05/06/2012 11:02 am ET | Updated Jul 06, 2012

Best Overlooked Strategy to Help You Stay Motivated

Do you have an important goal that you just keep losing sight of? Or are you trying to make difficult changes that will ultimately lead to a healthier and happier life but can't seem to stay on track?

When we want to do something differently, say to save money, stand up for ourselves or exercise more frequently, we often start with enthusiasm. But habits are hard to change. After an initial burst of energy, it's easy to fall back into old patterns of behavior.

What we too frequently overlook, when we try to make changes, is what is happening around us that either boosts motivation or contributes to slipping back into the status quo.

When you are trying to make changes, what happens as soon as you act in a particular way has an impact on whether you will stick it out. Say for example you'd like to exercise more often. We all know the long-term benefits of exercise, but what happens as soon as you make the decision to exercise? Do you have to pull yourself away from the TV or out of bed? Do you think about what you're missing by exercising, say lunch with friends or quiet time to yourself in the evening? Does someone in your life encourage you to skip it, just this once? Or do you imagine some much-needed quiet time for yourself as you exercise? Or think about how you will feel less stressed after a quick jog? Or do you have a friend encouraging you and suggesting that exercise would be a fun way to spend time together?

To stay motivated, it's essential to pay attention to those things that happen at the same time you are trying to make changes. If exercising more often is paired in your mind with missing relaxing time in front of the TV, you'll likely lose your enthusiasm for exercising. On the other hand, if exercising means you get a much-needed break and some time with a friend, you're much more likely to stick with it.

It's not necessary to allow chance to determine whether or not you stay motivated. If you want to achieve your goal, you can actively seek out ways to pair positives with steps toward your goal.

You're more likely to repeat an action when something positive occurs with it. Pay raises, promotions and bonuses are positives that make it more likely that employees will do good work. There are also natural rewards that help keep us motivated -- for example, feeling a sense of pride in achieving a difficult goal.

People have a tremendous effect on whether we stay motivated. A smile, "good job" or validation of your efforts will go a long way toward keeping you going when your spirits are lagging.

Try this:

If you've got a specific goal you're trying to achieve or a change you're trying to make, consider making a list of positives that you could pair with actions toward your goal. Can you call a supportive friend when you resist the urge to buy a new pair of shoes, or can you focus in on the feelings of pride and accomplishment when you stand up for yourself instead of putting your needs last?

Ask yourself how you can make a conscious effort to arrange for positives to support the changes you want to make. Too often we leave our motivation to chance or become self-critical and resigned to staying the same.

You can find more strategies to help you achieve your goals and improve how you feel in my new book, The Stress Response and by clicking here to sign up for more of my tips and podcasts using DBT strategies to improve how you feel.

For more by Christy Matta, M.A., click here.

For more on mindfulness, click here.