You will never find motivation.
It will never strike you. It can’t be given to you. You can’t discover it.
It’s something inside of you that you use to drive yourself. You have a certain amount of it with which you can choose to use to do tasks, and with each task you do, you will use some up.
This might sound a little bleak, but it’s not. Because if motivation is not an external force it has to come from your. True enough, Motivation is something that is made inside of you. It’s something that your brain makes when it has the endorphins running through it that make you feel good, and you want to apply that to an activity.
So how do we make motivation then?
It’s simple but counter-intuitive: You make motivation by doing stuff. But this causes a problem in of itself.
Every activity that we can do has an activation cost attached. This is the energy that it takes us to stop doing what we are doing right now, and start doing the new activity. If this activation energy is higher than our current level of motivation, most of us won’t start that new activity. This is because most of us get stuck in the mindframe that we need the motivation to start. So if we don’t have the motivation we postpone the activity until we find the motivation to start it.
Except you will never find motivation.
When we rest our motivation level will raise slightly, but if we make our motivation by doing stuff then this creates a paradox. We are stuck in the chicken/egg loop whereby we never do the things that create motivation, while waiting for motivation that never comes because we’re not doing the things that will create the very motivation that we are waiting for, and so on.
The good news is you will start the day with some motivation. Sleeping is rest, and our motivation will rise as we rest, particularly while we sleep. On a bad day our motivation might be small, perhaps even a tiny amount. But knowing that you have it there is a start. And if we have this start we have something to build on. So how do we go about building some more motivation.
Listed below are six things that you can do to help work with the motivation that you have to try and build more.
This might seem silly, but standing up can be enough of a start to get you going. We tend to think of our time as transitioning from one activity to another smoothly, and don’t think about pauses in between. However if we stop one activity. Then we are now doing nothing and waiting for the next activity. If we’re having trouble going from one activity to another, pointedly stopping can be the jump-start that we need. This then levels out the activation energy playing field and makes it easier to make better decisions.
For example if you’re watching TV and need to go do the washing up, put your laundry on or go make some food, standing up will break the action of sitting watching TV. Now either sitting back down or walking to the other room have the same/similar activation energy and you might find it easier to go start the task you should do. It’s just a little circuit breaker that helps create the space we need to make a decision.
This might not work for larger tasks however, or times when our motivation is really low. The thought of a large task might drive even the best of us back down onto the sofa. But it is a very low cost approach and one that is well worth trying.
(Obviously you can do other activity stopping options beyond standing up. The key is to just stop what you’re doing and break that concentration. Another favourite of mine is simply sliding my phone out of reach if I’m on it.)
Just start with low motivation.
Again. A simple one. This one works best when you accept that there’s no pressure on the end result. But sometimes when we are avoiding doing a task the best thing to do is just to jump in and start to do it regardless of the result. The task might seem too big to start but if you jump in and do some of it, the fact the size is coming down might make it easier to stick with it. Also as we work through the task and see progress we will be making more motivation as we go.
If for example we are looking to work out. 1 press up is better than no press up. So taking away the pressure of results and just doing something (1 press up) is better than nothing. Once we’ve done the one press up, maybe we can do a few more, and then a few more and so on. If we can get stuck into the virtuous cycle where completion of each press up is giving us at least enough energy to complete the next we might end up completing the full work out. After all, if you’re doing 1 or 100 press ups you have to do them 1 at a time.
The truth is though, there’s a good chance we won’t hit that virtuous cycle. We may find that we don’t have much in the tank and end up calling it a day shorter than we would like. But at least we’ve done something. Worst comes to the worst and we’ve at least put something on the board, and the progress we’re made will mean the activity will take less motivation to complete next time.
This is similar to the one above but in a more structured way. Basically break up the activity(s) you want/need to do and find a small amount that you have the motivation to do and complete that. Again it’s about getting something on the board.
Once it’s done you can look for another smaller task of the whole and look to complete that. Hopefully as you chalk off parts of the tasks, the small completions along the way and the dopamine boost they give you will help give you the motivation that you need to keep working away and get through what you want to do.
