Staying motivated can be tough. Particularly if you’re in a freelance/contract role or even in outside sales, being able to set your own schedule is probably part of your dream. But it can also be the reason it’s hard to stay focused. Here are a couple tricks that have worked for me.

1. Give yourself something to look forward to tomorrow as a reward for an easy win.

I’m definitely not a morning person. If I had it my way I’d probably be up till 2-3am and sleep till 10am every day, and my being ready at 8am is merely a function of business. If you’re anything like me, the urge to roll over and forget about that first morning task is strong some mornings. This tip has two components.

First, I’ve found that putting something exciting in your schedule for the next day is a good remedy. If there’s a book I’ve really been meaning to read, for example, or maybe an album I’ve really wanted to listen to, I’ll tell myself that at 9:30 or so I’ll do that as long as a few important things get done straight away beforehand. This way as soon as I wake up it changes my outlook from “Ah crap… time to get up and deal with stuff” to something like “Oooh! Today is the day I can XYZ!”

Focus on opportunities, not obligations.

That willingness to climb out of bed and engage with my morning as a choice rather than an obligation is a good mindset, and tends to positively affect my outlook for the day. I’m happy to do the first round of tasks because it means getting to that thing I’m looking forward to.

Second part: the easy win. Because I made the condition for the “prize” fairly easy to achieve, it’s unlikely to lead to frustration. I have a sense of accomplishment when it’s done, and because there’s an immediate reward it plays to a well documented science that trains your brain to form habits and focus on tasks at hand. If there’s a positive association with getting work done, it makes you crave getting things done and can help focus you, since being scattered or inefficient prevents reward.

Since these two things happen early in the day, it sets the tone for the rest of the day. It’s sort of a teaser for when you have more free time, almost as if saying to yourself, “If you liked that, imagine how cool it will be at 5:30 when everything is done.”

2. Just commit to things you know you should do. And when possible, commit publicly.

When people ask you to get together next weekend, don’t always be that person that says “Uh, well I’ll have to check my calendar and get back with you.” Sure, you don’t want to double book yourself. So check your calendar quickly and make a decision. When we’re unwilling to commit it’s as though we’re constantly waiting for something better to come along, and we’d sure hate to have wasted that chance for something amazing on that thing instead.

Except that more often than not our pursuit of “the best situation” leads only to missed opportunities. Things will surprise you.

Say you’ll do it. If possible, make the fact that you’ve committed to this thing known to others helps as well. Now you’re accountable to these people, and you don’t want to let them down. A good example: back in October I was asked to join a team participating in a 5k. I’d been meaning to get in better shape for a long time and it sounded fun, so I said yes immediately. Then I told everyone I knew.

I figured that if were just between me and the 5k I’d probably find an excuse to cancel or avoid it — after all I’d been doing that with working out for a long time. But now I’d told all these people about it and they were watching me. Not wanting to let them down or look like a quitter is a good motivator to keep training, because barring an injury not doing the 5k now isn’t an option.

If you’ve been lazy about things you want to change, give yourself as few ways out as possible.

3. Identify destructive behaviors and avoid them.

Maybe you keep pausing work to look at Facebook. Maybe you check your phone compulsively 100 times a day. Maybe you allow other people’s issues to become your issues or waste time worrying about things you have little or no control over. I’m definitely guilty of that last one. Whatever it is, stop it.

Often we do these things automatically, so it’s not always easy to point at something and say “This is bad for me.” Spend some time reflecting on your typical day. What were the high points, and when did you feel tired, beaten down, or unmotivated? What actions preceded these feelings?

I’ve found that listening to music louder than you’d get away with in a cubicle while I work helps me feel inspired — particular kinds of music that stimulate me. And if I’m having particular trouble being creative? If I take a 30 minute break to do something fun or interesting, I’m 5x better when I come back to work. It was well worth the “loss” of 30 minutes of productivity to be far faster and better thereafter.

I’ve had days where I got stuck halfway into an article and just could not finish it. I took 30 minutes to listen loudly to one of my favorite albums, without dividing my attention with something else. When I came back to writing I felt so light and charged that I finished the article in 15 minutes, where the first half had taken me an hour. Now the article got done and won’t get added to the “I’ll finish it tomorrow” pile.

I learned this one early on while working for my friend’s father in his HVAC business. I was surprised that each morning we technically began at 8am but everyone sat in the office smoking, drinking coffee, and loosely talking about things and the plan for the day. I asked him about that once, and he told me that he’d found that people work a lot harder after easing into their morning and having a good plan. Maybe no one actually started work till almost 9, but 3 hours of hard work before lunch is far better than 4 hours of lazy work.


Good food for thought. Nobody’s perfect and these may not work for you every time, but I’ve found incorporating these into my life has definitely improved my focus and my productivity. Let me know what you think, and feel free to share productivity-boosting tips that have worked for you!