10 Ways To Keep You Motivated During Your Career Change


I listened to a fascinating talk by Irena O’Brien a few months ago on the power of using neuroscience to help us change habits and behaviour. I wanted to pass on some of her wisdom and tips, because it struck me that a fundamental part of career change is keeping yourself motivated whilst you work on it over a long period of time.

Unfortunately, what tends to happen is we lose motivation and start procrastinating, because we forget that, ultimately, we are trying to develop a new habit of working on a project that might take time to come to fruition - a bit like trying to motivate yourself to go to the gym when you know just an hour there won’t get you the final results you want. It’s hard to keep going with something that you don’t reap the rewards immediately.

So, here are the 10 brain-friendly strategies that Irena outlined designed to help improve motivation, which I see as helpful ways that we can work with our brains to overcome procrastination and sustain our motivation towards actioning a career change:

  1. Start with Action

    Motivation doesn’t start with your mindset, it’s starts with action and progress. Heavily based on the notion that action breeds motivation (as opposed to only waiting to implement action when motivation strikes - you’ll be waiting a long time if you do that!), the trick is to experience a small success to begin your day. Set yourself a task to start the day off with that is so small and manageable that you know you can succeed at achieving it. Once you’ve achieved this goal, the progress loop of motivation is triggered (through hits of dopamine), and you’ll want to keep going.

    For example, I’ve been putting off writing this article for ages because I’ve been waiting for a good chunk of time and motivation to present itself before I got started…and here we are, months later, because, low and behold, that period of time did not present itself. So, instead, I set myself the goal of writing just the first paragraph in the space of half an hour…and it worked. Now I want to keep writing! Progress loop of motivation activated.

    So, maybe you only have half an hour to spare - set yourself a very small and achievable goal related to your career change to focus on first, and get it done. It will prompt you into wanting to spend more time working towards your career change goals.

    Motivation also starts with remembering why you want to action your goals. Remind yourself of why you want to change career, why the change will be meaningful, and what purpose it will have. That’s a good way to activate the progress loop, too.

  2. Pay Deliberate Attention

    The problem with our brains is that we are unconsciously susceptible to paying attention to anything that catches our eye (as our brains constantly scan for risk and threat). That’s why phone/computer notifications flash up like they do - anything that catches our eye, we pay attention to it. This doesn’t help when we’ve got longer term goals to work towards.

    In order to activate a more deliberate and less reactive state of attention, and be more in charge of what our brains are attending to, Irena described an exercise designed to activate the pre-frontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that blocks distractions. Her tip was to, before you start a task, look around your room at items without judgement, simply labelling and saying out loud exactly what they are. This can quieten the mind (reduce the internal thoughts) for a moment just long enough for you to engage in the actual task that you want to focus on. Anything else that brings you into the present moment would also work e.g. mindfulness exercise, etc.

  3. Stop Multi-Tasking

    Accept that, for the brain, it’s not possible to truly multi-task when both tasks require your focus and full attention. Apparently, trying to multi-task can cost you 40% of your day in productivity. So, if you want to do more in less time, learn to concentrate on one task at a time. Having the TV on whilst researching career ideas? Not going to work!

  4. Help Yourself Develop Willpower

    Willpower is not always about self control. The only way to really improve your willpower and self-discipline is to simply remove distractions and temptations altogether. Accept that the environment will always win, going back to point 2 regarding our attention field.

    So, if you’ve set aside time to work on your career change, organise your environment in a way that increases your chance of being productive - get together what you need, leave your phone in the other room, turn off your notifications on your computer, organise your environment to limit the temptations of doing something ‘easier’. The brain will always go for the easy win, the thing that requires less energy, so if you’ve got something that needs concentrating on, you need to take away any potential distractions to help develop your willpower.

    The other trick is to make the task fun - get an accountability buddy, or reward yourself when the task is complete. This can also help improve willpower.

  5. Create The Right Environment for Insights

    Struggling to come up with new career ideas? Maybe you’re trying too hard. The brain needs to be clear and relaxed and not focusing on anything else to be creative and for new insights, solutions and ‘ah ha’ moments to come about. If the mind is preoccupied and under heavy load, new ideas and insights are highly unlikely. This is why the best ideas tend to come to us in the shower!

    So, the tip is to do what you can to relax the brain and let it wander, if you’re struggling to come up with new ideas or solutions. This could be through taking a nap, a relaxing bath, meditating, going for a walk, or simply stepping away from the task for a moment - anything that helps you cultivate an uncluttered mind. In a nutshell, remind yourself that being constantly busy gets in the way of creativity.

