecting you to make progress at the speed of light, it’s not going to think that your effort is worthwhile, when it compares where you are to where it thought you should be by now. If you can adjust your expectations, even to the point of having slightly lower expectations that you can probably meet, the Monitor will feel a lot happier about your progress, and you shouldn’t get frustrated so easily.

Another thing you can try is something the Nagoski sisters call “positive reappraisal.” They don’t mean just looking on the bright side. Positive reappraisal is when you remind yourself that your infuriatingly slow progress is actually worth it, because your goal is just that great.

Goal: Sometimes, you just set your goal too high, and you need to change your definition of success. Amelia Nagoski is a choral director, and her group was trying to make a CD. They needed their song to be perfect. So there they were, in the studio for hours, going over and over the same piece, getting more frustrated by the second. Amelia changed the goal. She told them, “The goal, with each take, is to fill Andrew with joy.” Andrew was the recording engineer behind the window, and everybody liked him. He wanted them to get it just right, but he also loved to see them trying their hardest. And when it did get hard, they could still see his joy—they knew that they were still succeeding.

In addition to these tips, one more way to salvage motivation is to change your definition of failure. This is a big one for a lot of us perfectionists. If you feel like you’ve failed, ask yourself: have you really failed, or have you just hit a speed bump? Is there anything good to be found in your failure that makes it worthwhile? Maybe I didn’t declutter the whole house, but I did actually make that one junk drawer into less of a mess. If I’m not busy beating myself up for not doing it all, I might just find the motivation to do one more drawer.