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How to motivate yourself to change

Change is hard, but it’s possible. Use motivational interviewing techniques to build your confidence, and take the plunge

Photo by Bromberger Hoover/Getty





Angela Wood

is a clinical social worker and assistant professor at Southeastern Louisiana University. She is the author of The Motivational Interviewing Workbook: Exercises to Decide What You Want and How to Get There (2020).

Ralph Wood

is a health educator, professor at Southeastern Louisiana University and author of dozens of academic journal articles and book chapters.

Edited by Christian Jarrett





Need to know

Struggling to change in the ways we want to is a common human experience. Many of the practical steps required aren’t easy or fun. This makes motivation a challenge. No matter our excuses – not enough time, not enough energy, not enough money – we often say to ourselves that ‘it’s too hard’, ‘I can’t be bothered’ or ‘I’m just not that motivated.’

How can we find more motivation to make positive changes in our lives? There are so many books out there meant to help you take the necessary steps toward achieving change – to become more organised, say, or more confident, or more ambitious, or to eat more healthily. They tell you what you need to do to enact change, and that’s great if you’re ready to commit to it. But what if your problem isn’t so much that you don’t know what to do; rather that, for whatever reason, you can’t even get yourself started. Perhaps you don’t feel confident in your ability to complete all the recommended steps towards change? Maybe the potential benefit of the change doesn’t seem all that important right now and you just keep putting things off? Or what if there are so many changes you’d like to make that you just don’t know where to start?

‘Motivational interviewing’ (MI) is a counselling approach developed by the clinical psychologists William R Miller and Stephen Rollnick. It’s all about emphasising change from within the client. MI practitioners use their counselling skills, such as open-ended questions and ways to reflect, to evoke what’s called change talk – a conversation about what clients are unhappy about and how they’d like to change. Through an accepting, collaborative and guiding style, this approach seeks to strengthen the person’s commitment to goals they identify for themselves. The emphasis is on a person’s own choices and own reasons for change. Though MI practitioners such as ourselves might make suggestions to help guide our clients, we aren’t trying to force anyone to change or make choices we think they should make. Instead, we ask our clients questions, and reflect back to them what we’re hearing related to their desire, ability, reasons and need for change.

Motivational interviewing recognises that motivation often changes and fluctuates day-to-day, even moment-to-moment. It also sees motivation as a multifaceted concept that involves not only being willing to change, but being ready and able. Being willing means that you recognise that something concerns you about your situation. You see a discrepancy between the reality of your life and the ideal. This might include a desire for change or a sense of need for change. For example, you might think: ‘I wish I were thinner’ or ‘I need to get out of this bad relationship.’ You might complain that your favourite jeans don’t fit anymore or that you’re tired of endless arguments with your partner. This reflects your reality. You then recognise how you wish things were: the ideal. When reality and ideal are sufficiently different, you become uncomfortable. You start thinking about change.

Readiness indicates that you not only recognise a need for change but see this need as a priority amid all the other competing priorities in life. Finally, being able refers to having confidence in your ability to change, and being in possession of the necessary knowledge and skills to make the change.

Crucially, you don’t have to see a counsellor or a therapist to benefit from the principles of motivational interviewing. In due course, you might find it helpful to see a therapist to overcome specific obstacles, work through problems or develop new skills, but in the meantime you can ‘interview’ yourself, to help identify your goals, build your motivation and make plans for change. In this Guide, we’ll show you various exercises to do this. The truth is, there’s no magic bullet we can give you. Expecting to be 100 per cent ready, willing and able isn’t realistic. But by using strategies found in MI, we hope you can get close enough to make the necessary efforts to begin enacting change, step by step.

What to do

There are four key stages involved when practitioners use motivational interviewing: engagement, focusing, evocation and planning. Engagement, which we won’t cover further in this Guide, refers to the need for practitioners to build a positive relationship or therapeutic alliance with their client or patient. We’ll start with the next stage, focusing, which helps the practitioner and client identify what issue or concern in the client’s life will be addressed first. You can work on this phase on your own using an exercise to help you clarify what you want to change:

Recognise the problem

Recognition of a problem is the first step toward building discrepancy – that is, recognising the difference between your reality and the ideal. First, what is your reality? Get a notepad and brainstorm what’s causing you dissatisfaction or concerns. Think of areas such as physical health, work, relationships, social life, finances or emotional/mental health where things aren’t as you’d like. If you have a trusted friend or relative, you could also consider brainstorming with them (but do make sure that they help you uncover your own discrepancies, rather than imposing ideas on you). Here are some examples:

  • ‘I’m overweight.’
  • ‘I worry too much.’
  • ‘I can’t seem to get organised.’
  • ‘I wish I didn’t yell at my kids.’
  • ‘I need to get out more.’
  • ‘I have to get a handle on my budget.’
  • ‘I’m tired of being depressed.’

