How Do You Stay Motivated? (Dear SQL DBA Episode 47)

on September 1, 2017

Over the years, readers have asked me: “How do you stay motivated?” Sticking with a learning plan, blogging, or becoming a public speaker isn’t easy.

In this 15 minute episode, I share how I think about motivation and what keeps me going.

No time to watch right now or read the transcript below? Listen on the go! This is available in podcast format on iTunes , on Google Play, or plug this RSS feed into your favorite podcast app:

Transcript of this episode

Please forgive errors in grammar and punctuation: robots helped create this transcript.

Welcome to Dear SQL DBA, a podcast and YouTube show for SQL Server database administrators and developers. I’m Kendra Little from

Today I’m talking about a question that I’ve gotten from a few people over the years. I’ve had folks ask me, “Hey Kendra, where do you get your motivation?”

I’ve gotten this question about where do I get the motivation to blog, or to teach, or to keep learning.

Sometimes folks say things like, “I’ve tried to do this myself. I’ve created a learning plan for myself, and I get started, but I never seem to get anywhere. I constantly get sidetracked by normal work life or personal requirements or whatever comes up. How do I stay motivated?”

Motivation isn’t something that you just have

Motivation isn’t a quality that you’re born with, and you can’t really be missing it. This is good news because if you feel like you lack motivation, it’s not like this is a component of yourself that you lack.

I have found that for me, motivation is a combination of building habits and of starting over after failures. That’s really to me what motivation is, is this process of continuously getting myself to build up habits— which is hard! I’m not saying this is easy.

Building habits

Continuously building up habits, and when I fail –which is often – when things don’t go right, brushing myself off and getting going again – when we’re building habits it’s really tough! Because when we’re doing something like setting out a learning plan, or starting a blog, or we want to write a presentation – we have to work on this regularly.

We want to publish a blog post fairly often, so we need to have a habit of writing. For a learning plan we need to have a habit of studying regularly. For writing a presentation we’ve got to have a rehearsal and have a process of creating the presentation, and of getting ready to do it. A lot of times we can set out with the best intentions and set out a plan for how we’re gonna do this, and then we just we fall off of it. Something comes up and we can’t make the schedule.

Then we miss it the next time, and the next thing you know we’ve got a calendar reminder that we just don’t pay any attention to. We aren’t keeping up.

When I have a hard time building a habit, I say, “okay, what can I do to try to get this habit to take?”

Maybe I am trying to take on too much at once. Maybe I need to break this thing I’m trying to do into a smaller chunk and define it more granularly. So maybe instead of doing a big learning plan for myself over a course of three months, maybe I’m going to take the first part of that plan and take it slowly over one month. Just break it into that chunk and try to complete that, and then give myself a rest after I do that. Or maybe I need to change my habit around.

Maybe I’ve been trying to learn this with books, maybe I should try to learn this with an online course. Or maybe I am gonna change my learning plan to include going to webcasts by virtual chapters, or going to my local user group. Maybe there is a variable in there that I can try to build a habit around, and I can change it a little bit. I also sometimes with myself – depending on what the habit is – sometimes setting a deadline for myself helps me along with the habit.

Is there something I can work into my life where I actually need to have this done by a certain point? If you want to become a teacher and a presenter, there are obviously easy ways to set deadlines for yourself. But even if you have something like a learning plan, maybe saying okay what I want to do with this learning plan is I want to be able to write up a summary of what I’ve learned by X Date. Maybe there’s even an accountability factor I can add in for myself where I am going to give a short presentation to my team about what I’ve learned, or I’m going to talk to my coworker – and I’ve promised.

I’ve said, “OK, I want to meet this deadline. Will you help me be accountable for this?” Friends can help keep us accountable. There’s a reason that for lots of things that are dependent on habits, like stopping smoking, and weight loss, and anything that’s a difficult habit to take on – there’s a reason that support groups are a really popular part of formats to help you along. Because having a regular place where you meet with other people, and having people who you are accountable to, and who you can relate to, and talk about the habit that you’re building can be very very helpful.

It’s hard to build habits: we’re going to fail sometimes. Maybe a lot!

The thing with failure, though, is you that when we’re trying to build habits, and when we’re taking on other projects, every time we slip up, every time we don’t stay on our schedule, or don’t go along with the plan where we’re trying to build that habit, we feel a sense of failure.

“I’ve tried to start a blog six times, and yet again I feel really dumb because I put two posts up and I haven’t been writing in it.” There’s this tendency that most of us have to feel bad about ourselves because we you had a plan and we weren’t able to stick to that plan. There are feelings of embarrassment and guilt and the idea that this somehow reflects on ourselves.

“Failure feelings” is how I think about these feelings of “Oh I suck.” You don’t necessarily have the ability to stop these. At least, I have never been able to tell those feelings to go away. I can’t just say I’m not gonna have those feelings: I’m gonna have those feelings whether I want them or not! I understand that they aren’t good for me, but I can’t make those feelings just go away.

So I don’t try to stop them anymore, but I try to recognize that those are a pattern, and that a lot of those feelings of failure – like when I when I am NOT able to establish a habit and when I can’t keep up with something – those feelings are habitual, and they are gonna show up, but I don’t have to believe those feelings.