This one is a bit of a race though. Starting with a small task and building up may leave you finding a point where the next task is bigger than the motivation you have. Which will often lead to us stopping where we are. This is fine, and it’s OK to stop. Just make sure that you focus on what you have achieved and not what you haven’t, as we don’t want to let negative emotions build up. Again we’ve at least made progress.
This is almost identical to the method above except for a key difference. Instead of breaking the main task you start to build motivation by doing small tasks in other areas. You might want to clean your bathroom. But first you take out your rubbish from the kitchen first cause it’s easier. Then you might put some laundry on first cause it’s easier. You can keep on working at these smaller tasks until you have the motivation to start the bigger task that you really want to complete. Not only are you working towards building motivation but also completing smaller chores along the way.
The danger here is quite obvious. You might never get around to the task you want to do. This is a bad technique for any task that has a deadline as it’s literally based on distracting yourself with other tasks beyond your main aim. However you may find that it works well if the main activity seems too much.
Priming the pump.
This technique involves doing a pre-activity that helps build up inspiration to complete the main activity.
Inspiration is different to motivation in that it is created outside of yourself. It doesn’t add any motivation in itself, but focuses the motivation that you have towards one key goal. Priming the pump is about using that inspiration to pull together the motivation you have to focus it towards a task, and often involves enjoying the fruits before beginning the labour.
For example, if you are looking to write, then reading for 20 minutes before you start might remind you why you want to write, and get the creative juices bubbling and give you the motivation to start.
Or going for a walk, getting the body moving and enjoying your health might give you the motivation to start the workout to maintain/improve on that health.
The key is to find a pre-activity that triggers the inspiration/motivation response that you are looking for.
Be careful though with timing if you try this, as you want to make sure that you are starting the main activity when you have the most inspiration/motivation you possible. You don’t want to get so wrapped up in the pre-activity it takes away from the main activity.
This is my personal favourite because I find it the most powerful.
Routine is about setting down a list of activities that you complete in a set order. Habits are formed by our bodies and minds to take away from the energy of thinking about everything. We can use routines to string together activities and let them become habits that lower the activation energy of each subsequent activity.
I am writing this blog right now because of routine. I am having a shitty day. I couldn’t sleep last night because my anxiety was playing up. However due to my routine, I dragged myself up, went for a walk, did a short workout, drank some green drink, meditated, had a shower (warm to clean, then cold so Wim Hof doesn’t shout at me), prepared and ate a healthy breakfast, and sat down to write this blog.
I still don’t feel great. I’m tired and grumpy. But I have achieved a lot today already. I’m going to add some reading later, but if I only achieve that much by the time I go to bed, I know tomorrow I’ll be happy with my productivity.
Having a routine helps you get through what you need to do, even when you don’t want to, by turning it into habit. Once these habits are ingrained in you then you start to feel like they have to be done, almost like there’s no way you can avoid them. For myself:
If I don’t work out after my walk I feel anxious.
If I don’t meditate after my workout I feel restless.
If I don’t shower after my meditation I feel dirty.
If I don’t eat after my shower I feel hungry.
If I don’t write something after I eat breakfast I feel listless.
Each activity is built on each other and creates cues to trigger the next one, making it easier to get through everything and they can be great for ensuring that you get through certain activities with consistency and regularity.
The downside is that it can take a while to get into a routine and getting them to stick can be tricky at first, but they are worth sticking with. As a tip I’ve found it works well to start on a less (mentally) focused activity, and then alternate with more focussed activities. So for me it goes:
Walk – Unfocused. I head outside and wander around until I feel like I’ve woken up and am ready to go.
Workout – Focussed. Focussed on form and on making sure I achieve my goals.
Make/drink green drink – Unfocused. This is just me shaking some powder into water and then staring out the window as I drink it.
Meditation – Focussed. I focus as I work through the routine, in particular on my breath.
Shower – Unfocussed. This is relaxation and habit for me.
And so on.
Motivation is a tricky thing. It’s very difficult to line up what motivation you have with what you want to achieve, and sometimes you have to just suck it up and do what you need to do regardless. But these six methods might give you an idea of a few tricks to try when you know that you need to be doing something, but just can’t find the drive.
Whatever you do to make yourself motivated remember that you can make more motivation if you get out there and start ticking things off your to do list.