Five Ways to Get Motivated

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By Alicia Cox, MA, AMFT

Like many people these days, I can feel overwhelmed by all that needs to be completed on my “to-do list.” I have multiple lists of things I would like to accomplish in the long-term and the short-term. Sometimes the biggest hurdle is finding the motivation to accomplish all these goals. There are many things that may block our ability to find motivation such as anxiety or depression or just feeling overwhelmed by all of the work that will need to go into accomplishing a task.

There are two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. With intrinsic motivation, individuals find motivation within themselves to accomplish a goal or task. Extrinsic motivation occurs when people are motivated by factors outside of themselves, through things such as rewards and punishments. Many of us are able to access our intrinsic motivation when we are accomplishing tasks that are part of a goal we have set for ourselves, but sometimes it can be useful to use extrinsic motivation to get us through a task.

Here are five ways to find the extrinsic motivation to complete a task even when you’re feeling less driven.

1. Give yourself a reward after you complete a task can be useful in these moments. It can help us find ways to get through an undesired task and be more motivated to finish it.

2. Break a large goal into smaller goals. When a person is starting to work toward a goal, it may seem overwhelming because there are so many components in completing the goal. When we break a goal into smaller goals, we are able to only focus our attention on one thing at a time, which can also allow us to feel less overwhelmed. This can also reduce any anxiety we may have about working on a task to completion.

3. Structure tasks so that you are performing the least desired tasks first and most desired tasks last In doing this, you are getting the tasks you are dreading most out of the way and using the desired task as a way to motivate you. You may like one of the tasks, so you are motivated to finish the other task in order to be given the chance to work on the desired task. In a way, you are using one of your tasks as a reward while still accomplishing all the goals on your to-do list.

4. Notice things that are blocking your ability to accomplish a task, such as depression or anxiety. If you are highly anxious or depressed at the moment you are trying to work on a task, you may not have access to the tools in your brain that will help you accomplish that task at the moment. Anxiety and depression can shut down areas of the brain that allow us to complete the task, therefore making it even more difficult to accomplish our goals.

5. Practice mindfulness exercises, such as focusing on your breath to regain some control over these thoughts and feelings. You may also want to increase the number of breaks between tasks in order to give yourself moments to calm down. Once you are feeling calmer, try to approach the task again.

Incorporating these ideas into your life can make your ability to access motivation stronger and easier over time. Try to use these strategies regularly to further grow this skill.


Meier, J. D. (March 9, 2016). These Are the 7 Habits of Highly Motivated People. Retrieved
from http://time.com/4245079/motivation-habit/

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How to Have a Strong Resolve for the New Year

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(Happy New Year!)

By Natalie Stamper, Psy.D

New Year’s resolutions, depending on who you ask, are something we look forward to or completely dread. One would reason change is a good thing – especially it is a self-guided betterment of oneself. Among the most popular choices are weight loss, exercise, money management, and quitting smoking (Proactive Change). All of these resolutions are good choices; that’s the first part. If only 46% make it past six months alone, where did we go wrong (Proactive Change)?

First, a good start would be to look at what a habit is. According to Professor Clayton R. Cook, Ph.D., habits are “behaviors that are provoked somewhat automatically in response to cues embedded in the environment” (Cho). Examples of such behaviors are brushing your teeth after getting up in the morning. Brushing your teeth is the behavior and getting up is the environmental queue. So, to form a habit, one must replace a behavior with another. Instead of grabbing a bag of chips when you are hungry, instead, you can grab an apple or a more healthy option. What this does is create another behavior to compete with your pre-existing one; realizing you are hungry signals that cue to grab chips, but it will also cue you to grab an apple (Cho). Then, once you grab enough apples (or another healthy option before you get sick of apples completely), it will become a routine. At this point, it does not require any further thought, for it is embedded in your brain. Establishing healthy habits is all about repetition.

Additionally, relapse is a part of making resolutions. The pitfall for many is not being discouraged by this. Only when you overcome relapse and stick with your habit can you can safely say you have made progress. Always keep in mind that slow progress is still progress. You do not have to reach a set goal within a week, but knowing you are inching closer and closer by the day is enough of a motivator to keep on track. Even so, goals can be the undoing of countless resolutions. Visualizing great success far down the line can especially hurt once you reach said point down the line. Maybe you wanted to lose 30 pounds by June, but only lost 20? You should be proud! Look how far you’ve come. If you can make an ounce of progress and stick with it, props to you. That is more than 54% of adults can say by June. For many, things as simple as riding a bike at least four times a week or maintaining a weekly spending limit can do wonders. Concrete guidelines ensure you are maintaining some semblance of progress, even at your lowest motivation.

Imagine how much better you will feel after following through with resolutions, regardless of immense or slight progress. Sticking with a habit and keeping a mindset of bettering oneself can make you feel so much better than you could without it. Better yet, imagine how delicious that slice of chocolate cake will feel when you know you have earned it. Habits can make or break us all – which side do you want to be on?