If you came up with more than one area of concern, rate the ones you listed on a scale from 1 to 5, where 1 indicates that you’re only occasionally troubled by the issue, and 5 indicates that the issue is causing you significant dissatisfaction. As a rough guide, if the concern bothers you several times a day, you might score it a 5. If it causes you concern only once every few weeks, you might score it 1.

Now, focus on your most highly rated concerns, and think: what would make them better, and why? In other words, what would be your ideal situation? Picking up on the examples above, you might reflect on the following:

  • ‘My life would be better if I lost weight because it would help me feel better about myself and reduce my health risks.’
  • ‘My life would be better if I stopped worrying so much because it would help me sleep better and probably get more done.’
  • ‘My life would be better if I could get organised because it would help me be more efficient and get more done.’
  • ‘My life would be better if I could handle my anger because it would improve my relationship with my kids.’
  • ‘My life would be better if I found some friends to hang out with because it would help me feel less alone.’
  • ‘My life would be better if I could stop spending money I don’t have because it would help me pay off my debt and feel less stressed about money.’
  • ‘My life would be better if I could follow through with my counsellor’s suggestions because it would move me in the right direction, toward recovery.’

Now that you’ve identified your reality and your ideal for your most pressing concerns, grab the notepad and let’s put them together – the ideal first, and then the reality: this will help you see your discrepancy for each concern:

(Ideal): My life would be better if I ______ because it would _____.
(Reality): Currently I am _________________.

Next, think about how big or small that discrepancy is. How uncomfortable does it make you feel? If the difference you perceive between your reality and the ideal is small, then you aren’t likely to be very motivated to work on the change. On the other hand, if the difference is too large, then you might feel too discouraged to consider working on that change. Ideally, at this stage you can identify a change where the discrepancy is ‘just right’ – serious enough to bother you, but not so huge that it’s overwhelming.

No matter where your discrepancy falls for the concerns you’ve identified, the next step is to choose the concerning behaviour(s) you most want to work on. The phase in MI known as evocation can help with this. In a counselling context, the MI evocation phase is when the practitioner uses strategies to help clients talk about readiness, willingness and ability to change. The theory is that, the more clients talk about their desire, ability, reasons and need for change, the more likely they’ll be to make a commitment and take action toward their goal. Here are two evocation exercises you can try on your own, or with a trusted friend or relative, that will similarly help to increase your commitment and motivation:

Determine what’s most important and why

In choosing what behavioural changes and goals to get behind, prioritise your efforts by exploring what’s most important to you. One way to better understand how to prioritise your goals is to spend some time identifying your personal values.

For each possible change that you identified in the focusing phase, answer the following questions for yourself. Try to think about the possible impact of each change across different areas of your life. What would the change mean for your physical health, work, relationships, social life, finances, sexuality or emotional/mental health. Get a notepad and jot down your thoughts under two columns:

After you make your list of pros and cons, think: why are these outcomes important? Consider what values you hold, what principles or standards of behaviour make this potential change particularly vital. Examples of values include honesty, family, integrity, faith, health, and responsibility. If you wish to reflect on these more thoroughly, here is a list of worthwhile values.

Once you’ve identified your key values, think about how your current behaviours (the ones you’re most concerned about) get in the way of you living by these values. How will working toward your change goals help you better live by these values? There’s no set duration you must spend on this exercise, but take your time and consider coming back to it on different days when you might be in a different mood or have a different perspective.

Build confidence

We hope the previous exercises helped you identify a particular issue or current behaviour(s) that most concern you right now. But even though you’ve determined how important it is to change that behaviour or behaviours, still you might not feel ready to commit to working actively toward the necessary changes. Confidence isn’t an all-or-nothing state of being. Some days you might have more confidence in your abilities than other days. When you don’t have enough confidence, you might find yourself downplaying the importance of the behaviour change, and feel like you want to give up trying. Your self-talk might be full of thoughts such as: ‘It’s too hard,’ ‘I don’t have time’ or ‘I can’t do anything about it.’