  6. See Adversity As An Opportunity

    It’s impossible to avoid general, day to day stress and overwhelm (which, in itself, differs from chronic distress), and the attempt to control everything in order to avoid it is futile. The alternative is to see adversity and change as an opportunity to develop our resilience - defined as one’s ability to adapt and bounce back in the face of such adversity.

    The trick is to recognise that it may not be the situation or the task (your career change) that is driving the stress in you - it might actually be how you are reacting to the event, or your interpretation and beliefs that surround the situation, that are driving and creating the stress.

    So, if you’re finding your career change challenging (which will effect your levels of motivation), as opposed to trying to remove that feeling, lean into it. See it as an opportunity to develop your resilience, which will in turn help you develop the ability to adapt to challenges that occur in the future.

  7. Reframe Problematic Emotions

    Career change provokes a lot of fear in people. It can create anxiety, worry, and frustration at our situations, leading to a lack of motivation to persist. We make the mistake of wanting these emotions to disappear before we take any action. However, the more we deny and resist a feeling, and want it to go away, the stronger it persists (inhibiting the helpful pre-frontal cortex), which then stops us to moving forward at all.

    So, what we need to do instead, is to label/name, habitually accept, and reframe these emotions to take away the emotional intensity they carry (calming down our brain’s threat warning system in the process), leaving room for a more thoughtful response and productive way forward to present itself.

    For example, you might be worried that making a change in your career will be a mistake. Reframe that as a logical concern, but one that can’t be resolved or overcome by doing nothing. Only by taking action (small steps, one at a time) will you know more about the proposed step. And is anything really a mistake? Every step leads us forward, presents an opportunity for learning, and forms a stepping stone in our future journey.

    It's all about perspective, in the end. Either you can continue to see things in a way that holds you back and stops you taking action, or you can choose (and it is a choice) to see it in a way that helps you move forward. Which would you prefer? Which is more likely to lead to a career change?

  8. Respect Your Body Budget

    When it comes to career change, and all it involves, we often neglect to take into account our physiological wellbeing. We forget that, fundamentally, the purpose of the brain is to help us grow, survive, and reproduce. If we’re not sleeping well, eating well and exercising, our body budget will be out of whack.

    So, the basic thing you can do to sustain your motivation is keep your body budget in shape - try to make sure you’re getting 8 hours of sleep (cognition is impaired on anything less), eat healthily, and take regular breaks (and naps!) from anything you’re working on. This can help you feel more energetic, engaged, and more motivated about working on your career change.

  9. Use Visualisation Correctly

    Visualisations are great for motivation. They help us create a vision of the future we're working towards. However, neuroscience suggests that we can improve our chances of success by visualising, not only ourselves achieving our goals (moving into the career we want), but also the process it takes for us to get there. It’s not enough (and can be counter-productive) just to visualise the successful outcome apparently. The trick is to visualise (and fantasise about) the steps and actions you need to take in order to achieve your goal. This can help you feel more motivated, energised, and engaged, and the desired outcome more likely.

  10. Self Esteem

    Low self-esteem can negatively impact motivation. We find it hard to work on goals because we're not sure we're worthy of achieving them or even capable of achieving them. Positive affirmations are very popular as a tool for building self-esteem. However, the issue is that affirmations don’t work if your brain doesn’t believe what you’re telling yourself.

    What can be more effective is to provide the brain with evidence and proof for what you’re referring to. Irena suggested using this sentence instead - “This went well today because I am….” The tip is to refer to qualities that relate to how you are, as opposed to something you have done. This helps you feel more intrinsically worthy, as apposed to valuing your worth simply based on things you can do. The link here is that improved self-esteem can help with motivation because you believe in your abilities to accomplish what needs to be done to get you closer to the career you want.

    And one final note about motivation...in order to embed a new habit (i.e. regularly and consistently working on your career change), remember that there needs to be a clear goal, the learning needs to be effortful, and the tasks need to be repeated over time for the neural pathways in the brain to develop new structures (known as neuroplasticity) to embed the new habit. So, creating regular time slots to work on your career change can really help with motivation.

I hope there were some helpful tips in there to help you sustain your motivation whilst working on your career change. It can take time and a lot of willpower and self-discipline to create the career you want. I hope some of the above will see you through the time it takes to move into a career you find meaningful and rewarding.

Alice Stapleton

About Alice

Alice coaches those who want to change career but don’t know what they want to do instead. She offers Career Coaching designed to help graduates, early to mid-level career-changers, and parents returning to work gain a clear vision of what career is right for them, and how to achieve it. She is also an accredited Coach Supervisor, and host of The Career Change Diaries podcast.