“Statistics: Top New Year’s Resolutions & How to Keep Them.” Stages of Grief & Loss: Grief Cycle & Grieving Process, Proactive Change, proactivechange.com/resolutions/statistics.htm.

Cho, Jeena. “The Science Behind Making New Year’s Resolutions That You’ll Keep.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 28 Dec. 2016, www.forbes.com/sites/jeenacho/2016/12/26/the-science-behind-making-new-years-resolutions-that-youll-keep/#3914f2287491.

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A Series of Writings for Clinicians on Common Factors Research and What Promotes Change in Couple and Family Therapy, Part 2

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(Photo Credit: Dmytro Zinkevych)

By Jason Briggs, MA

What motivates a client to change and what are the processes therapists can use to help?

In the last writing, in this series on Common Factors research, the discussion was on aspects of two Common Factors used to promote effective outcomes in therapy.  They were client factors and therapist factors. These two Common Factors will be addressed in this second writing as well, along with how they interrelate with a third Common Factor called the therapeutic alliance, all within the Stage of Change known as Contemplation. I will also discuss what some of the change processes I use are and how they are also supported by Common Factors researchers. I will begin with what Common Factors researchers find is essential to Motivational Interviewing, since this was not discussed in my last post. Again, as with all my writings on Common Factors, I am reviewing three Common Factors researchers’ work, authored by Douglas H. Spenkle PhD, Sean Davis PhD and Jay L. Lebow, PhD, referencing information found in their book Common Factors in Couple and Family Therapy, The Overlooked Foundation for Effective Practice.

Motivational Interviewing has elements that when brought together in the context of our clients’ lives, can help therapists join with clients, inviting them to engage in and explore change in whatever Stage of Change they might be experiencing. Common Factors researchers contend and I agree with them, that “within the Motivational Interviewing approach there is no such thing as an unmotivated client. There are only therapists that are out of sync with a client’s motivation” (Spenkle, Lebow and Davis, 2009). So, working systemically, it is often the case that each member in an individual, couple or family system, is in varying Stages of Change and thus motivated at different levels with the different issues they might wish to address. Common Factors suggests part of the therapist role is to shift homeostasis within an understanding of each person’s motivation and the there are five principles to consider, to help us form a better connection with our client and help them move through whatever Stage of Change they are in. We can “(1) express empathy, (2) develop discrepancy, (3) avoid argumentation, (4) roll with resistance, and (5) support self-efficacy” (Miller and Rollnick, 2002) (Spenkle, Lebow and Davis, 2009). These five principles are suggested to fall into three broad therapeutic alliances, which therapists can use three interventions within each stage and they are: “(1) building motivation for change, (2) strengthening commitment to change, and (3) the follow-through (Spenkle, Lebow and Davis, 2009). So what exactly do Common Factors researchers know about the value and importance of these five Motivational Interviewing principles?

“Unpacking” what these Motivational Interviewing principles ignite in our clients, is a great way to motivate therapists to learn these concepts both intellectually and experientially with their clients. As noted above, these Motivational Interviewing principles inherently ask each therapist to embody a sort of attitudinal stance in therapy that helps facilitate a client’s movement toward change. They are (1) expressing empathy and is particularly effective with client ambivalence and is promoted by a listening stance and abandoning a superior/inferior stance, typically embodied by telling a client what meaning we give to their story. Common Factors researchers describe the Therapists’ Alliance in this way: (to be) “a supportive companion and knowledge consultant, (rather) than a forceful instigator of change” (Spenkle, Lebow and Davis, 2009). (2) Developing discrepancy, the second Motivational Interviewing principle is reflected in understanding that most, if not all humans’ emotional and psychological pain exists in direct proportion to the disparity/discrepancy between where they are now and where they want to be, “and when they know better, they will do better” ( BJ Davis, 2012). Common Factors researchers point out, “Depending on which Stage of Change the client is in, the therapist focuses on gently amplifying the discrepancy that is already there (for those in contemplation or preparation stages) or developing a discrepancy (for those in the pre-contemplation stage)” (Spenkle, Lebow and Davis, 2009). Here, we see an emphasis on the therapist knowledge about the Stage of Change in general and needing to know where one’s client is in terms of each Stage of Change and on differing issues, exploring the likelihood of a client having varying levels of motivation to change depending on any given issue and the Stage of Change the client is in with each issue. (3) Avoiding argumentation is the third principles used in helping a client experience the motivation to change. Expecting a client to embrace a certain protocol type therapy, a label, etc. is one way an unsuspecting therapist can invite arguments  against, instead of for change (with us or within the client and likely both). Helping to understand a client’s point of view regarding their preferences in therapy, how they have experienced labels, even “mental health issues” can be one way we can allow their meaning to be held up to unequivocal predominance and then join with the meaning our clients make about how they identify this meaning, amplifying, and reflecting it to them. Closely related Motivational Interviewing principle (4), rolling with resistance, which is an essential facet of Motivational Interviewing and the idea of accepting and not rejecting a client’s ambivalence to change. Emphasis is placed on joining with the client not on any particular interventions, trusting a solution will, if acceptance is present, naturally emerge within the client in the space created for them to explore their problems. This assumes an intention on behalf of the therapist, which trusts the client has their own answers within them, assuming a stance of psychological and emotional safety around any issues the client is considering facing. If the therapist achieves this stance and creates emotional safety for a client to explore what they need, want, and are willing to do based on the clients view, their therapist is seen as an “enlightened witness” (Alice Miller, 97). Supporting this safe emotional and psychological space means supporting the next principle in Motivational Interviewing, (5) supporting self-efficacy, the belief that a client can change and unless this empowering attitudinal stance is demonstrated by the therapist in relationship with their client, “a discrepancy crisis is likely to resolve into defensive coping (e.g., rationalization, denial) to reduce discomfort, without changing behavior” (Miller, 1995, p.5) (Spenkle, Lebow and Davis, 2009).