Because confidence is so important to change, another key aspect of the evocation phase is to build your confidence in your own ability to make changes to your behaviour. To do this, it’s important to spend some time reflecting on your strengths, your past successes, and your sources of hope and inspiration:

  • Identify your strengths. Characteristics of successful changers include creativity, resourcefulness, stubbornness and being adventuresome (you can view a longer list in this resource pack that accompanied a book co-authored by the MI co-founder William Miller). Reflect on your own strengths. You might also ask people close to you to identify some of your strengths, and how you’ve demonstrated them in their eyes. How might your strengths help you make the changes that you’re seeking to make?
  • Identify your past successes. Think back to times you’ve successfully made changes and look for nuggets that might help you in your current efforts. What steps did you take then to accomplish those changes? How did you do it, and how could you apply the same or similar strategies today?
  • Develop hope and inspiration. What makes you feel hopeful? What makes you optimistic about making this change? Look for sources of inspiration. You could consider creating a ‘vision board’: use a large scrapbook, a pinboard or a blog (set it to ‘private’ if you don’t want other people to see it) and fill it with images and quotes to help you picture your goal(s). Finding a community of support and sources of information related to your change goal can also help you stay focused and inspired: look for forums or information from trusted outlets online. Relevant charities or support groups are often a good place to start.

Make a plan

By now, we hope you’ve identified the problem behaviour(s) you wish to change, understood the reasons why you want to make this change to your life, established some level of confidence in your ability to make the change, and perhaps considered its importance in relation to your value system. At this, the fourth stage of change in MI, planning, you might be ready to come up with your change plan. Once you’re able to say: ‘I’m willing to work on my change,’ that’s a good sign that you’re ready to consider your plan of action. How are you going to make this change happen? There’s really no right or wrong way to do this, though we have some suggestions.

Think of the ‘big picture’ first. A big picture helps us think of the future; it plants an image in our mind. Imagine what life would be like once you accomplish your change goal. Your big picture could be broad and include more than one specific goal. For example: ‘To cultivate a thriving marriage where we communicate regularly, enjoy each other’s company, and pay attention to the other person’s needs.’

Next, zoom back in to develop and refine your specific goal for change. Beginning from the work you did in the ‘recognise the problem’ exercise during the focusing phase, now aim to translate your aims into a SMART goal, that is: be specific, make the goal measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. A general goal such as ‘I want to feel better’ will be hard to build a plan around because it’s too vague. ‘I’d like to lose 10 pounds in the next eight weeks’ is a SMART goal.

As you think about your SMART goal, brainstorm possible steps you can take toward achieving the goal. Try listing at least 10 actions, steps or tasks that will help you make progress. Then, go through the list and rate each step from 1 to 5, where 5 is an action you feel capable of undertaking, and 1 is an action that’s too difficult, vague or impractical at the moment. Just as your goal needs to be SMART, your steps also need to be SMART, so try to rework the list to make as many of the steps as near to 5 as possible. For example, ‘Eat fewer carbohydrates and fats’ might become ‘I will limit myself to 1,200 calories a day for the next eight weeks.’

Everyone needs a support system, so as far as possible this should be part of your plan, too. Bear in mind that there are different ways people can be helpful. Consider who could help you financially, be a good listener, encourage you, value your abilities, and reliably touch base with you. Spend a little time figuring out how and when you could reach out to these people. We understand that not everyone has a built-in support system. But there are ways to find or develop a social network that will support you toward your goals. You can connect in person with those who share the same interests or goals (eg, co-workers, faith community or community organisations) or on social media. You might even consider starting your own group.

In addition to social support, there are other resources that might be useful on your journey toward change. It’s worth thinking about buying access to an online support group or, on a bigger scale, the funds that would enable you to move to a new location if your change goal requires it. If you’re employed, take a look at your conditions – sometimes employers offer benefits or flexible working, which might help you enact certain steps toward your change. If you don’t have the financial resources available, is there anything you could do to save or raise the necessary funds? Or could you find creative ways to utilise or access resources in your community? You don’t have to spend money to support your efforts toward change.

Make your strengths a conscious part of your plan. As you did in the ‘build confidence’ exercise during the evocation phase, choose several characteristics you possess that will help you be successful.

Setting up a system of rewards will also help you stay motivated and reinforce positive changes along the way. Brainstorm a list of possible rewards you might enjoy. While you might consider tangible rewards (eg, new clothes or electronic devices), be sure to also include in your plan rewarding activities and events, such as meetings with friends, family outings or time alone doing what you enjoy.

