My mom was a schoolteacher. In her lifetime, she taught nearly every age group from kindergarten to eighth grade. She was also really interested in self-help and the research around human behavior. On a personal level, my mom was hyper-organized, Type-A, and a high achiever in every sense of the word.
You can see why she would get frustrated by students who seemed unable (for whatever reason) to complete their assignments in class or “do a quality job” — a phrase from my childhood that still haunts me to this day.
As a kid, I remember her describing people — adults and children — as “unmotivated,” but I never really knew what that meant. As I grew into adulthood, I came to think of motivation as an outdated concept. Over the years, I’ve questioned whether motivation was even real or if it was just a broad label we slapped on a variety of problems — sort of like writer’s block.
This is why I’ve always resisted writing about motivation in the context of creating a writing habit. Usually, whenever someone would say “I just can’t get motivated to write,” I’d find myself getting irritated and wanting to scream “motivation’s got nothing to do with it!”
I didn’t think motivation was the reason I got up and wrote every day. I thought it was just that I’d decided to do it and it had become a habit.
But before my writing was a habit, certainly I needed motivation to force myself to write.
I think what irks me about the concept of motivation is that most people act as though it’s a gene — you either have it or you don’t.
In reality, motivation is more like a machine. If there is a piece missing, the machine won’t run. But if all the pieces are in place and they are well-lubricated, the machine runs perfectly all on its own.
But there are several components of motivation that we need to break down before we can understand how motivation really works and how to harness it for our benefit. These three components come together in a circle, and once they are all in place, motivation becomes easy.
1. Desire. Without desire, there can be no motivation. If you do not want something, you will not be compelled to work toward having it — at least not on a regular basis.
To wrap your head around what this means, think of Evelyn Couch (Kathy Bates) in the movie “Fried Green Tomatoes” — or any dissatisfied movie wife circa 1991.
In the beginning of the movie, Kathy Bates is frustrated with life and eating anything that’s not nailed down because she has an unsatisfying relationship with her husband Ed (Gailard Sartain). Kathy Bates does everything to be the good ’90s wife — cooking him nice dinners, being sweet as pie, answering the door wearing nothing but cellophane — but the relationship does not improve because Ed has no desire to meet her halfway.
2. Specific action or criteria. In order to be motivated enough to do something, there must be a specific something that you are trying to achieve.
One reason a lot of people feel that they lack the motivation to “get healthy” is because “get healthy” is such a vague goal. Anytime you are trying to get motivated to do something, you must have a specific action in mind or specific criteria that you would have to meet in order to fulfill that goal.
Does “get healthy” mean you want to get over the flu, or does it mean you want to go to the gym four times a week? Does “get healthy” mean that you must get your cholesterol down to a specific number or be able to bench press a certain amount of weight?
If you are not living up to your own expectations, it may be because you haven’t set clear expectations. Without a specific action or criteria, you’re just going to be spinning your wheels.
3. Follow-through. I recently read an article from The Harvard Business Review that distinguished between motivation and follow-through: “Motivation is in the mind; follow-through is in the practice. Motivation is conceptual; follow-through is practical.”
Personally, I see follow-through as the piece that completes the circle of motivation — it’s also where the wheels come off the bus for a lot of people.
If you want something (desire) and you have specific criteria for what that something means, then you must follow through by fulfilling your criteria.
Here’s where it gets dicey: If you don’t follow through, you will feel discouraged, and you will either bury your desire (cutting your motivation off at the knees) or you will be racked by guilt. That guilt causes psychological pain, and how you respond will depend on your personality. You will try to avoid that pain — either by making excuses, killing your desire, or actually following through the next time you have an opportunity to do so.
But if you do follow through, motivation becomes easy. (Think of it like one of those old merry-go-rounds you had on your childhood playground. Once it’s spinning, it’s easy to make it go really, really fast.)
Following through makes you feel good, which increases your desire to do something. When your desire increases, you will raise the bar on your criteria.
If you follow through again, it gets easier and more satisfying because you have created momentum.
So once you understand the components of motivation, you can manipulate yourself in a way that completes the circle and gets you the momentum to turn positive actions into positive habits.
Here’s how to go about laying the groundwork for the perfect motivation storm:
Step 1: Get clear on what you want. It’s not enough to say “I want to write.” What specifically does that mean to you? Do you want to write for a living? Do you want to publish a book? Do you just want to finish your novel? Or do you want to get in the habit of writing every day?