The therapeutic alliance, another essential Common Factor, will be given its proper weight in understanding how client and therapist factors unite within the processes of change during the Stage of Change known as Contemplation. The therapeutic alliance is defined by Common Factors as both/and, what it is, and what it is not. “It is collaborative. The alliance can be misunderstood as a quality that the therapist brings to the client. However, the alliance is fully interactional and systemic, an operation between one or more clients and the therapist (Spenkle, Lebow and Davis, 2009).” This is a foundational therapeutic Common Factor. It establishes emotional bonds between a therapist and a client to form a connection and assists with providing effective outcomes in therapy. So, helping a client see choices for healing that the therapist sees the client may identify with and find helpful is only half of the picture, the other half is seeing what our clients are contemplating and helping them negotiate the changes they seek to make within all the Stages of Change and processes of change they are in and viewed as meaningful. Stated in another way, “On more careful examination, (our) successful alliance formation is better viewed as a dance in which everyone participated as the alliance co-evolved between the clients and the therapist” (Spenkle, Lebow and Davis, 2009). I will add that a felt understanding by the therapist of the clients’ worldviews are essential, along with a sense of therapist “okay-ness” about the clients’ interactions within the therapy room. These perceptions and interactions the therapist has in turn, will impact the client in therapy, whether the client is in therapy with their family, in a couple, or individual unit of treatment. When the therapist creates psychological and emotional safety in the relationship to their clients’ ambivalent interactions, and helps the client contemplate what it might be like doing inner work using certain stage specific processes of change, the client will reveal more of their ambivalence and ideas to contemplate that which will promote change.

In the Stage of Change known as Contemplation, clients are intending to act “within the next six months.” (Prochaska, 1999) (Spenkle, Lebow and Davis, 2009).  Clients seeking to make a change in this stage are expressing discontent with their problems, want to overcome it, want to see themselves living a life without their problems, but also see why they shouldn’t try to change. Clients in Contemplation “are not very good candidates for behaviorally focused, action-oriented programs. Their motivation is not yet at the level where they will put all of their heart into behavioral change efforts. They are better suited for more passive insight-oriented approaches that help them explore their problem, weigh the pros and cons of changing and so forth” (Spenkle, Lebow and Davis, 2009). Like in the previous Stage of Change the suggestion for this stage is to continue to weigh the pros and cons of changing and decrease the number of cons. The only additional processes of change aside from three mentioned in Pre-Contemplation is self-reevaluation, to assist in transitioning to the next Stage of Change Preparation. So, the therapist is supporting the client in evaluating themselves without the problem. Aside from active imagination, guided imagery, self-acknowledgement of healing and growth, help consolidate steps the therapeutic alliance has made and clarify steps one still might make in the therapeutic alliance to successfully transition to the Preparation Stage of Change. “Values clarification, encouraging congruence between one’s own values and behaviors and the like can be helpful in this stage” (Prochaska, 1999) (Spenkle, Lebow and Davis, 2009).

A therapist being willing to build a foundational relationship with their client depends to a large extent, on a therapist’s ability to listen, explore, and respect the worldview of their clients, not as an intervention, but more as an attitudinal stance toward their shared humanity, a facet of which was addressed above in the therapeutic alliance discussion. Understanding Common Factors research is important and then applying it in our therapeutic practices can help our clients regain a sense of connection often ruptured in their past and current relationships. Common Factors research can help therapists and clients move through change in their own and their clients’ lives in a much more empathetic and meaningful way. Remembering there is always motivation present is essential, and it is the role of the therapist to identify what motivates our clients to bring about effective change, and to “stay with them” as they contemplate ways to move forward while having a timing and pacing that works for them. See the first writing in this series on Common Factors (CF), wherein I discussed what CF researchers suggested as helpful processes of change in the Stage of Change Pre-Contemplation. Doing so will enhance your focus on the processes of change you can use to help clients focus on increasing insight about moving from Contemplation to begin working in the next Stage of Change known as Preparation, our next blog topic.


Douglas H. Sprenkle, Sean D. Davis, Jay L. Lebow. Common Factors in Couple and Family Therapy, Guilford Press, Aug 10, 2009

Alice Miller. Jan. 7, 1997. http://www.alice-miller.com/en/the-essential-role-of-an-enlightened-witness-in-society-2/

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