The final part of the plan requires identifying likely barriers and being prepared to find ways to face them or cope with them. Some obstacles might call for practical problem-solving (your support system and resources might help here) while others might be more internal, such as addressing your self-talk. Self-talk is how we speak to ourselves, our inner conversation. Negative self-talk could be an impediment to change. Once you’ve identified your unhelpful self-talk, challenge those ideas. For example: ‘You’ve shown self-control before. You can work at it.’ Again, supportive friends or relatives might be able to help you.

Put all this information – the big picture; your specific goal; 10 specific steps; your support system; your resources; your obstacles – together in a written plan, and review it often. Keeping your goal in mind is crucial to success. If you file away your plan, it will be ‘out of sight, out of mind’, so try to keep it somewhere handy and visible, such as by your bedside or on your desk. You might like to use a template plan such as the free one at the Motivational Interviewing Network of Trainers (MINT) website.

Key points – How to motivate yourself to change

  1. Change can be hard. Motivational interviewing is a counselling technique that helps people find their own reasons and motivation to change.
  2. Become willing, ready and able. Exercises from motivational interviewing can help you prepare for enacting change, even working on your own.
  3. Recognise the problem. Start with ‘focusing’ exercises to identify the discrepancies between how you’d like your life to be and how it is.
  4. Determine what’s most important and why. Use ‘evocation’ exercises to prioritise your concerns and reflect on how the changes you hope to make will help you live according to your values.
  5. Build confidence. Identify your strengths, past successes, and sources of hope and inspiration that might help you make the changes you seek to make.
  6. Make a plan. Develop a ‘change plan’, including establishing SMART goals that are specific and achievable, specifying small doable steps, building a support system, and identifying your resources and obstacles.

Learn more

Motivation and the process of change can be understood through different theoretical perspectives. Motivational interviewing is partly derived from the social psychologist Daryl Bem’s self-perception theory of the 1960s, which provides the basis for the key principle of discrepancy between one’s actual and ideal self that we introduced earlier. Motivational interviewing is also grounded in humanistic psychotherapy. The humanistic perspective believes that the power to change lies within each person, and that change is always possible.

Another model of change that’s even more comprehensive is the transtheoretical model of change, or stages of change, developed by the psychologists James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente in the 1970s. The original version of their model describes the five stages people go through when working through the process of change. While motivational interviewing wasn’t developed around these stages, the two approaches work well together, and you might find it useful to consider how the stages apply to your own situation. The five stages are: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action and maintenance.

The first stage, precontemplation, is typically used to describe an individual who has no intention of adopting a new behaviour in the next six months. Precontemplators can be divided into two broad categories: the uninformed and the demoralised. The uninformed have no intention of adopting a new behaviour because they don’t know that they need to do something different (in motivational interviewing terms, they haven’t yet acknowledged a discrepancy). In contrast, the demoralised individual at the precontemplation stage has made numerous attempts to change without success, and has decided to no longer attempt change. If you’re at the precontemplation stage, your goal for now is to move from saying ‘I have no intention to change’ to ‘I’ll think about it.’ Motivational interviewing and its focusing exercises can help you in this by raising your awareness of the need to change and providing relief from the stress, anxiety or depression related to the behaviours that have been causing you concern.

Contemplation is the second stage. Contemplators are considering making a change but are reluctant to commit to doing so in the next 30 days. They’re best described as ambivalent about change. Individuals at this stage recognise that they have a problem that needs addressing, yet they don’t see it as high-priority. If you’re at this stage, then, to move past it, it’s important that you believe that new ways of behaving will yield significant benefits with minimal barriers. In this case, the goal is to move from saying ‘I’ll think about it’ to ‘It’s important that I make this change.’ Through focusing, evocation and early work on planning, motivational interviewing can help you identify and address potential barriers, evaluate your goals and values against your target behaviour changes, and begin to explore and build your confidence.

Once you’ve determined that it’s important to make your change in the next 30 days, you’ve reached the preparation stage. It’s not unusual at this stage to begin ‘testing the waters’ by making small changes in the direction of your ultimate goal. This can build the needed confidence to put a plan in motion. Here, your goal is to move from saying ‘It’s important that I make this change’ to ‘I’m confident that I can make this change.’ Motivational interviewing can help by evoking commitment and through work on a change plan, including identifying small steps you’ve already taken or will take toward the direction of change. Spending time affirming your strengths as well as supporting your autonomy will further help set you in the direction of successful change.

