Vaguely aiming the bow of an enormous sailing ship in the hazy direction of the captain’s desired destination was once a widely accepted method of navigation. Without knowing exactly where they would land, countless ancient mariners departed their homeland for faraway journeys into vast, unpredictable, and often deadly seas. Our knowledge of where things are in the world has only come from accurate maps and navigational instruments in the last two and a half centuries.  

Navigation has always appealed to me. I wanted to be a commercial airplane pilot when I was a kid. I envisioned myself confidently maneuvering the controls of a powerful, sleek jet loaded with VIP’s. In some ways, my career as a financial advisor is one of a navigator. I help people get to their destination. People come to me to get from Point A to Point B with their financial dreams and goals.  

Along the way, I’ve discovered some effective approaches to navigating and arriving at dreams. Here, I introduce how I help my clients (and myself) get and stay motivated on the way to reaching our goals. 

Where to Start: Your Future Vision 

It’s essential to have a vision of your future self in mind. While it sounds simple, avoiding this step is one of the most common blunders that put people into an unmotivated funk. The first step of staying motivated is having a direction. And you can’t have a direction if you don’t have a clear picture of where you want to be. You need a goal.

You can make goal revisions if necessary along the way, but don’t expect motivation to be around if you don’t have a clear idea of where you want to be. 

Be as detailed as possible in developing an ideal vision of where you want to be. Specifics matter, so write it down, shoot a video on your phone that states your goal, tell a friend or family member. Your future vision will ultimately drive your actions, so have a clear picture from the get-go. And spend time along your journey towards reenergizing your goal by refreshing that vision in your mind. 

The Truth About Uncertainties

Most of us like things to be crystal clear in everything we do. Uncertainty is unsettling. Your vision is, by definition, about the inherently unknown future. So when moments of tension creep into your plans, your response is critical to keep on target.   

Having a clear, unobstructed path to a goal is an unrealistic ideal. Expecting that you’ll face obstacles and setbacks may even help push you towards a goal. When I come across a setback, perhaps from an uncertainty I did not or could not expect, I prefer to take a moment and reflect on it and consider ways to turn it into an opportunity. That builds motivation and helps keep me focused on my objective. 

Understand that you can reach your goal by encountering and staring down uncertainties that invariably creep up. Remain focused on your purpose and expect uncertainties along the way. 

Move Motivation Into Your Life

It’s easy to talk or write about motivation. Seeing motivation in action is another story altogether. I met with a new financial planning client I’ll call Dan, whose retirement goal was so clearly visualized that he knew the brand of socks he’d be wearing when he stopped working (about 16 years down the road). He knew vividly what his retirement picture would look like but did not know how to get there. 

As a small business owner, Dan needed a roadmap to get to his picture of an ideal retirement and an action plan to put it into place. I offered the idea of starting a tax-advantaged retirement plan for his business and him making regular monthly contributions to it. With that idea, Dan had a vision and a plan. One thing was missing: There had to be a way to keep refueling his drive to reach that retirement goal. He needed to stay motivated, and forcing functions came to the rescue.

A forcing function is a task that makes you take action to produce a result. Forcing functions are effective at generating and sustaining progress toward a goal—getting and staying motivated. In other words, a forcing function is a commitment you make towards a goal. For Dan, it was a regularly scheduled, automatic, monthly $600 contribution in his newly established retirement plan that ultimately put him and have kept him on course.  

See Where You Stand 

Feeling a sense of progress toward a goal provides enthusiasm and strength to keep motivated. That’s why having a measure of your progress is essential to stay motivated. Apps for your smartphone can help you keep track of your progress via journaling and setting daily reminders of critical tasks on which to focus. Aim for some “bottom-line” self-checks on how you’re feeling about your progress. Here’s where it helps to set up some accomplishment chunks—bits of your larger goal that are easier to attack and realize. Once you establish a big goal, break it into pieces, and then come up with measurable chunks that are easy to measure and achieve.  

Expect Diversions and Keep Moving

There’s a connection between our progress toward a goal and our ability to stay motivated. Progress is rarely a straight line from goal to achievement. Setbacks and failures should be expected. Use these opportunities to evaluate your options and strategize for solutions. So instead of blind acceptance of these occurrences as an endpoint, view them productively as temporary diversions. Find something positive to direct your focus on because there is a genuine connection between how we feel about ourselves and our actions.  

The Twin Champions of Motivation: Persistence and Desire 

I’ve been asked where I get the drive that has enabled me to get where I am. I assume it comes from the twin champions of motivation: persistence and desire. When you deconstruct motivation, the essential parts that drive the production engine are persistence and desire. Managing things that keep persistence and desire in motion will necessarily result in more fuel for production. 

You only need persistence when things are not going your way. Wrong. You also need to persist and remain productive when things are going right. Stick-to-it-ness or persistence remains present when you have a clear vision and take action with what you have when you have it.  

Desire usually does not present itself in a straight line. It zig-zags, curves, starts, and stops over time. The essential part that desire plays in motivation is understanding that it is cyclical. Temper your expectations because your desire to achieve a goal is going to fluctuate over time. The longer the time to reach a goal, the more likely it will fluctuate within a broader range. When we first pursue a new goal, the initial excitement and energy are boundless. But as time progresses, the ups and downs we face inevitably suppress some of that energy. To keep a goal moving, keep desire alive by revisiting some of the intense experiences that you had when you set the goal in the first place. These are sort of like pleasant childhood memories that bring a smile to your face. And thinking about them can keep you motivated, too. 

I believe that we can build a life with meaning and purpose by pursuing those things that matter to us. I hope you benefit from these navigational tools and keep motivated to live the life you’ve imagined.