Just because I’m having a feeling doesn’t mean that feeling is correct. It doesn’t mean that it’s right.

I can recognize, “okay, I’m having this feeling. It’s temporary. I feel bad about this but what do I want to do?”

I don’t have to believe what the feeling is telling me. I can remind myself, “Okay, I’m not not meeting the plan that I had. I’m not building this habit, and I feel bad about it. But what do I want to do? What do I want to do going forward?” Really, where we act and what we control is looking forward. I am constantly reminding myself to look forward and to make a plan a positive plan about what I can do. Negative failure feelings have never helped me at all. They’ve never helped motivate me. I have never been motivated by that feeling of, “I suck because I didn’t do what I set out to do.”

What I find is much more motivating is if I have a failure feeling, and I’m feeling kind of crappy, recognizing – yeah I’m feeling I’m feeling kind of crappy. What do I want to do though? What do I want to do moving forward? I may or may not want to try the same thing again. I may want to try something slightly differently but focus on thinking about what are the steps I can take, and how do I want to change things up.

It’s fine that things didn’t work out and it’s kind of interesting to me… one of the things that has particularly over the last year has stuck with me is, a quote from Oprah Winfrey. I never really watched the Oprah Show much, but I listened to a podcast about the making of the Oprah Winfrey Show. They talked about for a while that one of the real themes they had while Oprah was building her show and her eventual media empire, is they had this mantra of, “Stay in your own lane.”

That phrase is a really powerful phrase. I think I’m probably 15 years late on this phrase, but it still works– because self comparisons to other people make restarting after failure harder!

Avoid comparisons

Those feelings of feeling bad when something goes wrong, it can become really easy when you’re having those feelings of feeling crappy because you didn’t do what you wanted to do – mentally you may want to go towards thoughts like, “I wish I was more like this other person, because it seems easier for them.” Of course we don’t see all the failures that they went through, and we don’t see all of the feelings they’ve had about it. We see this imaginary version of them.

These self comparisons to other people don’t help us get back up and try again. They don’t motivate us at all.

Instead, staying in our own lane is more about just saying, okay focus on yourself and what you can do. This also means that having negative conversations about other people isn’t good for motivation either.

This is something that it took me a long time to recognize in my life: that indulging in putting other people down– whether or not they deserve it is frankly irrelevant – criticizing other and doing it in a way that’s anything but constructive and practical is bad for YOU. It may feel good at the time, may make us feel better, but this is actually a kind of comparing ourselves to other people. If other people are causing problems, it’s totally valid to make a practical plan to say how can we work together better, and try to make it better. But that involves youbeing honest and not gossiping about people.

Avoid self comparison to other people, whether we are the one who is in the right or not. It’s just not helpful.

Staying in our own lane is about having a forward focus about, what do I want to do, and what is my path? How am I going to start again? There gonna be times when we fall into these behavior patterns of negative feelings, or the behavior patterns of having negative conversations about others. Or comparing ourselves to others in any way.

Recognizing, “oh, I’m doing that again. Okay, you know what, I should really focus on what am I gonna do and how am I gonna make my life more awesome. I want to do X, how am I gonna go about and do this better?”

Make a habit of re-focusing

Refocusing is so much more powerful, and will lead you much more into getting the things done that you want to get done.

It is never too late to start again. You may have started a learning plan 20 times and stopped on the second day. That’s fine. That’s totally fine.

Hey guess what? It’s actually cool that you started 20 times! You can start again.

Change one thing about the way you’re gonna execute that plan, and start again. It may be the 21st time that you make it through the plan, and you realize, “oh, here’s what I need to be able to set out on learning something, for my plan, for myself, and make it work at this time in my life.”

What works for us at one point in our life may need to change to work for us a year or two later. I don’t have the same habits when it comes to blogging or writing presentations or learning or teaching that I did ten years ago, because different things work for me now. The world is different and my brain is different. Adapting as we move move on – what adapting really is, is starting over when something stops working.

The secret of motivation is … the motivation isn’t something I have. I don’t have motivation.

Instead I have a set of habits that I’ve built up, and fairly frequently things about those habits stop working. They start falling off for me, and I have to say, “okay, how do I get back into this? How do I change something? How do I keep going? How do I do something cool now?”

Because failure is something that doesn’t go away in life. We always have things that trip us up. We always have things that stop working. We always have starting over.

One of the quotes that I heard in school that has really stuck with me over the years, and that changes meaning over my life, is a quote from Samuel Beckett. One of my school friends loved Samuel Beckett.

The quote is – I may not get it exactly right – it’s, “Try again, fail again, fail better.”

That sounds really negative at first. That sounds just like such a downer, that you have to try again fail again feel better.

But the truth is that is what success is: success is trying again, and not believing in those bad feelings.

Not falling prey to those comparisons. Or if we fall prey – we can’t stop ourselves from falling prey to them – but recognizing, “okay what I need to do is focus on making a plan and setting out again. I don’t have a guarantee that I’m gonna succeed, and I’m never going to get one because this is life. I may fail again but my goal is I’m gonna try to fail better.”

In its own way, I think that is inspiring and beautiful, and is all about this process we have of moving forward.

Thank you so much for joining me for this week of Dear SQL DBA. I’m Kendra Little from, and I’ll see you again next week.