How To Stay Motivated When Change Doesn’t Come

How To Stay Motivated When Change Doesn’t Come


Changemaking is a long game.  Whether we’re working through a social enterprise or business, or we’re an on-the-ground activist or community organiser, it can be hard to stay motivated when change seemingly doesn’t come. We give our hearts and souls to a particular outcome, and when the results are slow to see, we easily become demoralised.

As changemakers, one of the quickest ways we burnout is by confusing our goal and motivation.  A goal is a clear outcome we want to achieve – maybe it’s a policy change; net-zero emissions by 2030, or the end of corporate political donations.  Maybe it’s more of a culture change, with stronger representation of queer and BIPOC people in media, or communities that feel like they belong to one another.  Maybe the goal is for your social enterprise to deepen its impact and create new opportunities.  Whatever it may be – the goal has a clear outcome.

Motivation is what gets us to do the work.  It’s the feeling we have that tells us this is what we need to do, and why.

Often though, we confuse the goal and the motivation.  We do the work assuming that the reason we are doing it is the goal we seek – and when there are setbacks or our work takes longer than planned we begin to burnout.

At this point it’s easy to become that little bit more jaded or angry.   Feelings of tiredness and apathy are common.  We might continue to do the work, but the spark we had before is gone. The work feels heavier. Our hearts are heavier.

Understanding our deeper motivations can help us to move through this.  We cultivate our resiliency in part by building solid foundations within ourselves that call us to the work.

To understand your motivations, think back to when you were first inspired to create a change in the world.  What did you feel called by?  What feelings arose in you?  Take a few moments to really feel back in time, and write down what comes up.  Was it an extrinsic motivation, arising from something outside of you? Was there any internal, or intrinsic, calling that brought you to the work?

And importantly, is that motivation still working for you today?

Our motivations change as we change, and most of us have multiple motivations within us, we just need to know which to tap into.  Below are some strong, renewable motivations, and tuning in to the ones that drive us can help us to stay the course.

  • Service Service is about connection to something larger than ourselves. Maybe it’s to God or whatever you believe to be divine. Maybe it’s to humanity. Maybe it’s the love letter to what you feel we humans could be.  Service is less about the destination and more about the journey. It’s an attitude we can embody in all of our actions and interactions.  How can I serve? How can I serve? How can I serve? This question has such different energy and intention to one of How do I fix this?, and it’s not reliant on external change to exist.
  • Pain-transformed.  Pain-transformed becomes compassion. It is the foundation of empathy, of deep listening, of holding space.  If our pain has been given the space and healing needed to transform, we can use it as our motivation to change the world – to not have others experience what we did, to offer compassion to those who are suffering. Pain-transformed is also what allows us to begin exploring transformative justice and other forms of accountability. Pain that hasn’t yet healed though is not a sustainable form of motivation; if it’s still running the show and driving our reactions, it isn’t transformed enough to drive the work of change.
  • Vision. We all have a vision of a more beautiful world. What would yours look like? Can your vision be your inspiration? Can your vision sustain you with enough hope to keep going, even when it feels that we are a million miles away from it? Can your vision adapt and evolve to co-create with people around you? Can you ground the feeling of this vision in your body, even before you see it with your eyes? Vision motivation needs regular watering, a feeling of being alive in your heart and body in order to continue to do its work.
  • Love: Often we hear people say they are doing the work for their children. What they really mean, is they are doing the work because of love. Love for our children, love for our shared humanity, is a strong and sustainable motivation.  Our desire for those around us and those after us to live in a more just and beautiful world, as well as to honour those who came before us.
  • The Arisings: a more nuanced approach to motivation, subject to change at a whim.  The arisings are those little voices that whisper to us, that tell us we need to do something even when we don’t understand why. It’s our intuition, our gut sense, our connection to something deep within us.  Choosing to regularly check-in and listen to the arisings can be a helpful source of motivation, an intrinsic connection that tells us if we are on the right path, even when we can’t see it.  The difficulty here is in honouring them when they change, and knowing how to listen.
  • Values: When I talk about values in this context, I’m also referring to our sense of what is ‘moral’. Moral obligation is subjective to people, but it means there is something in our values that says this is important.  That we must do this because it is just or right.  This is a more sustainable form of motivation because the desire and foundation of it is within us.  Even though our hearts may ache at how long change takes, we know that our conscience demands we continue.
  • Belonging: Belonging is a powerful motivator. We all crave some form of belonging, no matter how rebellious and independent we may be. True belonging is a space we can be radically ourselves, yet also be part of something larger than ourselves. Belonging helps give us purpose, solidarity and meaning.  We show up, because others show up for us.  We rise, because others are rising with us.  We do the work, because what we co-create together is more magical than what we can do alone.  Tending to the community is form of love in action, and when we’re feeling hopeless, it can help to remember to water the seeds that are in front of us.

When our goals seem impossibly far away, come back to what is true for you right now.  Go within to find your deepest source of motivation. Ask it what it needs to be activated, listen to it, follow it.  “Let us be the ones who plant, even on the days that feel like the end of days” – Omid Safi.

A note on fear: fear can be a useful motivator, in the short term.  Fear activates our fight/flight/freeze response, and sometimes these ‘primal’ responses can be of great benefit. It can encourage us to say yes to opportunities we might miss out on, or our fear for the future may fuel a call to action within us.  However, stress and fear have detrimental long term effects.  Our bodies are not designed to have stress responses permanently activated without some sort of consequence, whether that be physical, mental, emotional or spiritual.  Fear can however be a transformative emotion if use it well.  Can we feel it in its fullest experience, and watch it transform into freedom? Watch it transform into power? Watch it transform into spaciousness?

A further note on mobilisation: the motivating tools we use to mobilise others may be different from what sustains us in the long term, though I believe in a healthy-change-ecosystem our reliance cannot be solely on tools of fear or ‘othering’ to build a movement.