“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
We’ve all been there. We really, really want to do that project. We know it makes sense, for us and for the world. We know it will open the door to future fulfillment and happiness. We know it matters.
And yet we find ourselves shilly-shallying and procrastinating. We clean the house instead of clearing our To Do list. We investigate the contents of the refrigerator instead of investigating the contents of our heart. We have fallen into a gumption trap and we can’t find our way out.
What to do? Here are some of my secrets for unleashing your inner awesomeness when motivation slumps.
Just show up.
Although it’s great to feel motivated about your task, it’s not necessary. If you wait for inspiration to strike, you could be waiting a long time. Most successful people don’t wait to feel motivated – they just show up to work and get on with it, and often inspiration shows up not long afterwards.
A job begun is a job half done.
Getting started is the hardest part. But once you make a start, a job quickly acquires its own momentum. So even if you really don’t feel like doing something, summon up enough willpower to just take the first, tiny step. Don’t feel like going for your training run? Tell your body you’ll just do 5 minutes, get your kit on, and get out the door. Then see how it goes. And who knows, you may find that 5 minutes turns into more.
Acknowledge the power of accumulation.
We tend to overestimate the amount we can get done in one day, and underestimate the amount we can get done by consistently chipping away at a task patiently day after day. Spending just 15 minutes on a project every day for a month can yield dramatic results. Consistency is key.
Build a habit.
The most effective way I’ve found to embed consistency into my daily life is to create a habit. Block out an appropriate number of minutes at a time of day that works for you, and practice doing your important tasks at that time until it becomes completely automatic. I prefer to get my Must Do’s out of the way first thing in the morning, before emails and other distractions get in the way – and before my brain has time to start thinking of excuses.
Keep checking that you’re doing what’s important rather than what’s urgent.
It’s easy to kid yourself that you’re being productive, when what you’re really doing is ticking off trivial tasks rather than important ones. When we finish a task like responding to an email, we get a little hormonal rush of satisfaction that can become addictive. Plus we feel good that, by replying to the email, we’ve got someone off our back – and so we end up frittering away our days according to what is important to other people, rather than what is important to us. Be honest with yourself, and make sure you focus on what is important to your long term success, even if it is not urgent.
Nothing great is ever easy.
It’s easy to be mediocre. It’s harder to be amazing. So when your task seems hard going, remind yourself that if it was easy, everybody would be doing it. And the harder you’ve had to work at it, the greater the sense of satisfaction will be when you’ve completed it. Make it a question of identity: Are you the kind of person who puts things off? Or are you the kind of person who gets things done? Are you the kind of person who would shy away from sharing your gifts with the world? Or are you the kind of person who dares to dream big and make those dreams come true?
Consider the opposite.
If your desire for what you do want isn’t motivation enough to keep you on task, try thinking about what will happen if you don’t do it. What will your future life be like if you don’t do this workout? If you don’t write this book? If you don’t finish this project? You might find your aversion to the opposite outcome is enough to get you motivated again.
Conquer your fear of failure.
If you’re a perfectionist, your motivation may be undermined by your fear that what you produce won’t be good enough. If you finish this work and put it out into the world, you make yourself vulnerable to judgment, rejection or criticism. So you protect your ego by never quite managing to finish. But who are you to deny the world the benefit of your creativity? Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good enough. Allow something to be less than perfect. Even the most perfect work is little use to the world if it is stuck in your desk drawer.
Conquer your fear of success.
Here’s a paradox – fear of success can be as demotivating as fear of failure. If you have set yourself a big challenge and you succeed, it might raise expectations, both from yourself and from others, that the next project will be an even greater success. That might mean more hard work, more pressure, more potential for failure. This can be scary. But keep the faith. This project is your calling, your way to declare Who You Are to the world. By the time you get to that point in the future, you will know how to handle it. Stay focused on the task in hand, and allow the future to take care of itself.
Recognize the voice of ego.
Our motivation can be quashed by the voices of negativity – those annoying little voices in our heads that ask us if we’re good enough, if we’ve got what it takes, if we can stay the course. These voices are the ego protecting itself – the ego doesn’t like doing new things, because new things might be risky, while sticking to the old things has allowed us to stay alive this long. So when we push ourselves to new heights, the ego tries to discourage us in order to keep us safe. But you are not your ego. Recognize these voices for what they are, thank them for wanting to protect you, and then carry on doing what needs to be done.
What would Oprah do?
Think of the most effective person you know, either in your personal sphere or a celebrity, either living or dead. It doesn’t matter who they are (mine include Tony Robbins, Oprah Winfrey, and Richard Branson) – you just need to be deeply impressed by their ability to get stuff done. When you need inspiration, ask yourself, “What would my hero do in this situation?”
Get an accountability buddy.
Partner up with a friend (or a coach) to hold you accountable. Each week, trade lists of what you want to get done in the next 7 days, and set up a weekly call to check in with each other and report on progress. Give your buddy permission to give you a hard time if you’re not delivering. Even just knowing that somebody cares and will call you to account will keep you motivated.
(This article first appeared in Soul & Spirit Magazine earlier this year. And I am away today, giving a speech at Shrewsbury High School, so please forgive me if it takes me longer than usual to respond to comments.)