Unlock Endless Motivation With Your “Why”
Knowing your purpose can make navigating tough situations easier. Here’s how to find it, and your move if you ever lose it.
Reality check: No matter how great they are, your job and your hobbies do not define who you are or why you do things. That would be your “why,” or your purpose, and when you distinguish that from your “what” and “how,” you can tap into a seemingly bottomless pit of motivation.
A strong sense of purpose is also linked to better physical and mental health as well as longevity. “Think of your why as a kind of guiding principle, your personal North Star. It’s what drives the direction you move in and what you do each day, and it shouldn’t change even if your circumstances do,” says Nicole Detling, PhD, a mental-performance coach and the co-author of “Don't Leave Your Mind Behind: The Mental Side of Performance.” Inevitably, your circumstances — big or small — will change, and what you do in those moments is a reflection of how in tune you are with what drives you.
Let’s say you lose your office job. If you spent weekends baking cupcakes for friends and family and felt fulfilled by that, you could use this as an opportunity to pivot. Rather than apply for another gig entailing endless meetings and emails, you could take baking classes and look for a bakery job. Or maybe a thunderstorm derails your plans for a training run. Because your why is your bond with your dad, who ran with you when you were little and cheers you on at all your races, you might use this time to do a runners’ strength-training workout in your living room.
“Purpose provides the juice, the fuel and the motivation for us to jump out of bed in the morning,” says Jim Afremow, PhD, a sports psychologist and the author of “The Champion's Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train, and Thrive.” “Without a purpose, a person can be left feeling isolated, unmotivated and adrift at sea.” This can make it hard to move forward, whether you’re job-hunting or diving into a training program.
“Purpose provides the juice, the fuel and the motivation for us to jump out of bed in the morning. Without a purpose, a person can be left feeling isolated, unmotivated and adrift at sea.”
Jim Afremow, PhD, Sports Psychologist and Author of “The Champion's Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train, and Thrive.”
How to Find Your True Purpose
Figuring out and cementing your why is a process, says Afremow. Start by thinking about something you want or love to do for yourself, such as: “I love my sport and want to find out how good I can be at it” or “Feeling connected to my community fulfills me.” If you come up blank, ask yourself questions like, “How will I make myself proud today?” or “What wrongs do I want to correct?” This helps you dig deeper into the activities or causes that move you.
Once you’ve homed in on your purpose, “reconnect with it each day by reflecting on it in the morning, before all the hassles of daily life start up,” says Afremow. “Mentally visualize reaching your personal life goal or fulfilling that purpose.” And stash little reminders in places you’ll see to help you remember what that is and how it will feel, whether that’s a congratulatory card from your dad or a sticky note. Seeing these reminders can help you create and sustain healthy habits that keep you moving toward your North Star for life, says Detling.
What to Do If You Ever Lose Your Why
- Don’t panic.
You’re human. Even with a strong sense of purpose, you’re going to have down days or feel frustrated or discouraged. Know that not every decision is unilaterally good or bad; sometimes you need a day off from scouring the job boards, or a nap instead of a workout. “The key is to not succumb to defeatism but be aware of those feelings,” says Afremow.
- Learn from others.
If those bummed-out feelings happen more than every now and then, you may have lost your purpose. To find it (or a new one), go on an inspiration mission. Ask trusted friends, family, a counselor, a coach or a teammate about their own purpose. Watch a moving movie. Read biographies of people you admire. “See what these people did when their purpose disappeared or became really difficult,” says Afremow. “Often you’ll find that people were motivated by different things at different times. Find some similarities with where you are at this moment and use that to help you get back on track.”
- Look inward (again).
Revisit those tough questions you faced the first time around, says Detling. And add a few more: “What do I care about most? Why do I care about that? And what do I think that will look like in the future?” Write down your thoughts so you don’t forget them.
- Take a baby step.
If you truly feel stuck, think about one action — just one! — you can take that feels like a small way forward, such as ordering a baking book. “Most of the time, action follows action. And when you do something that takes you out of that fear zone, all of a sudden you take your control back and you get a little bit of confidence in yourself,” adds Detling. Then, it’s about reflection. Are the decisions that you’re making driving you closer to or further from your purpose? You can course-correct from there.
And just to be clear: Living your purpose doesn’t mean that life will suddenly be easy. “Working hard is always a grind. But knowing your purpose helps you look at that grind and any adversity that may appear from sticking to it as a challenge to meet,” says Afremow. “It helps you see ‘failure’ as a learning opportunity, and that will make you better instead of halting your progress or breaking you.” That’s the beauty of purpose: Even in your lowest moments, it can help you move toward a better you.