Once you’ve developed a change plan and put it in motion, you’re in the action stage. You’re now making changes to your individualised plan that are observable, measurable, and will result in some type of benefit. At this point, it’s essential to also develop a plan to handle sliding back into old patterns, otherwise known as relapse. Should you relapse, motivational interviewing can help – revisit the earlier focusing and evocation exercises to look again at your reasons, desires or need to change. Your backup plan could also include reviewing your reward system, continuing to build your social support system, and re-evaluating potential barriers to change.

Once you’ve maintained behavioural changes that have yielded significant benefits for six months, you’re in the maintenance stage of Prochaska and DiClemente’s model. If you manage to reach this stage, that’s a fantastic achievement – we hope you’ve been able to reward yourself along the way. However, don’t become complacent. Setbacks are likely, so have a plan ready for how to get back on track if necessary. If that happens, much like in the action stage (before the goal is achieved), you can always review and revise your change plan as needed.

We hope the exercises in this Guide help you reflect on your situation and build your motivation to make the changes you want to make. You might still be finding it hard to know where to begin – that’s entirely normal. We mentioned before that sometimes the discrepancy between where we are (reality) and where we want to be (ideal) seems too big. If that’s the case, don’t rush or feel pressured – take your time to identify the minimal practical steps you can take that are specific and doable. Draw on the support of close friends and family if you can. Also, don’t be surprised if your confidence waxes and wanes from one day or week to the next. Motivation for change is often a fluctuating state of being, requiring constant attention and reinforcement – try not to feel despondent if you’re less hopeful on some days than others.

If you continue to struggle to make a change that you believe is very important, don’t feel ashamed to ask for professional help. Also, bear in mind that therapists usually view motivational interviewing as one approach in their toolbox. While we hope you’ll find the exercises in this Guide beneficial, in practice their effectiveness is usually increased when combined with other evidence-based strategies. For instance, you might have specific barriers or obstacles that can best be addressed through other approaches such as cognitive behavioural therapy or acceptance and commitment therapy – there are self-help versions of these techniques available or you could seek the help of a specialist therapist. Whatever approach you choose in your journey of change, we wish you all the best, and recommend the resources below to help you on your way.

Links & books

One of us (Angie) wrote The Motivational Interviewing Workbook: Exercises to Decide What You Want and How to Get There (2020). It contains more than 100 exercises that cover multiple facets of the change process, from recognising what you want to change to why and how.

Although it’s geared toward practitioners, the Positive Psychology site contains a variety of topics and exercises you can explore to help you grow. For example, their self-motivation topic area contains lots of ideas to help you understand and build on your motivation.

If you enjoy podcasts, try the Changeability Podcast series presented by Kathryn Bryant and Julian Illman. Their website, Brilliant Living HQ, also has many practical tips and resources to help you overcome challenges in the change process (this includes a free course on ‘vision setting’ for users who create a free account; most other resources require a fee).

TED Talks are another popular resource for knowledge and inspiration. One of our favourites is the talk ‘Why It’s So Hard to Make Healthy Decisions’ (2018) by the behavioural economist David Asch, in which he explains beautifully why we make poor health choices despite being aware of the cost (or potential cost) of our actions.

When it comes to smartphone apps, there are endless options. For daily inspirational quotes, we recommend the Monkey Taps app. Meanwhile, a habit tracker, focused on your various health behaviours, might help you stay engaged in your change process: the Way of Life app is well rated. Try searching for ‘goal-setting tracker’ to find various apps that help you design, set and track your goals (they don’t have to include health-related behaviours).

If you liked the ‘stages of change’ model we introduced in the ‘Learn More’ section above, then an ideal book to help you through the change process is Changing for Good: A Revolutionary Six-Stage Program for Overcoming Bad Habits and Moving Your Life Positively Forward (2007) by the co-developers of the ‘stages of change’ model James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente, together with the psychologist John Norcross.

If you’d like more direction in your quest for change, you might appreciate the book Finding Your Way to Change: How the Power of Motivational Interviewing Can Reveal What You Want and Help You Get There (2015) by the psychologist Allan Zuckoff with Bonnie Gorscak. It follows the process of recognising what you want to change, dealing with ambivalence about the change, the importance of the change, and creating a change plan with in-depth examples based on several client profiles.