Write down specifically what you’re aiming for. If it’s a big goal like “publish a book” or “write for a living,” you’re going to need to break that goal down into smaller goals such as “write 500 words of my book seven days a week for six months.”
Step 2: Create a strong “why.” The reason some people seem motivated and others don’t is because for some people, simply deciding to do something is a strong enough “why.” But that’s not the case for most of us. Most people need a more compelling “why” and a specific mix of accountability to hold them to that why.
For most people, their “why” comes down to a feeling: The idea of holding their published book in their hands and seeing their name on the cover creates a feeling of intense pleasure. If it doesn’t give you this intense feeling of pleasure, you may have to dig deeper to find your why.
Sometimes, we want to achieve a goal because we “want to be the type of person who” does X. For instance, I want to be the type of person who gets up at sunrise. But often this “why” isn’t strong enough for us to follow through. (I rarely get up at sunrise.)
This means we need to do one of three things:
- Associate more pleasure with following through on our criteria
- Associate more pain with not following through on our criteria
- Create more intense accountability for ourselves. (I’ve talked about creating a custom accountability system on The Fearless Creative podcast.)
If I could associate an intense amount of pleasure with watching the sun rise and hearing the birds sing as I meditate or read, this could be a strong enough “why.”
Or if I signed up to run a marathon, I would have outer accountability (and the pain of failing if I don’t get up and run) to get me to follow through on my criteria.
Step 3: Make a decision to work toward your goal for a certain number of days — and do it at the same time every day. It’s easier to do something every day than it is to do it every other day or every three days. The best example I have for this is brushing my dog’s teeth.
My littlest dog, Luna, has terrible teeth. She’s already had to be put under to get dental work done once, and that experience was so stressful for me that I already have a lot of pain associated with not following through and brushing her teeth.
But it’s difficult to remember to brush a dog’s teeth, so I have to do it every day at the same time. (When I finish breakfast, for instance.) If I tell myself I can just do it every other day, I forget because it’s not a strong enough habit.
To solidify our habits, it’s important to do something for a specific number of days. Thirty days is enough time for me to prove to myself that I can do something, but I think it takes 60 to 90 days to make a habit so automatic that it feels weird not to do it.
Once you do it for even a week, you will begin to feel good, which is going to feed your desire to follow through. But during this time, it’s important that we do not allow our minds to make up any excuses or loopholes that could allow us to slack for even a day. One day off in the beginning can be enough to derail a new habit.
Step 4: Make it too easy not to do it. If there are too many steps involved with something, it can totally kill any desire to follow through. For instance, working out often feels undesirable because we have to plan our meals around our workout time, find our gym clothes, put them on, get in the car, drive to the gym, figure out what we’ll be doing, get in the car, go home, take off our clothes, shower, etc.
But if we made this 75 percent easier by sleeping in our workout clothes and running for 10 minutes first thing in the morning, we would be more likely to do it because all we have to do is lace up our sneakers, step out the door, and run for 10 minutes. We don’t have to factor in other things like travel time, choosing a workout, extra showering, or meal-planning.
With writing, make your goal so easy that it’s simpler just to do it than to waste time arguing with yourself about why you should or shouldn’t do it.
Tell yourself that you only have to write 200 words (or write for 10 minutes) first thing in the morning. Turn off the Wi-Fi before you go to bed so there is no chance for distraction. Open your writing program on your computer so that it’s ready for you, and set the timer on the coffee maker so that you will have fresh coffee waiting when you finish your 10 minutes of writing.
Step 5: Set milestones and celebrate. It’s important to have concrete targets that you can hit before you reach your big goal because these milestones give you a little hit of satisfaction that can intensify or recharge your desire as you work toward your goal.
This is the reason why martial arts systems award different colors of belts between beginner and black belt. Each milestone is an achievement all on its own, which keeps students motivated as they work toward mastery.
Celebrating is also important because it gives us a pat on the back that so many of us desperately need. There’s a reason you would take your child out for pizza after she gets an A on a math test or earns her orange belt in karate. As humans, we crave approval, praise, and rewards. As adults, we sometimes have to give these things to ourselves.
Motivation is only difficult when we make it nebulous. Once you learn how the different components of motivation work, you can hack these components to make them work for you.
The secret is to get clear on your desire and criteria and then manipulate your environment so that you can follow through. After that, your motivation will start rolling almost on its own to help carry you toward your goal.
Do you have any more tips that have helped you master motivation? Let me know in the comments below!
Photo by Kaitlyn Baker