Motivating yourself

Many people think the reason they don’t get things done is because they aren’t motivated, so they spend a lot of time looking for ways to get motivated.

This is a waste of time. Motivation is a nice to have, not a need to have. What we need is action. Here’s the truth about motivation:

Action precedes motivation

Motivation requires decision making and energy and willpower and manufactured feelings of joy and engagement and drive and all those things  that are in chronically short supply. Action simply requires, well, action. You don’t have to feel like it, you just have to do it. And once you’re doing it, motivation may appear and make it easier to continue, but if not, it’s irrelevant, because you’re already doing what needs doing.

There are two ways we can use this. We can make action inevitable by making things non negotiable. These are habits. Or we can make agreements with ourselves and stick to them, which is self discipline.

I’m a big fan of both. Frankly, I think they’re both essential if you’re going to make a go of living alone. You cannot rely on motivation when you live alone, because motivating yourself is incredibly hard work and there’s no-one there to cheer you on and encourage you. So we need good habits, and we need some self discipline.

We do need to be careful about what we establish as habits precisely because they are things we no longer choose to do. We lose sight of why we do them, which is the point, but it’s also dangerous because we stop being aware that we’re doing them. So we must choose them carefully, and periodically review them to make sure they’re still serving us well.

We also need to foster some kind of self discipline to establish and maintain habits. Self discipline is different from motivation. Motivation is wanting to feel like doing something, whereas discipline is about committing to doing things regardless of how you feel.

Self discipline is a more reliable companion than motivation. Self discipline is part of the story you tell yourself about the kind of person you are. It’s the dos and don’ts rather than the musts and mustn’ts. For example: “I don’t eat chocolate for breakfast” is a statement about how I live, a rule I live by. “I mustn’t eat chocolate for breakfast” is a statement about a battle raging between the forces of good and evil that I am relying on willpower to win.

By self discipline I don’t mean a constant diet of hair shirts and flagellation. I mean setting some rules for ourselves that feel right and honest, and that focus us on the bigger direction of our life. For example, I know that eating 5 servings of veg a day makes a world of difference to my mental and physical health. I want to feel healthy and happy, and I don’t want to spiral down into depression, so I follow some self-imposed rules when I shop for groceries and I don’t come home with a trolley’s worth of processed junk that will make me sick and depressed. And when it comes to making dinner, I cook up those Brussels sprouts. Why? Not because I felt like it or am “motivated” to eat Brussels sprouts. I’m not a holier-than-thou masochist, I don’t love Brussels sprouts, but they’re in season, inexpensive and good for me and all those things are part of my bigger choices about eating 5 veg daily and not living extravagantly. Besides, they’re not as bad as you thought they were when you were a kid.

Self discipline and habits are essentially about putting long term good ahead of short term pleasure. While that sounds drearily self denying, in the bigger scheme of things it’s about setting ourselves up for the win.

Relying on motivation to get us there is bound to fail. Instead, to quote that athletics company: just do it.